COVID is not behind us

In 2020 a first wave of COVID infections led to a wave of hospitalisations and deaths as well as lockdowns and huge economic stimulus. Large parts of the economy rapidly shifted with all digital areas of the economy being boosted along with vaccine research and healthcare while retail, travel and events were shut down. With the development of COVID vaccines the popular narrative has been that the virus is behind us, that we can dispose of 2020 and should move on. However, it seems likely that we will be dealing with COVID and its consequences at least in 2021 and perhaps as long as 2024.

As we speak a pair of mutated COVID viruses that are much more easily transmitted are triggering a second wave of European lockdowns. There have already been mutations with a material impact on the epidemic such as D614G that emerged in Europe in February and A222V that spread in the summer. It is inevitable that the virus will continue mutating and in particular that once the vaccine is deployed “the virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants”.

A second factor is that people can get COVID a second time, although how likely that is and how long antibodies might protect people are open questions. For comparison it is worth considering that influenza is endemic in humans and mutates regularly. It is unremarkable for a person to get “the flu” more than once and each year new vaccines are developed for a never-ending, continuously evolving influenza vaccination program – COVID is likely to be the same.

A final factor is the huge investment and logistical effort needed to scale up a first-time COVID vaccination program. There are shortages of cold chains, vials, needles and indeed of the vaccines that mean a wide delivery of the virus could take multiple years. The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, warned there may not be enough doses to inoculate the entire world until 2024 or beyond.

With the virus continuing to mutate, re-infections occurring, vaccine rollouts taking multiple years and likely needing repetition for new variants it is likely that we will be dealing with COVID for multiple years. I won’t try to address the significant human suffering that COVID has directly and indirectly caused so far as plenty has been written already. I want to focus on how businesses should adapt?

…but it is changing work for the better

The new year is a great opportunity to revisit established practices and working habits and see where you can improve. In 2021 it’s time to change the mindset from changing because of COVID to changing because it makes work better. We will still have COVID lock-downs but we will also find that there are a lot of good reasons to continue with some of the changes started in 2020.

Many organisations have been learning how to work in a remote and distributed fashion for the first time in 2020. The challenges of communicating with your teams, on-boarding new staff, documenting workflows and ultimately motivating and exciting people remotely are serious challenges but not new ones. There has been a lot written about the phases of moving to remote working but the key is to stop remotely replicating the office and start thinking about how you could re-imagine your processes.

Make greater efforts to communicate proactively as you can’t rely on people bumping into each other. Document your workflows so new joiners can get up to speed without walking over to someone’s desk for help. Get input from people on documents via online collaboration without having to sit down in a meeting room together. All the sorts of steps needed to improve remote working during COVID lockdowns are the same needed to give your team greater flexibility and productivity longer term. Take this chance to make that leap!