Returning to work: Businesses after lockdown are like athletes after a serious injury

UCT GSB's Dr Tim London explores how businesses can work through the trauma of Covid-19 and tell a new story.

We’re obviously not on the other side of Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns, but it will be incredibly important for leaders to look ahead at least a few weeks as we begin to see lockdowns easing and more discussions around “re-opening”. Among the talk around how quickly to re-open different sectors of the economy, there have been extensive debates about what the “new normal” will be for societal norms, business imperatives, and economic conditions. 

While it’s possible to predict some trends for specific organisations or industries, there is no clarity on how the world in general will look in a few months’ time. What leaders can do right now, however, is look ahead at how their organisation is likely to respond to its own re-opening. The exact conditions might differ, but the broad strokes will be the same for virtually every organisation returning from the trauma of Covid-19; the main issues to consider can be neatly encapsulated with the metaphor of someone returning from a significant injury.

The scars of trauma

The impacts of Covid-19 and attendant global lockdowns, along with the obvious damage both have done to just about every facet of human life, make it clear that we are suffering through a crisis and not just a run-of-the-mill bad stretch. In our “injury” metaphor, this is not a sprained ankle, this is a torn ACL or broken leg that needed to be surgically repaired. 

With significant trauma, there are the obvious impacts business owners can readily recognise: the loss in revenue, fractured supply chains, or necessary lay-offs. Just as obvious to many leaders will be the scars left following those traumas: uncertainty among staff returning to work, increased debt obligations, or the loss of suppliers. The athlete suffering significant injury can do the same: easily feel the pain in their knee and weakness in the joint; similarly, as they recover, the scar on their knee will be visible as well as swelling around the joint. 

What can get lost, however, is that there will be scars from the trauma that are less obvious to even the most astute leader, and nuances to the scars that are essential to understand to deal with correctly. The recovering athlete needs to talk not just with the person who operated on their knee, but also with a rehabilitation professional, a masseuse, and a biomechanics expert to better understand implications beyond the obvious and most visible scars. 

So too must leaders not assume they can see all of the scars that will impact their re-opening. It is essential to talk to all of your stakeholders to see things that won’t show up on one person’s radar, and also to develop greater insight as there will be scars that are far from clear cut. For example, some of your team will be excited to return to work and others less so; in both cases, however, it is likely to be far from 100 percent in or out. For example, some will want to come back as they need to put food on the table, but will fear getting sick or passing the virus onto a loved one. It is incumbent on leaders to rely not just on the scars that they can see, but talk with their internal and external experts to better understand other damage that’s clearer to others.

Working through and around scar tissue

Once you are clear from these talks just which scars remain, you need to assess what damage has been done to your ability to operate. Our athlete in this example may find that they have lost flexibility, explosiveness, or quickness even after they are fully recovered; scar tissue can limit movement and knee damage needs compensation in the hip and ankle. In other words, you can fully recover from a trauma, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do everything the same way you used to be able to do it. 

Leaders re-opening their organisation similarly will need to not just recognise the impacts of the last few months, but be realistic about what aspects of their organisation can be maintained or not, and creative in thinking about which parts or processes need to be changed and how. Just as a good athlete will come up with new tricks and moves to compensate for lost athleticism, so too must good leaders recognise how their organisation has changed and make adjustments to keep it relevant

What are we capable of now?

This readjustment must be supported by rejecting the mindset of “back to normal” or “business as usual”. Our recovered athlete will have new physical limitations and also be coming back to a team and a sport that has changed in their absence, with new league rules or changed team dynamics. For organisational leaders, there may be bits and pieces that remain the same, but your organisation will be changed and so will the environment surrounding it. 

For many organisations, this will mean a need for creativity from people who previously could get by simply by repeating what was done in previous quarters or years; old reliable clients may have disappeared, requiring people to shift from customer satisfaction to business development; customers may still want to work with you, but won’t physically come into the shop. So while the athlete will have to figure out what exercises are best for their new body and how to manage new relationships on the team, good leaders will need to help their team explore what new opportunities have emerged, which old doors are no longer worth banging on, and what success will mean following re-opening.

Telling a new story

Things will look different and feel different; old tricks that used to be dependable will draw blanks; your understanding of how to play the game will be off in ways both little and large. That is simply the reality of recovering from significant trauma, whether it’s an athlete getting back on the pitch or a leader reopening their organisation as South Africa moves through the stages of re-opening. There is no way to sugarcoat it: this will be a difficult time for you and your people, even if you are lucky enough to be one of the organisations that survives the last few months. 

Crucial to moving on will be telling a new story about your organisation: hopefully your purpose (why your organisation exists) and values (what’s most important in your organisation) will remain, but you’ll need to co-create a new narrative that makes it clear that you’ll be doing things in new ways to be relevant in the new reality. This is essential as without a new story for how you’ll be progressing, there will be an overwhelming push (both consciously and subconsciously) to get back to the “good old days” which no longer exist. 

There is no easy way back from the current crisis, but leaders who are thinking beyond just “back to business” and instead exploring with key stakeholders the question of “how can we still be top of our game in a new way?” will be the ones who find their scars are reminders of how they’ve improved rather than damage that holds them back.