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Business Lessons from 2020: COVID-19 is Only the Start

It shouldn't take a crystal ball to identify economic opportunities in the COVID-19 era, as today's crises offer countless lessons to business leaders.
By John Friedman

In a recent post, I shared how history is full of examples of entrepreneurs who presciently saw the future and seized the innovation high ground. Today, “thanks” to COVID-19, it doesn't take a crystal ball — or luck — to identify business opportunities. But do keep the following factors in mind:

Use your head. Businesses can learn by listening to scientists to determine where to put their development dollars. It is a matter of demand and supply.

Infectious diseases will break out (again). Businesses can adapt their oft-empty office spaces now to allow for remote working and necessary distancing or other creative uses. Anti-bacterial and anti-viral surfaces are only the start, whether there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 or not. Reconfigure now and you’ll face less disruption the next time … and we know that there will be a next time.

Likewise, those who invest now in developing low-carbon technologies, from carbon capture to energy storage systems, will be in demand. More frequent and more severe weather mean people are going to need stronger and more weather-proof infrastructure.

Lastly, Black Lives Matter and the movement toward social justice will be a continuing force going forward. Have you invested in diversity and inclusion efforts for your company? If you don't see the power of developing a culture that is inclusive, respectful and allows everyone to bring their best true self to the workplace, then consider the risks of failing to do so. At the very least, you won't get the best and brightest. At worst, you may find yourself facing employee activism and even possible customer boycotts.

Protect your heart. Even before states or the federal government declared an emergency over COVID-19, some companies demonstrated that their employees were the heart of their companies by transitioning to remote work where feasible and reducing the density of people in their workplaces. One office sent all the pregnant workers and the partners of pregnant workers home in early March, based on available CDC information that any possible effects on a developing baby were unknown. Other companies offered employees the option to voluntarily accept pay cuts — in some cases steep cuts — in order to keep everyone on the payroll. Others “laid off” only so their employees could get benefits, but promised they would bring people back when they could.

Mind your lungs. One of the first things people noted from the COVID-19 shutdowns was cleaner air and less pollution. Vistas that had been hidden for decades came into view. Some cities — notably Paris, Milan and Washington, D.C., among others — reviewed their transportation systems, including turning former auto lanes into bike lanes, to try to adapt their infrastructure and discourage the use of personal transportation for commuting. Companies can do the same: Look at the benefits you offer, and determine if paying for or making employees pay for all those parking spaces makes sense. Is your office accessible to public transit? Are there ways to encourage employees to ride-share? Or even to walk or bike to and from work?

Start now. This may seem an inappropriate time to try to “look back at the lessons learned,” but there is no better time than when the lessons are inarguable and acute. People tend to forget and will try to. The fact that the lessons from the 1980s about HIV/AIDS, or other outbreaks such as swine flu, were not brought to bear against COVID-19 demonstrates the importance of not allowing a remove of time to dampen our sense of urgency. Because the next crisis may come faster than we think. In fact, if you talk to climate scientists, it is already here.

Photo credit: Tom Barrett/Unsplash

John Friedman headshot

John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies live their values and engage in authentic conversations by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. He's the author of Managing Sustainability: First Steps to First Class.

John Friedman is Managing Director, ESG & Sustainability Services for Grant Thornton, LLP.

On digital media, Friedman is recognized as a thought leader; on TriplePundit’s List of the Top 30 Sustainability Bloggers on Twitter, #3 on GreenBiz list of most influential 'Twitterati', #14 on Guardian Business’ 30 most influential sustainability voices in America, was voted #4 of the "100 leading voices in CSR" by Global CEO Magazine readers, and has regularly been included among the top voices in CSR by Forbes.

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