Work and Covid

10.06.20 Publication:

It is the question every business and every policy maker is asking themselves: among the
many changes forced on us and on society by the covid-19 pandemic, which ones are likely
to be permanent and which are just temporary?

The answer, naturally, is that it is too early to judge. Everything depends on how the
pandemic evolves from now on, whether it will decline in importance as treatments are
found, as the virus weakens and ultimately once a vaccine is found, or whether it will keep
on coming back in waves, discouraging travel and face-to-face meetings and dominating life
even perhaps for several years.

Personally, my bet is that the worldwide scientific effort is so large, so sophisticated
and has had so much money invested in it that dramatic progress will be made on
treatments and vaccines. But we can’t be sure, which means that this bet is not all that
much help for business planning. So what should companies do?

In my view, there are really two basic reactions that make good sense, and they
overlap with one another. The first is to treat the pandemic as an opportunity to implement
changes that you may have been thinking or dreaming about, but which seemed impossible
to get done in normal times. The second is to treat the pandemic as a wake-up-call, a
phenomenon that is accelerating trends in your industry you were well aware of but had
been delaying dealing with.

These managerial attitudes will naturally depend on which sector your organisation
is in. An example of the second sort of reaction, of treating the pandemic as a confirmation
of an existing reality, can be found in my own past sector, the media.

All media companies, especially newspapers and magazines, have known for years
that the future is digital and that for most publishers advertising is going to be a diminishing
part of their revenue streams. Many, however, have tried to slow this process down, for
fear of losing existing customers for print publications and neglecting existing advertisers.
Many editorial staff have also been very conservative about making the change to digital.

But now the pandemic has brought the future suddenly and strongly into the
present. Even if print can continue, digital is now dominant. The case for conservatism or it’s
kinder term, gradualism, has collapsed. And in most countries, the commercial reality is that
if a publisher does not have a stable stream of subscription revenue, they are not likely to

Even digital-only publishers like Buzzfeed are now in serious financial difficulty
because they relied solely on advertising and have no subscription or pay-per-view model.
In the United States, the New York Times is the most successful case of a publisher that
previously relied on advertising and has now made the transition to a subscription business.
Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox are all looking very shaky.

Similar stories can be found in retailing, where traditional retailers have resisted for
decades the call to build a proper online e-commerce business, thinking their bricks-and-
mortar stores could be given longer lives through innovation. That may remain partially                                  true, since once the pandemic is over customers will return to shopping malls. But
psychologically, the pandemic will nevertheless have pushed customers sharply towards
online shopping for many products they previously did not think of buying in that way.

For other companies, the first reaction, of treating the pandemic as an opportunity,
will be the more important one. For as long as any of us can remember, Japanese
executives, scholars and public officials have talked about the need to change working styles
and organisational culture, away from the prevalence of long hours and excessive overtime.
But it is difficult.

Managerial techniques and even lower-level supervision has depended on physical
presence together. Team-building has to be constant in a corporate system in which job
rotation by generalist employees is the common practice. If staff are only going to be doing
a particular job for two or at most three years, then learning and oversight have to be

All that offers good reasons why the introduction of more flexible working practices,
including access to computer systems from home, have taken much longer to be adopted in
Japanese organisations than European or American ones. But now the pandemic and
associated states of emergency have intervened, acting like short-circuits to accelerate the

So this is an opportunity: to rethink and reset working practices, managerial
protocols and authorisation systems for the digital era. It was bound to happen eventually.
So it is time to seize the moment, without any need to figure out what effects of the
pandemic will be permanent and which temporary. The digital era is here to stay,
regardless. It is time to make the best of it