COVID-19: Managing the human and business impact of coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic remains a health and humanitarian crisis, but the business impact on organizations is now profound.

What to do now. What to do next.


As governments make significant interventions in response to the coronavirus, businesses are rapidly adjusting to the changing needs of their people, their customers and suppliers, while navigating the financial and operational challenges. MWC is helping enterprises address the short- and long-term consequences. Among the top priorities are protecting their people, building resilient supply chains and putting in place new ways to serve their customers.

Here we address specific business impacts across a range of function areas. We will update these pages as the crisis evolves and as companies seek to address subsequent challenges.

Impact on Customers: Acting to maintain responsive customer service

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak requires brands to move at unprecedented speed to serve their customers with quality while caring for their employees with compassion. That means re-evaluating how contact centers are leveraged, how employees deliver relevant customer experiences, where they work, and how digital channels can be used to support the increase in contact center volume.
Leaders that can make the shift to new ways of working will help reduce potential revenue loss, forge new levels of trust with their workforce, and position their businesses for renewed growth once the pandemic subsides.We recommend that contact center executives address three critical areas:

Impact on Supply Chain: The need for supply chain resilience

The impact of COVID-19 on supply chain disruption was already clear when the coronavirus outbreak was confined to parts of Asia. With the virus spreading rapidly, and several economies and regions now in lockdown, the severity is greater still.
The supply chain is critical in getting goods and services quickly, safely and securely to those at risk of infection or who are working at the frontline of the medical response. Companies have a responsibility to protect the health and welfare of their employees, their supply chain workers, and the wider communities they operate in, while maintaining a flow of products and materials.Companies should consider executing the following short-term tactical plan:

  • Within 72 hours: Assess current operations and outline initial recommendations
  • Within 1 week: Establish command center and begin rapid response deployment
  • Within 2 weeks: Rapidly adjust operations and continue response cycle
  • Within 4 weeks: Establish an ongoing operating capability

A continuous cycle of risk sensing, analysis, configuration, response and operation will help to optimize results and mitigate risks:

Impact on Leadership: The need to build human resilience

The greatest immediate impact of the COVID-19 outbreak is on workforces. Organizations are therefore focusing on their primary responsibility: caring for their people while rapidly managing the shift to new patterns of work.
At this critical time, they must see through these changes in ways that gain and maintain the trust of their people. That trust depends on leaders demonstrating their care for individuals as well as the wider workforce and community. It means sharing a clear plan and transparently showing how decisions are made. And it requires leadership teams who can proactively respond rather than react, anticipating their people’s changing needs.MWC analysis shows that even in the best of times, people’s trust and engagement at work is a function of three human needs: physical, mental and relational. These needs are magnified during times of crisis. Leaders who rise to the challenge by meeting them will build higher levels of human resilience that, in turn enable their people to adapt, engage and serve customers.
It does not fall to Chief Human Resources Officers to create the right environment to satisfy these human needs. All members of the C-suite must actively play their roles. We suggest 10 immediate steps that C-suite leaders can take to build human resilience.

Impact on the Workplace: Creating a digital elastic workplace

One of the immediate impacts of COVID-19 is higher rates of sick leave. Another is the need to manage an immediate shift to remote working. These challenges can be addressed by creating an Elastic Digital Workplace. Interventions will differ for each organization, but they should be based on the following foundations:

    Adjust your workplace to enable your people to work remotely through digital collaboration tools. Build the necessary skills around these new ways of working. Start cultivating a digital culture. Construct a workplace of trust.
    Adapt to changing global and local conditions by serving your customers’ core needs, including being transparent in your operations and compassionate in your engagements all of which will create deeper, more trusted relationships.
    Ensure supplier relationships and business to business processes are effectively supported. Develop new business processes to adapt to new ways of collaborating and decision-making.

An Elastic Digital Workplace is enabled by policies and culture, technology and communications. The fundamental elements include collaboration tools, robust network connectivity to enable virtual working and advanced security procedures. As important are clear business continuity working protocols and communications, as well as guidance for employees, partners and customers.

We are here to help you navigate so schedule a call to discuss your specific business goals

Practical workforce strategies that put your people first

In moments of uncertainty and concern, it’s not only about what leaders of organizations do but equally how they do it that matters.

COVID-19 is taking the world by surprise, causing a great deal of uncertainty and raising issues that require thoughtful, people-first responses. This newly identified coronavirus was first seen in Wuhan in central China in late December 2019. As we enter March 2020, the virus now has a global reach on all continents except Antarctica. As the virus spreads, communities, ecosystems, and supply chains are being impacted far beyond China.

In January 2020, ahead of the Lunar New Year and as health concerns were still growing, MWC conducted a survey in China of human capital policies and practices. The survey drew over 1,000 responses from enterprises operating in China, including a cross-section of private, foreign, and state-owned enterprises as well as not-for-profit organizations.

The survey shows that from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the immediate focus of employers has been on ensuring the health and safety of their employees:

  • Ninety percent of the employers believe it is an urgent requirement to provide their employees with remote and flexible work option.
  • Energy, resources, and industrial companies encounter the biggest constraints in offering flexible working and remote solutions, and have focused on providing epidemic protection—they have been ensuring sanitation, personal protective equipment, and safety of the workplace environment.
  • More than half of government and public service entities are focusing on addressing employees’ psychological stress.

Authorities internationally are taking decisive action to respond to this emerging public health threat, which has caused the business community to consider the adequacy of its own preparedness measures.

It’s important to remember we have faced crises like this in the past and will face them again in the future. We need to be prepared, rational, and even altruistic in response. If there is disruption, there will also be recovery, so how we act in a time of crisis can also inform our long-term impact.

Responding to the immediate challenge: a framework to view the impact on your people.


*We are here to help you navigate so schedule a call to discuss your specific business goals

How to Achieve Resilient Growth Throughout the Business Cycle

The world is currently in the longest business cycle since the National Bureau of Economic Research has kept records. Investors, executives, and policy makers scratch their heads in wonder as they try to make sense of this new phenomenon. The question many companies want to know is where are we in the business cycle? Are we at the peak with growth about to come tumbling down, or still on the climb where rising growth levels can be expected?

In the U.S. there are clear indicators that we may be at the peak. These include the lowest unemployment in 50 years, rising incomes across all races and job levels, a stock market that continues to reach historic highs (even with the recent volatility sparked by the spread of coronavirus), and a GDP that has been expanding for more than 10 years, beating other expansion cycles. Simultaneously, we see other indicators associated with the trough of the business cycle, including low interest rates and low inflation.

Despite the macroeconomic uncertainty and the unpredictable business cycle, companies need to develop their investment and growth strategies. The question they face is how do you build growth and resilience, irrespective of the stage of the business cycle? Fortunately, our research provides an answer.

Buck the business cycle. Strategize like a market creator.

As we identified in our research, there are two types of strategy. One is market-competing strategy that focuses on beating rivals in existing markets – what we think of as red ocean strategy. The other is market-creating strategy that focuses on generating new markets which we think of as blue ocean strategy.

In our research journey over the last 30 years, we found that while both types of strategy have their role to play, when it comes to growth resilience blue-ocean market-creating moves stand out. They not only unlock a growth edge when economic conditions are favorable, they also generate resilient growth in the face of business cycle downturns and unfavorable economic conditions. How so?

When economic conditions are favorable, all firms tend to benefit by a rising economic tide. But it is market-creating firms — and the leap in consumer surplus they unlock through their innovative value — that gives them a growth edge, as they not only capture a greater share of rising demand, but also pull all-new buyers into the market.

Adverse economic conditions only magnify the growth edge attached to market-creating moves, because, when the economy is in a downturn, there is a natural flight to value for money. Whether they’re short on cash or simply overly cautious, people become far more selective about the products and services they choose to buy and those they stop purchasing. Those forgone products and services tend to offer incremental value, while the chosen ones offer a leap in value, or the largest consumer surplus, that makes people’s lives better. Under these conditions, market-creating moves — which break away from existing offerings and offer buyers a leap in consumer surplus — fast become the products and services of choice, allowing them to better buck contracting markets and rebound faster.

Look no further than the companies that rapidly bucked the 2008 financial crisis – Apple, Amazon, Salesforce, Cirque du Soleil, or even the U.K. charity, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. All achieved a rapid bounce back and exceptional growth despite the economic crisis. And each countered a reliance on market-competing moves with a strong bias toward market-creating strategies that offered buyers a leap in value.

Contrast this with Microsoft, a market-competing dominator in its highly profitable Windows and Office products. It wasn’t until Satya Nadella, its new CEO, recently shifted Microsoft’s to a balance of market-competing and market-creating strategies that Microsoft again became a rising star. After 10 years of an essentially flat stock price, Microsoft’s new market-creating focus has catapulted it into the rarified $1 trillion market-cap club. Its new cloud-based product Azure is set to become a new growth engine for the company.

How to build resilient growth

So, what actions should companies take to best manage growth through market cycles? Here are four pieces of advice borne out of our 30-year research journey to the blue ocean.

First, to create growth resilience, focus on building a healthy, balanced portfolio of market-competing and market-creating strategic moves, of red and blue ocean strategies. Both are important: market-competing moves to generate today’s cash; market-creating moves to ensure tomorrow’s growth. Relying on market-competing moves alone, as many companies do, won’t build growth resilience across the business cycle. It will hold you hostage to swings in the business cycle.

Second, don’t wait for growth to slow to make market-creation a strategic priority. Act now. In a downturn you want to be buffered by your market-creating move, and that can only happen when your market-creating move is already launched or set to launch. It is in economic downturns that you need to rely on the resilience of market-creating growth, and for that you need to be prepared in advance.

Third, ensure that your market-creating efforts are a core component of your corporate strategy and not siloed into a function, effectively a side show. If you want to achieve market-creation you need to make it a priority. How best to know if you do or don’t? Check who owns the initiative. Is it your top management — like at Apple, Amazon, or Microsoft under the leadership of Nadella? If not, it should be. That sets an important tone, driven from the top, that market creation is front and center to your company’s future.

Lastly, remember technology itself doesn’t create markets. What creates new markets is the use of technology. Is it linked to value innovation or not? Will your product or service make a positive change in peoples’ lives, and hence unlock a windfall of consumer surplus? There are lots of technology companies out there. But the ones that achieve resilient growth across cycles — not only in an upturn — are the ones like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix that link innovation to value. That’s why so many people are loyal to them.

Don’t wait for monetary policy adjustments or fiscal stimulus to propel your growth. You have limited — if any — control over these. Instead, look to yourself. The good news is you need not be driftwood on the roaring ocean of the business cycle, rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the market. We can all be the captain of our ship when we strike the right balance between market-competing and market-creating efforts. Red ocean and blue ocean strategies are not a binary choice. Companies need both. But to strike a healthy balance, most companies need to put a lot more heft behind market-creating moves and anchoring these efforts in the heart of corporate strategy.


*We are here to help you navigate so schedule a call to discuss your specific business goals

Are Your Company’s Strengths Really Weaknesses?

Look at a map of the world drawn upside down. It’s a good way to challenge your assumptions about the way the world is — especially which continents and oceans are bigger and which are smaller. Looking at the business world upside down has a similar effect: It challenges your assumptions about company characteristics and what they mean for an organization.

In an upside-down business world, big companies are brought down by their supposed strengths or toppled by smaller and seemingly weaker rivals. Small companies find ways to turn deficiencies into advantages or to leverage the scale and capabilities of larger competitors against them.

In the right-side-up world, strengths remain strengths and weaknesses remain weaknesses. That does seem to hold true in stable environments where technologies and market structures are more or less fixed. But as many well-known strategy theories recognize, the business landscape is far from unchanging. More often than not, the upside-down world is the one we actually live in.

Rethinking SWOT

A venerable tool of business strategy, SWOT analysis, can help executives navigate this reality. Traditionally, this framework has you conduct an internal examination of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, scan the landscape to identify external opportunities and threats, and then synthesize all four factors into a strategic plan.

The downside of traditional SWOT is that it doesn’t account for the more dynamic forces at work in business. To address them, we need to take the model apart and reconstruct it, like this:

The retooled framework recognizes that threats and opportunities can come from within as well as from without — and that not just your own capabilities and deficiencies but those of other players matter. Because of this, it has companies examine two additional factors: others’ strengths and others’ weaknesses. Critically, it acknowledges that the strengths of an organization may actually pose a threat to it while its weaknesses may present opportunities.

Your Strengths and Weaknesses

The idea that your strengths can turn into risks was expressed very memorably by Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard, who argued that an organization’s core competencies often harden into “core rigidities.” Features that served the organization well in the past — such as its values, skills, and managerial and technical systems — can become obstacles with new projects.

In his 1996 book, Only the Paranoid Survive, former Intel CEO Andy Grove went so far as to suggest that a company’s biggest core rigidity might be its top management. There’s an evolutionary process, he argued, by which people with the skills and mindset for the prevailing business environment rise to the top of an organization. And when the environment changes, as it inevitably does, they may be precisely the wrong people to lead the organization.

Strengths can also turn into threats at the industry level. Take the taxi business. A market monopoly in many cities, it looked stronger than ever in 2009. That was the year a smartphone-enabled ride-hailing service, then called UberCab, was founded. Over the next several years, many taxi businesses found out just how much their market dominance had let them ignore customer service and technology that could connect passengers and drivers. It’s a classic illustration of how a powerful market position can lead to life-threatening underinvestment in innovation.

For an example of a supposed weakness that turned into an advantage, let’s look back to World War I. British army officer T.E. Lawrence (the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”) helped organize an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany that then ruled much of the Middle East. The British military establishment was skeptical, believing the nomadic and lightly equipped Arab armies were too weak to take on the Turks. Lawrence realized these characteristics actually gave the Arabs an opportunity. He avoided the Turkish garrisons and led fast-moving and highly successful guerrilla attacks on the main railway line supplying the Turkish army.

A century later, SpaceX is playing the weakness-opportunity card against giant players such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin in space technology. SpaceX lacks the experience and financial resources of the incumbents. But those apparent weaknesses have led it to develop a series of innovations — such as the use of cheaper consumer electronics in its rocket components — that significantly reduce production costs. The incumbents would need to unlearn some of their long-standing habits to make rockets the way SpaceX does.

Others’ Strengths and Weaknesses

The idea that your competitor’s strengths present an opportunity to you can be found in many cultures. The Japanese art of judo, for instance, teaches you how to turn the weight and force of your opponents against them.

In its early days Pepsi used this approach to challenge the soft drink front-runner, Coke, pursuing a variety of strategies that Coke was loath to copy. They included low price (expensive for Coke to match over its larger customer base), distribution in new supermarket chains (a conflict with Coke’s traditional channels at the time), and lifestyle advertising targeting the younger generation (not in sync with Coke’s “heartland” image).

Today a similar battle may be unfolding in coffee. In China, Luckin Coffee, a recent startup, is attempting to take on Starbucks, which has been in that country since 1999. Luckin already has 3,000 locations (Starbucks has 4,000) and is growing fast. Attempting to use the size and premium positioning of Starbucks against it, Luckin is pricing low and building simple stores — most are small booths — optimized for cashless pickup or delivery. Starbucks is responding with its own delivery service and express store format, betting that it can successfully occupy two different market positions.

The complementary concept that a rival’s perceived weakness may pose a serious threat to your organization was popularized by Harvard Business School’s Clay Christensen in his famous disruptive innovation theory. Say your business is focused on its important customers. A competitor — perhaps a new entrant — invents a technology that’s weaker on several dimensions but stronger on a couple that matter to a small subset of customers. Before you know it, you start losing mainstream customers who now value the new dimensions.

This dynamic has been playing out in recent years between traditional colleges and universities and online education. Online courses have clear weaknesses: They offer students limited interaction and feedback and, often, no credential. But online education is also open access and often free. It’s appealing to people who have trouble getting admitted to schools, affording tuition, or making it to a classroom on a campus at set times of the week. To date, the incumbents have been slow to respond, though they’ve started to introduce some innovations, such as online master’s programs. More radically, Purdue University has created an income-sharing agreement, in which student loan repayments are pegged to a graduate’s income, to make on-campus courses affordable for more people. But most colleges and universities are probably overly focused on the weaknesses of online education today and not paying enough attention to the serious threat it could pose in the future.

The lesson for incumbents in all industries is that initially weak- or unimportant-looking competitors may lull them into a false sense of security.

Testing Your Thinking with the New SWOT

It isn’t difficult to incorporate the new framework into your strategic planning. Here’s an exercise that any organization, large or small, can do to check its assumptions:

Form two teams. Have Team A list all the strengths it sees in your organization, and Team B list all the weaknesses. Then have the teams swap lists. Ask Team B to argue that the strengths listed constitute threats to the organization’s future, and Team A that the weaknesses listed constitute opportunities. Next, do a similar external analysis: Ask Team A to list all the strengths it sees in your competition, and Team B all the weaknesses. Again, have the teams swap lists. Ask Team B to argue that the strengths listed are opportunities for your organization, and Team A argue that the weaknesses constitute threats.

This exercise will open your eyes to many possibilities that otherwise might never occur to you. However, it’s critical to remember that sometimes right-side-up thinking about strategy will be exactly what’s needed. An organization’s strengths may indeed be strengths, to be guarded and bolstered, and weaknesses may indeed be weaknesses.

Good strategists allow for the possibility that things may be what they seem or may be the opposite, depending on the situation. In his book On Grand Strategy, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis analyzes military and political strategists over the centuries. The better ones, he has found, are those who exhibit (in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous words) “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So you have to think flexibly. That does not mean thinking wildly, however. It’s crucial to approach strategy in a structured way. By using the new SWOT diagram, you can systematically ask important questions about whether upside-down rather than right-side-up dynamics may be at work in your business.


*We are here to help you navigate so schedule a call to discuss your specific business goals