The world of work and the pandemic: how organizations reacted to the coronavirus


The appearance of COVID-19 was so surprising that not even the most far-sighted of the organizations – public or private – had it on their 2020 agenda or as a stage in their business plan. In fact, the situation is so exceptional that none of the continuity or crisis management plans contemplated it.

It is interesting to analyze in depth what have been (and are being) the different ways of responding that companies had to an event of such magnitude, that it has shaken its very foundations and that it has tested all the mechanisms and capabilities.

Although the future remains extremely uncertain and volatile, with a dynamism that evolves day by day, it is clear that everything that was designed for a long time had to be changed suddenly, generating alternative strategies and learning to work in ways that never they would have imagined.

Let’s think that less than 100 days have passed since the appearance of COVID-19 (on December 31 of last year it was the first report from the Municipal Health Committee of Wuhan, the now famous Chinese city), with what they are just appearing the first learning from the experience of that Asian country.

A McKinsey study presented these days highlights that the critical success factors in Chinese companies that were able to successfully navigate the health crisis were: having an effective structure, learning to lead from afar, having a culture of care installed, being able to find new routines, increasing the battery of forms of communication, harnessing the power of technology, taking security seriously and adopting a mentality of ” testing and learning ”. To this we can add a more than significant aspect that they detected in another MIT Management Review study: volunteer actions and connection with the community. Solidarity helps, always, and more in these cases in which almost all of us need so much.

Professor Julián Irigoin of the IAE Business School conducted a survey on the actions and concerns of human resources managers at the end of March, in which 111 Argentine companies participated, including only 9% had the majority of their employees in the home office modality before the crisis and 65% did not have collaborators working from their homes at that time.

In order to understand the organizational response capacity, and redesigned, a model proposed by Steve Glaveski in Medium, we propose five different variables: reaction type (how they have responded to the appearance of the phenomenon), culture (how they behave on a daily basis, what people do and how they do it), computing infrastructure (installed technology, devices they offer), information systems (mechanisms through which communication flows, ways to document and share) and work processes (organization of activities, methodologies). Of course, we could include several more and the sequence could be altered, but in order to simplify the conceptualization we will focus on them, in this order:

They are those whose reaction has gone from fear to panic. They have been detained at the impact of the news, without any possibility of providing an appropriate response. They have a traditional and uncompromising culture, which has not changed for many years. Their technological infrastructure is basic, they are only prepared for work in person and the systems they use are only available in their offices. They have rigid and unchangeable work processes, which has made it impossible for them to carry out any activity at all this time.

In the first decades of the 20th century, there was an artistic genre that captivated large audiences: the radio theater. It was about putting this art into practice without visual elements, but exclusively based on the sound, music and auditory effects that the radio allowed them.

Taking this image, we can consider that Many companies tried to reproduce their face-to-face activity virtually, but with few facilitating elements to make this possible. The attitude they adopted was one of anger at the phenomenon and at all those who generated health prevention measures. They are generally hierarchical and are managed by silos, with little coordination and interdependence between areas. They have a very basic technological infrastructure and their information systems are elementary, they have not been updated in recent years, they have only patched them. As for his work processes, honoring the name, he has tried to adapt the face-to-face to the virtual ones, hopefully the most diverse.

There are others who have detected the opportunity that is generated in the face of so much confusion and discouragement. They visualize that this type of situation, well used and with a cooperative and constructive attitude, can be a new foundational moment. They are those organizations that have long cultivated a collaborative and learning culture, so they consider that this is the ideal time to put it into practice and fully apply it. As they have been preparing for growth for a long time, their technological infrastructure is enabling and they have different shared file systems and collaborative work mechanisms. They quickly learned to adapt their work processes to a scenario that required it, capitalizing on every possibility that arose.

They considered that the change of context, unlike most, it gave them a strategic advantage (Some even had the ability to modify their own logo in just 48 hours). They have an agile culture and live digital from their DNA; they are digital in nature. They have a distributed technological infrastructure, where all collaborators have remote access and their computer systems promote co-creation, collaboration and permanent interaction. Its processes are dynamic, in such a way that they are constantly being reviewed and making the necessary updates according to the requirements that arise. These are the organizations that are taking more momentum in the face of this sudden change, they are the ones that have always had an attitude of taking the lead in adopting the news in each of the fields, testing, learning and constantly improving.

The most interesting thing is that we are visualizing that the responses have been very varied and, quite possibly, in different aspects, each one has reacted according to one of the styles mentioned or with some nuances of each style, in its own amalgam , showing us that today-more than ever-there are multiple gray options and there are few pure things.

At this point, it is important to distinguish the “home office” from the “working from home”. While the “home office” is the ability to work in a distributed manner and from the homes after a holistic approach, creating the conditions for this to be possible. The “working from home”, meanwhile, is the improvised response that many had to implement based on the declaration of preventive and compulsory social isolation. The first is proactive and the second is reactive.

It is to highlight how in critical situations like the ones we are going through the cultural factor (which is not generated overnight, but is cultivated with a lot of work, every day!) It becomes a catalyst and enhancer. More and more it is perceived how culture eats strategy, at breakfast.

Quite possibly, we are entering the “CO Era”, driven by the Coronavirus but based on Cooperation, Collaboration, Coordination, Community, Co-creation, Construction, Sharing, Connection and Collaborative intelligence.

In summary, it is not that they changed the rules of the game. The game changed and it is time to demonstrate everything we have been preparing for for a long time. It is up to each one to demonstrate whose side they are on and how they want to position themselves before this new world that is just being born; more human, more creative, more connected, more collaborative.

* Alejandro Melamed is a Doctor of Economic Sciences (UBA), international speaker and disruptive consultant. Author of several books among them Design your change (2019) and The future of work and the work of the future (2017).