Lessons from the pandemic: Never waste a good crisis!

David Buchanan and Steve Macaulay look at five elements of future options for organisations and their importance in future success.

Are you battered and bruised by the pandemic, or do you feel energised by the opportunities that have opened up? Crises can be damaging and unsettling, but they can also trigger innovation, leading to change and improvement – and that is where our attention should be focused.

This article examines how the pandemic can be a springboard to the future.

Consider the following:

  • Will those temporary fixes that you implemented be dropped as things return to normal?
  • Or will those novel approaches that ‘stick’, perhaps to be developed even further?
  • Just as important, will those ‘sticky innovations’ mean that you are better prepared for the next crisis – by giving you the speed, productivity, flexibility, and workforce skills that you are going to need?

The pandemic is not over yet, but already we see reports of ‘lessons learned’ from various sources, including most recently the National Audit Office. But while everyone is finding fault, and criticising what went wrong and who was responsible, there is benefit in looking forwards, exploring how to exploit the positives that have emerged.

The question now is, will you abandon, keep, or develop the new approaches that you introduced? 

Changes accelerated

What did your organisation do in order to survive this last year? You probably furloughed staff, cut costs, introduced new ways of working, moved online, adopted new technology, and developed other revenue sources.

Although most organisations were not prepared for this crisis, reports suggest that many changes were made much more rapidly than would have been thought possible in ‘normal’ times. One retailer, for example, introduced a new delivery service in two days; the original plan had been to roll this out over 18 months.

Five dimensions of future possibilities

The question now is, will you abandon, keep, or develop the new approaches that you introduced? Let’s explore the possibilities, under five headings: business models, technology, work redesign, learning and development, and the readiness of your organisation to go through all of this again – when the next crisis strikes.

Redefining business models: key aim – speed of evolution

Due to the demands of social distancing, wine merchants held online Zoom tastings, reaching audiences much larger than possible with in-person events. Participants bought the selected wines in advance. Many restaurants offered ‘click and collect’ meals or delivered dinner kits.

Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London offered livestream concerts, attracting international audiences. The concerts were free, but viewers were asked to donate, to keep the club, and the musicians, in business. Theatres livestreamed plays. These new offering will probably continue in some form in the ‘new normal’.

Other organisations repurposed facilities, equipment, and staff, to develop new operating models, and to maintain revenue. The answer to the question – abandon, keep, develop – may not be obvious or straightforward.

New hybrid and virtual work models make fresh demands on the nature of leadership roles

More experimentation may be required, and it may be necessary to change position rapidly in the light of experience. And we know from the pandemic experience just how rapid those changes can be.

Adapting Technology: key aim – increasing productivity

Not surprisingly, many organisations adapted technology to reduce interactions with customers, and between staff, and to improve productivity. Online demand for many items has grown rapidly – a trend that was apparent pre-pandemic, but which has been accelerated dramatically.

Retailers have used industrial robots in warehouses to cope with that demand, and artificial intelligence chatbots have been used to reduce customer contact. There will be many other technology innovations out there that have not been widely publicised.

Work redesign: key aim – promoting flexibility

The most obvious changes triggered by this pandemic concern hybrid work models, virtual teams, Zoom meetings, reductions in office space, and other ways of reducing workplace density. Working from home (WFH, or WFA – working from anywhere) is said to have delivered flexible working, and improved productivity and employee satisfaction.

The reality is probably mixed. For everyone we know who loves WFH, there is someone who can’t wait to be back with their friends and colleagues. But only 20 to 25% of employees have jobs they can do from home.


Everyone else has to turn up. Social distancing may be required for some time, with new workplace layouts and one-way flows to limit close contacts. How can you develop these new approaches to work, to maintain or increase flexibility and morale?

Harnessing L&D: key aim – upskilling everyone

HR and L&D face three key aims:

  • New skills for a new environment. Should we hire and train new staff with the skills that we need in this new, hi-tech, rapidly changing environment? Or should we reskill existing employees, recognising that for some this will mean significant upskilling? Evidence suggests that it is quicker and more cost effective to retrain existing staff. You know them, they know you, and it is unlikely that all of their business-relevant skills and knowledge will suddenly become redundant. ‘Fire and hire’ may also reduce the morale and commitment of the survivors of your cull, lowering the organisation’s resilience to future shocks.
  • New skills for business continuity. If employees were repurposed to deal with pandemic business continuity, did they acquire new skills and knowledge? Should these capabilities be maintained and developed – and rewarded? Some of these new skills may relate to new technology adoption, which as a rule requires higher levels of sophisticated knowledge. Traditionally, we pay people according to the level of skill required in the tasks that they perform. But this may no longer be appropriate, even for those in low pay roles, who typically play a significant role in maintaining business continuity. Better to pay people according to the skill and knowledge that they have acquired, whether or not they are using those capabilities today. You may have to call on those capabilities, rapidly, when facing another crisis.
  • New leadership for a different workforce. Third, do we need to develop new leadership and management for a knowledge-intensive workforce employed in virtual teams? The extent to which these new hybrid and virtual work models make fresh demands on the nature of leadership roles is not widely appreciated. Managing morale, communications, relationships, and performance in a virtual team is a different order of business compared with the group who work alongside each other on the same floor of the building. The pandemic experience also suggests that the rules of change management have been rewritten, particularly with regard to pace (rapid) and engagement (everyone).

Building crisis readiness: key aim – creating resilience to handle future crises

Unexpected shocks can open up fresh possibilities. To what extent is the culture in your organisation ready to accept new ideas? Will managers listen and experiment?  Do your policies and processes enable or block change? A review of the issues discussed here should help to identify strengths and weaknesses. Traditionally, this could be a top team activity. But the pandemic experience suggests a more inclusive approach, engaging the whole organisation to capture different ideas and perspectives. The aim of this review should be to:

Decide how we will use the current crisis to rethink our business models, technology, work design, and L&D policies to strengthen our organisation’s resilience.

This means considering the following questions:

  • How well did we handle the pandemic, and what possibilities has this opened up for the future?
  • When the next crisis hits, how can we deal with it more effectively?
  • How will we make any actions happen and over what timescale?
  • What obstacles do we face, and how can these be overcome?

Conclusion: crisis can be a springboard

As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic tapers off, it will be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Also, it would be easy for some people to silence discussion of any future shocks on the basis of not rocking the boat.

This is short-sighted, since we can be pretty certain that there will be future shocks that your organisation must face and not be caught unawares. It means organisations need to be well-positioned by fostering learning from the current crisis and incorporating these lessons which become a springboard for the future.

So, back to Lesson Number One: never waste a good crisis. If you do, it could be your last.



About the authors

David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at: david.buchanan@cranfield.ac.uk. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development; he can be contacted at: s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk



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