Catastrophes Can Shape How We Build Back Business

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Most would agree that 2020 was a year that life was knocked sideways. The tragic losses brought on by COVID-19 and the resulting economic fallout were devastating effects that will have long-term impacts. And a year later, the twin questions of how the coronavirus affects business and how businesses are responding to the coronavirus itself are ever-enduring.

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Even some of the most vibrant sectors of the economy weren’t immune from the tumult: As many as 6,000 startup employees in Silicon Valley found themselves without work in a matter of weeks. The healthcare industry was affected as well, with 90% of countries around the world seeing disruptions to essential health services within their borders, according to the World Health Organization.

This isn’t the full picture, however. Despite lasting worldwide effects, COVID-19 shares ties with other historic hardships in that it paved the way for new lines of business resilience and opportunity that companies did not previously fathom. As we go on reorienting and uncovering the coronavirus’s impact on business and industry at large, we should keep in mind our capacity to rebuild.

Profiles Of Courage And Transformative Thinking

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and New York City’s Great Blizzard of 1888 are two telling examples of business change and transformation at the societal level. The Chicago fire took around 300 lives, leveling more than three square miles of Chicago (which was heavily reliant on wood buildings at the time) and leaving some 100,000 inhabitants without housing. The New York City Blizzard stalled the entire city under 22 inches of snow in subfreezing conditions, leading to a loss of 400 lives and $20 million in property damage. Out of these catastrophes, however, we saw actions that went beyond merely rebuilding after a disaster. Instead, these instances showed how entire communities can regroup, rethink the status quo, and overcome challenges in the face of halting adversity.

Both cities rebounded with better solutions. In Chicago, the Great Fire drew a bevy of talented architects who rebuilt upward with a mind for preventing future conflagrations, and from that event emerged the modern skyscraper. New York City’s disaster forced its government to examine its development strategies, realizing that installing critical infrastructure below ground could shield it from such extreme weather events. This insight ultimately gave way to the subway system New York City now thrives upon.

No person wants their business to be caught in a disaster. Catastrophes, however, will continue to occur — and we can use them as an opportunity to take stock, readdress, and reform. As devastating as the last year has been for individuals, businesses, and communities, we will resolutely rebound. The question is, what will we build from the ruin?

Mapping Out Business Change And Transformation

What has changed already? Quite a bit. Countless future developments will be traced back to COVID-19, including things such as flexible working-living arrangements and messenger RNA vaccine technology. In business terms, this translates to diversified work schedules, fewer and shorter commute times, and lower atmospheric carbon output that will sharpen worker productivity, increase workplace equitability, and advance business resilience.

The sharp uptick in digitalization has also been immense when considering the coronavirus’s impact on business operations and those businesses’ response to COVID-19. At least 85% of executives report technology having accelerated in their operations as a direct result of the pandemic.

This perspective shift brings about a massive opportunity for cost savings. Global Workplace Analytics released a report that suggests businesses could save as much as $11,000 annually per worker with remote-compatible jobs where workers are willing to work off-site a few days throughout the week. Of the estimated 48 million jobs, that totals to more than $500 billion saved each year for U.S. employers.

But it’s not just companies that are benefiting from this increased flexibility. FlexJobs’ report in the last days of 2020 indicates no fewer than 95% of remote workers show comparable or higher productivity at home than if they were permanently in the office. Further, 73% of the respondent base reports improved work-life balance, while 81% would feel a higher sense of loyalty to their employers if they had the option to work remotely in the future.

Reimagining Business Resiliency

As much as we work to prevent disasters, we will never be able to avoid them completely. When disasters do occur, one of the most important factors is how a business and its community choose to address necessary change. For instance, some of the greatest challenges we’ll soon face include the U.S. consumer debt crisis and climate change. Solutions to these massive, complicated problems might feel nebulous and intangible — but if we take them as opportunities to rebuild better, we might emerge from them even stronger.

As we continue to maintain the balance between the coronavirus and business continuity, it’s necessary to stay mindful of what it will take to realize broader, positive outcomes: Gumption is one of them. Introspection is another. The most important, though, is acknowledging that we must embrace the unfamiliarity tomorrow brings rather than turn from it.

About the Author

Dan Conner is the general partner at Ascend Venture Capital, a micro-VC in St. Louis that provides financial and operational support to startup founders looking to scale. Conner specializes in data-centric technologies that enable the future states of industries. Before founding Ascend Venture Capital, Conner worked on the operations side of high-growth startups, leading teams to build scalable operational and financial infrastructure.

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