The news is some of the best in weeks. Earlier this week, Italy and Spain lifted some of their quarantine rules. On the same day, France said it will start easing restrictions in early May. Stateside, two groups of US governors announced that they would coordinate efforts to gradually reopen businesses and ease social-distancing guidelines.
But while any improvement is welcome, most organizations realize they’re probably not prepared for a quick comeback. Indeed, the list of challenges is long: figuring out if the supply chain is functioning, determining customer demand, creating a sanitary work environment, and teaching everyone—leaders included—to change their behaviors. “All of this is just massively complicated,” says Yannick Binvel, president of Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Market practice.
These are issues that many organizations haven’t addressed yet because they’re still figuring out how they can remain in business, according to Korn Ferry experts who cover multiple industries. Even the companies that have gotten past the “will we survive” question don’t have many answers.
Compounding the challenge for leaders is that not only is their business closed, but many of their suppliers and may also be shut down. Experts say that leaders should first review the status of their suppliers and estimate whether they will be able to get the raw materials they need to actually manufacture new goods. Reopening a factory to employees just for the sake of reopening doesn’t make much sense, Binvel says. “The purpose is to generate revenue so you can reopen.”
Then there’s the consumer side of business. Demand for nearly everything but food and essential household items has cratered around the world. Not knowing how fast demand will rebound makes it difficult to figure out how many employees to bring back. “A retail executive may have had a store generating $1 million a month in sales before this, but what will it do when it reopens in June or July?” asks Craig Rowley, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Retail practice.
Indeed, demand may come in waves. Travel and hospitality each ground to a halt worldwide in March, but it will not start back up at the same time, says Radhika Papandreou, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s North America Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice. She estimates that restaurants will likely get some demand back first, then local hotels that people can drive to, and then destination resorts and air travel. Those waves of demand mean that employers likely will have to develop a system to bring employees back in waves.
There’s also the matter of convincing workers that the environment is safe. Part of the insidiousness of this coronavirus is that people can get infected—and infect others—while never displaying symptoms themselves. Workers want to be certain that they will not bring COVID-19 home with them, Binvel says.
There’s more to that than just supplying masks or other personal protection equipment, experts say. It almost certainly involves changing how work is done. For a restaurant, it may involve leaving every other table open to create distance between people. In a factory environment, it may involve splitting shifts to have less crowded floors. And in every environment, workers and leaders need to learn behaviors that will keep themselves and their colleagues safe and their working conditions sanitary.
At the same time, employees in some industries may not want to come back to their old roles. It’s an issue on the minds of executives in hospitality and retail, who have furloughed or laid off hundreds of thousands in recent weeks. Some organizations and trade groups are organizing career development programs and other online learning tools to keep some workers engaged, although no one seems sure how effective those will be. “People have learned to pivot and work in different environments,” says Papandreou. “Combine that with government support, and you might have an issue getting your employees back.