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Management in Practice

Leading through COVID: History as a Guide to the Unprecedented

In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal lives during the global pandemic. Jeff Schwartz ’87, a principal at Deloitte leading the Future of Work team, describes agile, adaptable organizations built around empowered teams as best positioned for effective work amid extreme uncertainty.

An illustration of a network of teams

Sean David Williams

Adapted from a phone interview, April 9, 2020.

Q: You lead the Future of Work practice at Deloitte. What are clients asking for?

The UN’s International Labor Organization estimates that out of the 3.3 billion people in the formal global workforce, 2.7 billion—that’s 81%—have been affected by lockdowns or stay-at-home measures. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of organizations trying to decide whether to keep working, operate essentially, or virtualize.

The overwhelming initial focus of our discussions with clients is how do they put together their COVID-19 responses. We’re helping companies think through workforce strategy. How do you keep essential services going? What are your plans around physical safety, psychological safety, and financial security?

Beyond that, their priorities depend on where they are on the globe, what industry they’re in, and where they are on the COVID-19 curve. For some regions, we’re pivoting to thinking about recovery. In China, we’re talking about it, because the lockdown has just ended in Wuhan.

Q: What does a recovery look like?

With COVID-19, it will likely not be a typical recovery. Because of the uncertainty we’re facing from the lack of therapeutics and when a vaccine will be available, we must plan for waves of infection. We are all are trying to figure out how we live in a world with that uncertainty.

How do we manage the workforce, recognizing that in the next few months or years, we may be bouncing back and forth between something like normal and having different parts of the global workforce shut down? We may have parts of national workforces working onsite while others are working remotely offsite. We’ve been talking with many companies and governments around the world on how to virtualize both work and education.

A metaphor that’s come up for what we’re witnessing and experiencing right now is a time machine. With billions of people suddenly trying to work remotely, we’ve jumped forward. This move of work and education to virtual platforms was something we expected to see three, five, or ten years from now. Instead, it’s happening right now even as we are dealing with a crisis.

In some ways, we are really in an accelerating moment. We’ll see whether we continue forward or fall back again.

We’re moving into a hybrid world. It’s reasonable to expect waves of lockdowns, remote work, and returns to onsite until we make significant progress with testing, therapeutics, and vaccines.

Q: Are there organizational models that are likely to be more effective in this environment?

When we spoke a couple of years ago, I pointed to a shift in organizations from an enterprise to an ecosystem focus. That’s also a shift from a hierarchal and bureaucratic focus to a team-based focus which allows for much more agile and adaptable organizations.

Companies around the world have organized into micro divisions or micro-functional teams—that is, decentralized management and many, many internal teams with a lot of agency. Given what’s happening now, they’re extremely well positioned to respond and proactively move forward.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the entire planet. Is this unprecedented?

I graduated from the Yale School of Management in 1987 and joined the investment banking program at Chemical Bank, which is now JPMorgan Chase. On October 19, the markets saw their biggest one-day correction. The Dow lost nearly 23%.

“Because of the uncertainty we’re facing from the lack of therapeutics and when a vaccine will be available, we must plan for waves of infection. We are all are trying to figure out how we live in a world with that uncertainty.”

A lot of people on Wall Street lost their jobs. We saw a massive restructuring very, very quickly. I was joking with someone, in the way that you do when things are this crazy and this serious, that I began my career in a crisis and, since I’m approaching the mandatory retirement age for equity partners, I’ll retire in the midst of a crisis.

In between, we’ve had Y2K, 9/11, the Great Recession, and now this. In many ways, my career has been marked by a series of unprecedented events.

In terms of this COVID-19 moment, what’s unprecedented is the connectivity that we have in the global economy and also in our social interactions, media, news, entertainment, and sports. The hyper-connectivity means the disruption that we’re seeing is a real shock to the system. In such a highly interconnected world, it’s no surprise that we are seeing more black swans—very high impact, low probability events.

The last time we had a global pandemic like this was about 100 years ago. We’ve had Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and MERS, but in terms of a pandemic in number of countries with a high degree of contagion and the significant degree of mortality, we haven’t seen something like this since the 1918 flu. Clearly, what we’re seeing is that almost no one in the world was as prepared for this as we needed to be.

Q: How do leaders, organizations, and societies prepare for this sort of crisis?

We need to take history much more seriously. There’s an ahistorical bent to the world today. As if, because we live in this environment where we’re experiencing exponential technological growth, the past doesn’t have anything to teach us.

My sense is that history is very, very important. I think leaders and managers who are not historically grounded are going to be in trouble.

Certainly as individuals we experience existence moment to moment. And we live in unique times. But we also have, as a species, this amazing shared history on the planet. Having a sense of history offers, at least for me, a very strong sense of resilience. We’re not doing these things on our own or for the first time. There are patterns to human experience.

So, I find myself going back and forth between the past and the future. There’s a reason Yuval Noah Harari’s three books—Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century—deal with the past, the future, and the present. If we understand history, it’s possible to understand the future. And being able to hold ideas of where we have been and where we are likely to go helps us understand the current moment.