By Jean-François Fiorina, Vice-Dean / Programme Director, Grenoble Ecole de Management

With the end of the lockdown in France, I decided to look into “What Next?”.
In this post, I will address, in terms of what I believe, the questions that provoked ongoing debate during the past weeks: the role of the State and that of businesses; the leaders of tomorrow’s organisations and the new social pact; the place of globalisation and sovereignty in our lives and the role of its actors from France to Europe, passing through China. Questions, but also a method and a vision, free of partisanship or ideology, which will help us see reality without burying our heads in the sand, its hopes and risks, in order to reinvent ourselves.

An unprecedented situation with a loss of bearings. We are urged to show humility, and shun certainties on the outcomes of the lockdown or on what’s going to happen now, especially that there were obvious shortcomings and difficulties in taking a stand.

I. A change of era: Asking ourselves the right questions

Post-COVID-19: Reinvent an ideal through reality

The post-COVID-19 world is one that we must Reinvent, a world where the hardest part is only just beginning, a world in which we must apply the principle of reality, where it would be illusory to go back to our old ways – we must, first of all, recognise this.

It is our responsibility that history books, in 50 or 100 years from now, record this Covid-19 crisis as the beginning of a fairer and more humane era. An era, where paradoxically, it will be essential to take the time to think, to understand that our world has never before shown such excellence in medicine, technology and telecommunication, a world where exchange of information and travel have never been so easy… but when hit by a virus, more than half of this same world went into lockdown, including nearly all of its richest countries, spurring an economic crisis with consequences yet unknown.

COVID-19: How did we get to this point?

The question to which we must find answers, not based on the typical French response of “It’s all their fault” or “It’s the fault of those in power some years ago”, but based on the obligation of providing answers free of ideology or partisanship.

– Why was there a mask-shortage?

– Why is there such confusion around testing? About that, the article published in Le Monde on April 25th is edifying. Tests are the perfect example of what France has become in absence of a long-term vision, of ideology, and lack of knowledge about its structures, complete shambles, omnipotent and stifling bureaucracy. France ended up turning in on itself, instead of fulfilling its function of regulator and service provider.

– Why the outdated conflict between public and private interests when the priority was to have all hospitals and clinics on board?
– Why the hospital bed shortage when France’s health budget is one of the highest in the world?
– Why are Germany and North-European countries coping better with fewer restrictions?
– Why are Italy, Spain and Great-Britain hit as badly as us, if not more in the case of Italy?
– Why is the research community so divided and gives us the impression that they are more involved in a battle of egos?

There are many possible answers and if we accept reality, they should allow us to better restart. Just as Bruno Le Maire put it, the coronavirus outbreak is a game changer.

Post-COVID-19: What’s going to have to change?

This leads to rethinking the role of the State, a welfare State but also in charge of strategy, without being too keen or omniscient. The question of elites is going to be put on the table once again. As we witnessed it, the virus highlighted the flaws and weaknesses of organizations and for some, of their leaders. Therefore, we are going to have to reconsider the training of our elites. Training must include solid geopolitical and economical elements. What globalisation for France, what place for China in this globalization, what Europe, and what transatlantic relations?
Questions that mirror those of the ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration famed for training France’s elites) competitive entrance exam, but that will require tangible responses to define a new social pact. President Macron, in his March 12th address, announced that we will need to learn from this crisis, including from our mistakes. Let us not waste time, and get to work immediately, free from any kind of partisanship. A poor analysis would be disastrous.

II. Change of era: What will become of companies in the post-COVID 19 world?

I hope that they will rebuild on the basis of a new corporate social contract founded on CARE, trust, solidarity, and fairness between colleagues. Utopia or reality? I bet on the principle of reality influenced by the utopia of a better world, co-constructed and this in all domains: in the life of the city, the corporate world, politics, the social and environmental spheres. Go on, I dare you!

How to reorganise respecting the terms set out by the lockdown exit strategy?

In all the articles I read on the matter, health and safety are compulsory prerequisites. This means that we need to rethink our approach, in terms of organization, flow, in-house presence, and social distancing. It is pretty easy for some activities, much harder for others. This also means we will need to reconsider office layouts, even more so now that remote work will become more widespread. This will definitely have an impact on productivity and thus, ultimately, on costs.

How to rethink our relationship with our colleagues, or rebuild new work experiences?

Beyond health matters, we also must capitalize on our remote work experience. Recently, I read an article mentioning the fact that a great number of French workers wanted to continue to work remotely in the post-COVID-19 era. This is fine, but it also means that we need to rethink the social pact between the company and its employees, the connection just will not be the same anymore. The pact must be adapted, which entails more precise and clearer social and legal boundaries.

Let us not forget that all functions are not “remotely” adaptable. We will need to take into account all those who hold jobs that cannot be carried out from home. At this point, it is essential for us to remember the importance of all the workers that were at the forefront during the crisis and who allowed us to continue to live as normally as possible or to get medical help. Their jobs will need to be included in the new social pact. This involves, and reflects what was discussed in the precedent paragraph, having a global discussion to reconsider the role of premises and buildings, and their organization. Some businesses, such as Microsoft or consulting firms, were ahead of their time, but, as stated in the JDD (Journal du Dimanche) on April 26th, the coronavirus outbreak is going to kill open-spaces.

III. Change of era: Re-enchant management

I fully agree with the title of this article which I recently read in the Argus de la Presse, “Remote work: We need empathic and benevolent managers.”

The manager is the one who will give meaning to the new social pact, which I addressed in my post: What will become of companies in the post-COVID-19 world?
The manager who will guide and worry about his team, no longer as a cog in the machinery of transmission, in both directions, of often too important information as well as of contradictory injunctions.

Post-COVID-19: Vision and Raison d’Etre

The leader is the one that has the vision. Since the beginning of the crisis, I insisted on the word “Vision”. I believe that vision is a skill that is missing just as much in companies as in the political field. Vision is what helps us look further, dream, and carry out a project. It is the course of action defined and accepted by all. Vision is the straightforward guiding principle used to define our current and future actions. Vision and Raison d’Etre are the foundations of one’s strategy.

Trust

Managers and leaders will need to inspire trust at all levels of the hierarchy, including a top-down trust: For instance, “I trust my teams regardless of the fact that they are working from home”. In any case, decisions will have to be made. This is another lesson learnt from the crisis, this inability of our elites to make decisions, accept them, and take responsibility.

Experimentation

This should not be limited to common sense but should be the start of management’s necessary transformation. This is where Business Schools can play an important role. First of all, with research to collaborate with companies on what elements should be included in the new social pact, elements that will be in line with the organizations’ respective identities and complexities. Then, with the training of our students. It will not be about stating such and such attitude to adopt but about tangibly preparing them for these changes. This requires time, experience, and experimentation.

IV. Change of era: Relocation, did you say relocation?

The question of relocation, actually a geopolitical issue, entails the question of reindustrialization. This is thus the topic of this post which concludes – for the time being – this series on the post-COVID-19 world for businesses and society. Thoughts that are important to me because they allow me to reflect upon what GEM should be in the post-crisis world, on what businesses expect and how we can meet their expectations by best preparing our students.

Relocation is the term that comes back regularly in discussions and articles, the magic word, the solution to all our problems and which would allow us, with the wave of a magic wand, to have the masks and tests that France was so short of in the past weeks!

Towards which reindustrialisation?

Let us avoid any Manichaean mindsets or fad trends. This is about the vision of Business in the world, its globalization strategy and the place of China in this internationalization. Beyond China, it is also about including the new Silk Roads, about which I had written about in September…2018!

Relocation entails Reindustrialization, on condition of creating value, of developing new products and manufacturing procedures. The idea of relocation is not linked to the virus itself, even though it is going to fast-track this trend. Companies have been thinking of relocating for several years now, for quality and flexibility motives first, and secondly as a reaction to the economic war. I had mentioned, in the past, how the economic war was going to reshape the global production and distribution channels.

Relocation: The State at work?

What is new now is that relocation is a demand of the State as opposed to one of the businesses. The approach is thus different. And there should not be any inconsistencies when reflecting upon it all.

Reindustrialisation includes, and I insist on this, innovation and the design of disruptive production methods.

However, businesses’ geopolitical complexities are not limited to these topics alone: the end of multilateralism, the multiplication of customizable and variable-geometry structured alliances, value chains, public and private companies’ bankruptcies, the power games, access to foreign capital markets, health risk crisis management for foreign subsidiaries, are all issues (and the list is far from being comprehensive) that businesses will need to address in order to take the appropriate strategic decisions. Yet, answers will never be final…

Another certainty is that corporate geopolitics will become even more strategic!

These are just some personal thoughts on what, I believe, is awaiting businesses in the “Post-COVID-19 world” – which is not without consequences for us Business Schools.

It’s up to us to be prepared!

Leave a Comment