Experts discuss pandemic challenges and how to adapt and overcome obstacles

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COVID-19 has caused significant upheaval to the world as we know it. The pandemic and its aftereffects have disrupted every aspect of our existence—how we live, socialize, communicate, and work.

The new normal is drastically different from the old: Reopening offices and schools is slower than anticipated, and children attend online classes at home alongside parents working remotely.

The usual social activities are on hold as people isolate at home, seeing family and friends only on their phone and tablet screens. Business processes have gone digital as offices remain shuttered, with video and teleconferences replacing staff meetings, client calls and even doctor’s visits.

And all of us wonder: When this will end, and what’s next? To help us answer this question, we partnered with the Boxley Group and invited experts in medicine, mental health, business, and investment to share their observations about this challenging environment.

Moderated by influencer Judy Murray, who has 20+ years of writing, producing and publishing experience in the energy industry, our esteemed panel included:

The panelists tackled questions such as:

  • What are the aftereffects of the pandemic on personal interactions in the workplace?
  • How will companies and organizations deal with new concerns that stem from social distancing and isolation?
  • What lasting effect will the repercussions of the pandemic have on business and workers?

Here are the highlights of the discussion.

Mounting concerns over COVID-19

The session opened with a look at the way events have unfolded over the past few months. Initial hopes that coronavirus would be no worse than the flu rapidly gave way to concern and fear as cases skyrocketed.

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and healthcare staffers worked long grueling hours, Alex reported. Facing so many unknowns, anxious and depressed patients sought counseling, which had to be conducted via Zoom and FaceTime rather than face to face, John pointed out.

The financial impact was just as dramatic. When the government rolled out its Payback Protection Program, Commerce Bank made as many S.B.A. loans in 60 days as it usually does in 30 years–$1.5 billion, Sebastien said. Despite the uncertainty, housing sales soared as residents fled the cities for the suburbs, and the stock market climbed. At the same time, many companies—especially in the hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors–saw revenues and profits plummet.

Now, as the country starts to reopen, businesses and individuals are forced to adopt new ways of working and interacting. Rosie noted that companies are considering whether they should continue working remotely and the possible impact on commercial real estate. Travel, too, has become a question mark as businesses have become accustomed to virtual meetings.

All the panelists agreed that technology will continue to play a bigger part in business and personal life, and the question is how to digitize everything from the C-suite on down.

Emerging from the shutdown

The need to re-establish the supply chain was another topic of discussion. Rosie observed that the oil and gas industry is struggling to figure out the best way to get the supply flowing again. Sebastien noted that access to capital is one of the biggest catalysts for growth, but financial institutions are pressing the pause button in the face of so much uncertainty. Just as the city of Houston has resilience plans in place for hurricanes, many businesses are starting to create pandemic plans, starting with their back offices, he added.

Asked whether things are beginning to stabilize, Alex commented that the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 still leaves many unknowns. Some patients are still too fearful of visiting doctors, which leads to complications and even deaths. COVID cases have leveled off in some areas, but others have seen spikes when things reopen. This trend is likely to continue until we have a vaccine or reach herd immunity—when at least 70 to 80 percent of the population has been exposed and developed antibodies. The good news is that more effective treatments have emerged over time. John said the long-term chronic stress and lack of regular interaction are taking a toll on people, and his focus is on helping them calm down and get through one day at a time. Meanwhile, the lack of elective surgeries and routine visits has led to cutbacks on the healthcare front, and loss of jobs and health insurance is also likely to reduce demand for medical care.

Rosie observed that businesses are exploring ways to increase efficiency and reevaluating every aspect of what they do — what adds value and what doesn’t. Trying to get a handle on production is a challenge for the oil and gas business. When the public starts flying and driving again, demand will increase, but that’s hard to predict. Meanwhile, the residential real estate boom is likely to continue, and she noted that her company doesn’t have enough people to handle the increased workload.

Things are stabilizing in the banking business, but challenges remain. Banks are continuing to focus on customer relations, but it’s incredibly hard to develop new business without face-to-face contact, Sebastien said. Though he believes remote work and virtual meetings are here to stay, he is convinced that in-person gatherings help generate ideas and resolve conflicts.

Automation on the rise

Switching gears, the panelists talked about the effects of automation on the workplace. Sebastien said companies of every size are replacing manual processes with automated ones, especially for back-office functions such as payables and receivables. Rosie said her previous employer had started automating several years ago, relying on bots to perform formerly manual tasks in a fraction of the time. That doesn’t mean jobs will go away. Employees can shift to more strategic work with a higher value.  

Looking ahead, the panelists agreed that many questions remain, and people and businesses must constantly adapt to evolving circumstances. It’s critical to develop change-management skills, to learn to be more efficient and to use automation as much as possible. Agility is essential. We need to figure out what the “new normal” looks like, they said.

We will likely face other pandemics in the future, and the hope is that we learned from this one and will be better prepared next time.

Sebastien concluded with an optimistic message. The U.S. economy is innovative and able to adapt, and our businesses are vibrant and strong. We need to embrace technology while remembering the importance of human relationships. The combination will enable us to survive and ensure that we are ready for whatever lies ahead.

For more on our ongoing webinar series, please visit our training page.