“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”

— Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Is COVID real? Are PCR tests for COVID sufficiently reliable? What should my business do about COVID? All good questions.

Most of us have our opinions and positions pretty well solidified by this time. Experts of all persuasions have weighed in, some on several different sides of the issue. The media has its agendas. But who truly knows what is going on?

The tail is indeed wagging the dog

I recently completed a post on how tail-wags-dog in management decision-making, and in decision-making generally. The gist is that an idea, right or wrong (assuming anyone knows), can become real if as few as 10% of the people involved believe that it is true. What is believed drives things, not the idea’s truth or falsity.

COVID has become an idea rather than anything independently credible and verifiable to a majority (or to at least 10% of those involved). Consequently, the positions of most people on COVID cannot be changed, even with considerable effort. Their various ideas are indeed real to each person.

“There is no greater story today than the race to get a vaccine for COVID-19 into the hands of as many people as possible. It’s not because the vaccines on order are so effective or that COVID-19 is so deadly.

It is needed because of the perception that COVID-19 is so deadly that a vaccine will provide some form of relief.

That perception is genuine in the minds of those still fearful of the virus.”

— Tom Luongo

Is COVID real? It doesn’t matter

What is real is the dominant perception. Even if it turns out to be factually dead-wrong, the dominant perception is presently in control.

The situation seems something like nearly everyone walking around under an umbrella on a clear blue sky day with a 10-day sunny weather forecast. Should you try to persuade them that they don’t need an umbrella or should you quickly fire up your umbrella factory? The market need for umbrellas is fact. Business works on facts (or should). Whether or not it actually rains does not matter.

COVID, real or not, is generating an enormous number of business opportunities. These are markets talking to you if you are listening. COVID or COVID-driven fear as a cause should simply not matter in most cases. The COVID-consequent market needs are what is actually real to businesses.

Do masks work? Will the vaccine work?

Good questions but these you have to answer personally. For your business, unless you are dealing with serious pressure to make masks mandatory while at work or to be vaccinated as a job requirement, then of course the issue may go well beyond a personal view.

Should your business decide to mandate masks or vaccinations, then you will probably have to deal with the loss of some very good people. Or maybe not if your employees are all pretty much on board with these mandates.

The business decision here is the costs associated with such mandates or lack thereof. COVID-fear is probably driving this new decision challenge but what you decide to do, assuming you are beyond the fear-drivers, depends on the costs and consequences likely to flow from each decision.

Some businesses are effectively controlled by a relatively small cadre that has a large enough following to create a tail-wagging-dog situation. Such a group may well have a common view of the COVID world and thus have the power to force this view unilaterally on the whole business. Sure hope that this is not the case in your business.

Costs and consequences should be the real basis for your COVID decision

Your business may very well operate mostly in a “reality” that is the best its leadership can envision. COVID is certainly an effective reality for most if not all businesses but made real for your business only in terms of your responses.

Will you make your response decisions based on whether COVID, masks, or vaccines are “real”, or will you look beyond the range of possible causes to focus on productive responses?

In business terms, it isn’t the nature of the driving “reality” but simply what your most effective decisions should be given the perceived situation-reality at hand.

This decision may well be very difficult. Suppose that your management team sees the COVID mess as being too costly to deal with if you implement approved COVID responses while the majority of your employees are pushing for the approved responses?

Here, the decision should be costs-and-consequences-based but with the added costs-and-consequences of both going along with the employee majority or resisting this significant opposition.

How can you reliably estimate costs-and-consequences?

The hard part in this is “reliably”. A  bad estimate may create very high costs and very bad consequences. Since almost no one has any direct experience with this particular decision problem, we are all in a learning stage. Learning the hard way can be extremely expensive.

What about a hybrid approach where the most serious employee concerns are accommodated while management’s business concerns are still in control? The splitting mechanics here may be a bit tricky to see clearly up front but some small initial steps may help identify what works best for your business.

Another approach is to try out on small scale – perhaps in a single facility – one or both options to see what happens. An experiment if you will.

The experimental approach has the advantage of giving employees a firsthand experience with their favored responses. They may well learn that these are great in theory but unacceptably painful in practice.

A third option here is to get some feedback from other businesses who have already implemented the essence of your COVID responses. It might be good to have your study team made up of employees and managers rather than just one or other.

Small steps in any case may be best

These could be specifically designed for rollback or modification as results become available. This would be somewhat like an experiment but experiments typically have definite endpoints. Here, small steps would continue until some effective or acceptable results have been achieved and only then firmed up as a new operating practice.

Learning requires hands-on experience in most cases where the situation is brand new. No guidance is available from anyone with the relevant experience. Whatever you decide to do, it will inherently be a learning experience.

Learning is mostly not free. There are nearly always costs and consequences that could not be foreseen. You want to minimize both by proceeding slowly and carefully, evaluating outcomes as often as possible. Small steps.

Innovate to learn

Innovation as a business core, not simply another functional department, is a core theme of this blog (more on this to be posted later in the week). Innovation is both culture and foundation in many top businesses. It allows them to attract the best employees and stay reliably ahead of competitors who are mostly focused on following.

Innovative responses to COVID-driven challenges will come naturally to such businesses. This means trying out some new approaches rather than just implementing responses selected from what others are doing.

Bottom line:

The right COVID-related response for your business should be based on a solid consideration of associated costs and consequences. It should not be driven by the mob – everyone else is doing it so we have to jump on board. You may be setting your business up for a costly, painful learning experience. Instead, learn from experiments in small steps.

Consultant McKinsey & Company offers some useful insights in its “COVID-19 and the great reset: Briefing note #34, December 2, 2020”:

“Pandemic fatigue is bad and getting worse. Here’s practical advice for leaders to help people reconnect with their jobs, their colleagues, and their purpose.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going like this.” “I’m completely burned out.” Pandemic fatigue is here, and while almost everybody is feeling it, and more people are talking about it, no one knows exactly what to do about it. Our new research explains principles and sets out practical steps to get through a potentially prolonged period of disillusionment, grief, and exhaustion. Here’s a sampling of the tips on offer:

Leaders need to set and enforce work boundaries; violating these is one of the biggest energy drains.

They can help people see this time as a quest toward something new, not as a restitution of bygone days, and not as chaos to be muddled through.

Managers can encourage employees to take a zero-based approach to meetings, to help them choose which ones to attend.

And they can prioritize the work people do. Now is the time for organizations to finally tackle busyness and focus on the work that matters most. One global organization put a halt to new initiatives for a period of two months to allow for recovery, while another now examines which initiatives to “sunset” and how to intentionally limit the amount of work in progress.”

AAAS Science reported results of a survey of top pharma and biotech employers: “2020’s Top Employers: Rapid response to COVID-19, diversity, and innovation”:

 “For the companies that emerged in the top 20, remarks from respondents reflected their pride and gratitude in the fact that the organizations they represented had continuously invested in their well-being while still putting science and patients first. When employees see meaningful action by their employers that is designed to empower and support them in every way possible, they respond in kind: They produce their best work. And in the arena of pharma and biotech, that easily translates into better patient outcomes.”

“Having a work culture aligned with employee values is another important driver for the top employers and is referenced many times in the survey comments.”

“One of the parameters that defines a top employer is its devotion to an innovation culture—and employees notice innovation. In fact, one of the most common words survey respondents used to describe their employers was ‘innovative.’”

Gartner, a research and advisory firm, gets very specific with respect to HR in its article on “HR’s COVID-19 Response Defines Employer Brand”:

“1. How has HR supported employees who were furloughed or temporarily laid off, and treated employees brought back into the workplace?

2. How can we protect both our employees’ financial well-being and that of the organization?

3. How can we balance protecting employees’ health and safety while recognizing and rewarding the employees who have continued coming into the workplace?

4. What can HR do to support employees who are working from home and keep them engaged and productive?”