Accepting a COVID Way of Life

Statistics show consumers have accepted living with even alarming rates of COVID. How should business leaders respond?

It was expected to be another pandemic wave like all the others, with infections soaring and consumers staying home. Anticipating the change, many business leaders yanked back-to-office plans and geared for slowing some operations. They also pulled back sharply on hiring, as recently reported by the US Labor Department.

But some experts say the corporate world may overlooking its own stakeholders’ activity. Despite concerns about new infection rates brought on by the delta variant, many consumers in some areas of the world seem to be accepting yet another “new normal”—this time viewing COVID as a part of reality. News reports have noted that in Britain, people are carrying on as usual, returning to school, football stadiums, and pubs. Americans, meanwhile, are shopping and eating out at pre-pandemic levels.

In this new reality, grocery and pharmacy activity has risen 3% compared to pre-pandemic levels, and retail and recreation have dropped just 5%, according to new data from Google Mobility Reports. The firms that are getting ahead are the ones adjusting to the surprising shift, says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Organizational Strategy and Workforce Transformation practice. “The new normal is this constant change and different ways of working,” she says. “Leaders who force an old normal will have decreases in engagement or increases in turnover.”

From a leadership standpoint, experts say that the right mental perspective will facilitate decision-making. David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice, suggests no longer considering the pandemic a crisis scenario. “Put this all in the long-term category of Things You Don’t Control,” he says, adding that it may help to contextualize events broadly, in the tradition of Western life commonly punctuated by depressions, world conflicts, and epidemics. The 1918 influenza pandemic, for example, inaccurately presents itself as a one-year event. That pandemic actually extended into 1920, and was directly preceded by World War I and followed by Prohibition. “This sort of upheaval can happen,” says Vied.

While many leaders may still feel like they are contending with unpredictability and chaos, they know much more than they did during the previous COVID surges, says retail expert Craig Rowley, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “The messaging is that we’re going to be as safe as we can, and people can come to our store or come to work. We know now which safety procedures work, and we’re going to ramp those up as is reasonable and needed.”

Experts are surprisingly upbeat about this new normal, because the pandemic has infused new plasticity into the ways that consumers and workers engage with businesses. “In the last year, we’ve quickly added more and more vehicles to the toolkit, so we have a lot more ability to be flexible,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist. “This reminds me of when everyone predicted that TV would kill off radio, and streaming would kill off TV and movies,” All are still prospering.

There are workers and consumers with many skills and types of engagement that simply did not exist 18 months ago. Juan Pablo González, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s sector leader of professional services, perceives this as the Age of Agility. The shackles of old constructs, like 9-to-5 hours and in-store shopping, have slipped away—and in their place, people have developed the substantial agility to adapt to new circumstances. “There isn’t a defined way of doing things anymore. It applies to everything, like how we meet, how we work, and how we do business,” González says, seeing substantial upside in leading firms with agile employees and customers.