The Second Wave: Face Up to It

No one can know if it will happen, but experts say recent events suggest corporate chiefs need a plan for a second, more destructive phase of the coronavirus.

Talk about bad timing—really bad timing. Just as business leaders thought they could start thinking about a new normal, a different kind of reality began to set in.

Reports trickled in that the regions and countries that had loosened restrictions were seeing more infections. Then there were the public health officials warning Congress on live TV about the risks of rapid reopenings and the lack of a timetable for a vaccine. 

Welcome to facing up to a harsh fact that all those reports about a second, more destructive wave of coronavirus—a repeat of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918—may not just be doomsayer talk. And while no one can predict this nightmarish scenario, experts say it’s time for leaders to face up to the possibility—and to be ready. “When a business experiences trauma, historically leaders hunker down and continue what they have always done, and that’s not going to work,” says Alida Al-Saadi, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in life sciences. “Many organizations just want to go back, but there is no going back.”

Indeed, even without a second wave, most agree that society and business may not return to normal for quite some time, if at all. This means that leaders should not think of the coronavirus crisis as a single event but rather a recurring disruption to which they will need to adapt quickly and continually. “What if you don’t get on a plane in 2020? What if there is no meeting the customer?” says Dennis Baltzley, global solution leader for Korn Ferry’s Leadership Development practice. “A second wave is going to make those things a lot more real.”

A potential second wave will also amplify the challenges of the current pandemic, experts say. Although people will be more prepared—practically—they will also be more exhausted, less focused, and more apprehensive. “‘Here we go again’ is going to be a fatiguing moment for everyone in an organization,” says Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. The key, Royal adds, is to get workers engaged now by showing empathy, overcommunicating, reducing formal meetings, and encouraging informal conversations to spur innovation and ideas.

For her part, Jane Stevenson, global leader for Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice and vice chair of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice, says leaders today will need to manage the balance between the upside and downside of reopening economies, finding ways to minimize the risks while nimbly moving forward. “The most effective leaders are those who are able to find opportunity in the challenge,” Stevenson says. “We need leaders who have the judgment, courage, tenacity, and agility to create clarity in a time of confusion.”

To be sure, another lockdown amid a second wave could further damage an already fragile global economy. After all, regions easing current restrictions are doing so in order to revive businesses and curtail further job losses (unemployment, for many countries, have hit record highs; in the United States alone, the rate skyrocketed to nearly 15% in a matter of weeks). A second shutdown, some investors and analysts predict, will only sink economies into a prolonged depression.

Still, as some countries renew restrictions following an uptick in new cases, businesses may indeed find themselves contending with a future lockdown. Organizations then would do well to prepare for that possibility today in order to survive tomorrow, experts say. This could mean setting aside cash, reskilling or redeploying talent, evolving the business model, or creating a more elastic supply chain. “Leaders should have scenario and contingency plans as to what to do if the virus comes back in force soon, down the road, or never,” as well as for different levels of public health measures, including shutdowns, that might result," says Melissa Swift, global leader of Korn Ferry’s Digital Transformation practice.

These plans, experts say, should reflect the lessons leaders have drawn from the current pandemic—otherwise, organizations will find themselves back at square one. “You have to double down on things you’ve just learned,” Baltzley says. “You can’t just go back to the way things were.”