‘COVID-safe’ & ‘Novel Risks’ – Re-defining Return to Work for CFOs

By Dr Ann-Maree Moodie

Getting Australia back to work in a COVID-safe economy.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, May 5, 2020

We might be back in business, but the world we knew will be very different to 12 weeks ago. Just as public billboards have changed their clarion call from “stay at home” to “stay safe”, the theme for returning to work will be “recovery”, overshadowed by continued uncertainty about public health, global economic conditions and the future of work.

Only a few weeks ago, commentators were hoping for a “snap-back” or “U-shaped” economic recovery, a “Nike swoosh” or worse, a “w-shaped”, double-dip recession. More positively, a step or stair approach of incremental recovery is also being discussed.

But these terms are constantly being revised, with some sectors leading the recovery, while those industries dependent on international travel, such as airlines, tourism and higher education, being the hardest hit. Nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in April.

“In March, we were naively and optimistically saying it would be a ‘v-shaped recovery’,” an Australian non-executive director said. “But we now know that was a fantastical notion.”

Even “short-term” and “long-term” are temporal descriptions which have assumed different meanings in this COVID-19 world of crisis management and business continuity planning, with the global pandemic rewriting what it means for a business to prepare for the worst.

“With all our emergency response planning, we had never envisaged that we would need to plan for something like this,”

George Faktaufon, the Secretary General of the Association for South Pacific Airlines, told ABC News Radio. “In reality we don’t have any plan for this type of pandemic. It’s very hard to plan for the unknown.”

Neelam Dhawan, Head of India Advisory Board of IBM told the Perspectives 2020 global conference, that Boards’ response to the pandemic occurred in four phases, as companies realised the extent of the pandemic and its impacts on every aspect of work and life. “When the COVID-19 crisis broke out, the first phase of response was about Boards and Management saying, ‘how do I keep my employees safe and healthy?’,” Ms Dhawan said.

The second phase of response was about business continuity. “This was an important phase because it was when we realised that it would be a longer shutdown. We then went very quickly into phase three which was about how to conserve cash and capital, so that we could survive the lockdown period.

“Today, we are in phase four, where most countries across the globe are talking about the reopening of the economy, going back to work from home, and how they can manage the economic activity in their country.”

As Prime Minister Morrison told his May 6 media conference about the Federal Government’s plan to reopen gradually to a “COVID-safe economy”, Australian companies were already preparing to protect returning employees: work teams were being separated to stagger the number of people in the office at any one time; those who didn’t need to be in the office would continue from home for part of the working week.

Employers are asking questions like “what are the practicalities of office workers staying 1.5 metres apart on public and other modes of transport, in elevators, and even in communal office kitchens?”. Workers may only be able to walk around the office in one direction, asked to go to “isolation rooms” if they exhibit symptoms of corona virus, and have “sneeze guards” fitted on desks similar to those used at the checkout in supermarkets. “And hot-desking is dead,” Liam O’Brian, the assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

The definition of the term, “flexible working”, used to mean the ability to work from home; now it’s broadened to define how, when and where we work. Models of leadership are also changing to adapt to a more collaborative, outcomes-based model, where trust is essential.

Businesses know that in order to minimise inevitable outbreaks, or even clusters, and the subsequent disruption of sending staff home to quarantine, emphasis needs to be placed on personal hygiene and cleanliness. We have become acutely aware of how many shared surfaces we touch – elevator buttons, computer screens, public bathrooms, hand rails on trains and buses; even cloth seat belts on planes pose a risk of passing on contamination. It’s a question of asking: “who’s touched this before me?”.

COVID-19 has redefined business continuity planning, which now means dealing with a crisis which is protracted, fluid and has wide-ranging impacts. It is a case study of what management professors call “novel risk”.

“Novel risks – arising from circumstances that haven’t been thought of or seen before – make routine risk management ineffective, and, more seriously, delude management into thinking that risks have been mitigated when, in fact, novel risks can escalate to serious if not fatal consequences,”

Harvard University’s Professor Robert Kaplan.

While corona virus is now this century’s most famous novel risk, Boards and CEOs know that re-opening the economy, and bringing people back to work, are also unknown risks. But it’s the known risks of complacency, poor personal hygiene and impatience, that will determine whether there will be a second wave of infections, and a return to a longer second lockdown, with potentially even more dire economic repercussions.

About Author

Dr Ann-Maree Moodie is the Managing Director of Sydney-based international board advisory firm, Governance Australia & Asia. She can be contacted on: [email protected]