The hope of a COVID-19 vaccine has already got people talking of “going back to normal”. But there will be no going back for British business.

The events of the last eight months have changed things forever.

In March, as COVID-19 spread from Europe to the City of London, I embarked on a project to capture this remarkable time in history. Over 100 days of the first lockdown, I Zoomed into the kitchens of 28 global leaders to hear their first-hand accounts of how they were coping with the crisis. 

They told how Tata had moved 600,000 workers to home working. Seventy-five per cent may never return to working full time in an office. They shared how the care home company HC-One coped with the deaths of more than 1,000 residents. They described how the Chief Executive of the New York Times, Mark Thompson, cycled his Brompton through the sprawling savanna of his Manhattan offices and realised the way we’d worked in the past, wasn’t fit for the future.

The “Leaders in Lockdown” included the 28-year-old Singapore based venture capitalist Pocket Sun, who backed female entrepreneurs who saw opportunities in the moment. We also heard the wisdom of City veterans Martin Gilbert and Stagecoach founder Sir Brian Souter. The CEO of Silicon Valley business Tradeshift, Christian Lanng told us “Every single long held belief has been thrown out of the window.” While WHOOP founder Will Ahmed felt, “This moment in time will shift the way humanity thinks about health”.

We also sought to tap into insights to help us predict how the world will change because of what we’ve been through. This concluded in seven themes for the future of business. These themes are a framework for re-setting business strategies and re-setting society.

They begin with the sense that the corporate world needs to enter a new age of purpose. Lockdown elevated purpose like no other time. In the words of The Queen’s former communication advisor, Sally Osman, “This is a moment of truth when organisations will be judged on giving purpose real meaning through action not words.”

So much has been written about the new world of work. Most has focussed on the remarkable transition to remote working. Our leaders in lockdown went much further and predicted a complete re-writing of the contract between employer and employee.

Their other themes included an urgent need to re-set the supply chain. In the future decisions on supply can no longer be made on cost and efficiency grounds alone. Geo-politics demands a different approach.

The “Leaders in Lockdown” worried about the widening inequality that would be accelerated by COVID-19. They were anguished by the failure of politicians to co-operate across borders. Ho Kwon Ping, the co-founder of Banyan Tree resorts said, “The virus exposed the selfishness of countries and people far more than it has shown our ability to be compassionate internationalists.”

They also focussed on the need to factor in greater resilience into their organisations. Osvald Bjelland, the CEO of Xynteo, warned, “My biggest message for business leaders is that another crisis is coming our way. Are we going to do anything about it? Or will it just be like Covid-19?”

The final theme for our leaders of lockdown was the need to find a new way of maximising the potential of our people. COVID-19 exposed a growing concern in the corporate world over the need to protect our physical and mental health. It also questioned how ineffective we had been at equipping our leaders with the right skills and mindset to cope with such a crisis. One observed that it would be ridiculous for an Olympian not to have a coach. Yet so many business leaders still proceed without one. They have no one to observe their performance; to hold a mirror up to their behaviour; or to help them navigate self-doubt and self- awareness.

The “Leaders in Lockdown” all agreed, even with a vaccine, things were never going back to the way they were. The American four star general, Stan McChrystal was adamant, “There are a few organisations who sadly are waiting to snap back in muscle memory. That’s a false idea. There is no going back because your competition is going to a better place.”

Atholl’s book, Leaders In Lockdown, is published today. Read more about it, by a copy, or download a free chapter from this page.

This piece was published on on 11 November 2020.

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