This crisis has forced us all to think – at pace – about the way we do things. In just three months, all of us have dramatically changed the way we work and live. Many businesses and organisations have been able to get their teams working safely and productively, at least at a basic level. Doctors are seeing patients over video, financial traders are doing deals remotely, children are learning online, and lawmakers are debating and voting from home.

As we start to reflect on what just happened, business resiliency plans have been rapidly activated and pushed well beyond their initial scope. The need for secure, robust connectivity is now stronger than ever. Some practices that were considered impossible only three months ago turn out to be not only possible, but perhaps even desirable.

Last month, I took part in a conversation led by The Economist on The 21st-century company: Reimagining business amid COVID-19, along with a dozen senior execs from different industry sectors across Europe. We took the chance to reflect on what we have learned and started to re-imagine business in our new world.

Key points for me from the discussion were:

  • We have seen governments respond on a vast scale as they seek to protect economic activity. This has gone beyond immediate funding for short term crisis response. As stimulus packages are launched, we are seeing a real acceleration of government thinking around digitisation – almost as if plans are now skipping a generation. This will change the impetus around the development of digital skills but also around country infrastructure both of which will change the landscape for business. Done well, this could be very positive for citizens and for business.
  • We have shown that as organisations we are capable of much quicker decision-making than we thought. We need to keep that. Everyone being home-based has been a great leveller – previously over-scheduled executives have become much more accessible which has enabled a lot of conversations in a short space of time. In the urgency of the situation, bureaucracy and hierarchies have been swept aside. We are hearing from new voices as unexpected people step up in our organisations.
  • The success of remote working has shown that working outside an office can be highly productive and that it can be applied to many more job roles than expected. It’s clear already that the nature of work can now fundamentally change as more roles can be done remotely and we will need to learn new skills to manage that. Remote working requires new thinking about how to nurture company culture and create a strong sense of inclusion and shared values
  • Wide-scale remote working starts a discussion about what the role of an office is as the nature of work changes. The days of sitting at a bank of desks, ploughing through a to-do list from 9-5 are probably over for ever. It also changes the dynamic of the talent discussion as businesses can truly start to be location agnostic as they search for new employees.
  • Innovation continues – of course – to be vital to all businesses but we need to be very aware of where our innovation comes from and how to accelerate it. I and several of my peers in the conversation recognised the crucial role of young and early-in-career talent in driving our innovation. We also recognised that this is a group that in many ways has been most negatively affected by the crisis through delays in education provision, diminished work experience opportunities or the impact of the economic downturn on job opportunities. We need to make sure that we protect this group. More widely on innovation, we also shared the view that this crisis was tougher in the short term for the small and medium business sector and that this too is where a lot of innovation happens.

There is no doubt that there are challenging times ahead for all of us – personally and professionally. This crisis will take a long time to work through and we need to be prepared for the long-haul here. But, all of us in The Economist’s conversation could see opportunities to expand our talent-base, innovate our business models and find new customers as people have got used to consuming our offers in different ways. We have the opportunity to re-imagine the way we do things, and that’s exciting for business leaders everywhere. For us at Cisco, helping businesses on that path is at the heart of what we do.

Read The Economist’s summary of our discussion:
The 21st-century company: Reimagining business amid COVID-19


Wendy Mars

Senior Vice President

President - Cisco EMEA