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How to Build Back Better After COVID-19

June 17, 2020

Professors Sarah Kaplan and Soo Min Toh explain why organizations need to rethink work, strategy and governance.

As we navigate this global pandemic and make plans to move forward, we’re realizing that striving for ‘back to normal’ or ‘business as usual’ isn’t good enough.

“As the COVID-19 crisis and the recent Black Lives Matter protests have pointed out, ‘normal’ wasn’t so great for a lot of people,” explains Sarah Kaplan, the director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy and a Distinguished Professor of Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School.

Right now, we have the opportunity to build back better. As Kaplan described in a recent piece for Fast Company, that means incorporating progressive social and environmental policies in our plans, so that we can successfully move forward after this crisis.

In the latest Managing Uncertainty webinar — Build Back Better After COVID-19: Why Corporations Need a Radical Redesign — Kaplan and Professor Soo Min Toh, discuss what it means to build back better, and why rebuilding should be seen as an innovation challenge.

“We can’t go back to where we were. We have to pay attention to the inequalities that have always been there.”

—Sarah Kaplan, Director, Institute for Gender and the Economy
In Build Back Better After COVID-19: Why Corporations Need a Radical Redesign

What this crisis revealed to us and why we need to build back better

The global pandemic has opened our eyes to many social inequalities — many of which were exacerbated during this crisis.

For instance, because women and minorities are likely to fall into categories that were vulnerable to layoffs and furloughs, they were disproportionately affected during the crisis. And Kaplan points out that because of the gendered way caregiving responsibilities are divided, a large proportion of women have been forced to drop out of the workforce to take on additional childcare responsibilities.

Now that we know of these injustices, going back to normal will only feel like taking a step backwards.

“We can’t go back to where we were. We have to pay attention to the inequalities that have always been there,” says Kaplan.

Toh, who is an associate professor with the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga (with a cross-appointment to the Rotman School), agrees. She points out that attitudes held by workers and customers around social and environmental issues have shifted during the crisis.

“I don’t think companies have a choice at this point,” Toh says. “The social contract has changed.”

The global pandemic revealed three important ways work needs to change

Minimum wage needs to be re-evaluated. “If it turns out that the people we are most dependent on are the Amazon warehouse worker or the grocery store clerk, why are they being paid the least?” ask Kaplan. We need to redefine the minimum wage so that it accurately reflects the significance of the work being done.

Offering flexible work arrangements is essential. Before the pandemic, those who took advantage of flexible work arrangements were often perceived as less committed. In the last few months, as the entire workforce has had to balance additional caregiving and family obligations with work, organizations are realizing that flexible arrangements are essential to getting work done.

Universal access to childcare is crucial. The pandemic has also shown us — especially parents — the importance of childcare. Going forward, we’ll need to consider how childcare workers, often the lowest paid in society, are compensated and how everyone can get access to affordable childcare.

Companies can get started right now

The first step is to convene the board of directors and consider the big questions and lessons learned from this experience.

For organizations that must lay off staff, they need to examine their practices for deciding which individuals are let go and whether specific groups are disproportionately affected. Companies also need to consider topping up salaries or hourly wages of individuals who are doing essential work and putting themselves at physical risk.

Kaplan also suggests that companies refer to UN Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that they are considering the broad range of issues.

“It’s important for leaders to listen, to engage with their employees and stakeholders,” adds Toh. “It’s a good time to think about how we manage, strategize and do business. It’s time to take stock of what has gone well and the opportunities that were not there before.”

Frame recovery as an innovation challenge

Successfully rebuilding after this crisis will require innovative thinking and leaders will need to consider a broad range of perspectives.

This shock has forced us to realize how interconnected our priorities are. The work required to build back better — like all work that falls under the environmental, social, governance or corporate social responsibility categories — can't be considered side-of-the-desk work.

“For companies to thrive and survive, they need healthy consumers and functional societies and a diverse and inclusive workforce. We need to be doubling down on equity and inclusion,” says Toh.

By making these priorities central to the job, companies will actually spur innovation, adds Kaplan.

“If we apply the innovation lens, we give ourselves more freedom to experiment, to learn and to engage with all stakeholders to come up with new ideas,” she says.

To learn more about how to build back better, watch a recording of this webinar.

Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Rotman Insights »

Meet the experts

Sarah Kaplan

Director, Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE)
Distinguished Professor of Gender & the Economy

Soo Min Toh

Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management, Department of Management, University of Toronto Mississauga

More from this webinar series

Managing Uncertainty: Adapting to and learning from the COVID-19 crisis

Watch past or see upcoming webinars →