Sutcliffe: It ain't normal till it's normal

recovery

Three years ago, six tornadoes struck Ottawa and Gatineau. After the immediate danger passed, there was a feeling of relief. But for many families, the hard work was just beginning.

With local vaccination rates at a high level and children back in the classroom, it’s increasingly possible to imagine the end of a treacherous pandemic that has lasted much longer than most of us imagined it would. (Remember how some of us scoffed at the experts who, in the spring of 2020, said it would last two years?)

There is still the gathering fourth wave and the prospect of further lockdowns and restrictions. Still, one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, large numbers of people will once again drive to business parks and take the O-Train to downtown offices (while city officials cross their fingers and toes). It will feel like we are starting to put this extraordinary ordeal behind us.

Who isn’t looking forward to seeing live music at Bluesfest? Or having a Forty Under 40 event in person instead of online? Or simply bringing the team together at the office instead of on Zoom?

But like a family emerging from the basement after a natural disaster, local businesses resurfacing and regrouping after the pandemic won’t have much time to celebrate. They’ll be surveying the damage and assessing a dramatically altered landscape, with major decisions to make and lasting implications to consider.

Already, Ottawa businesses that are reopening are dealing with a changed marketplace for both customers and employees. Some restaurants and retail companies are finding it hard to hire workers, leading them to reduce capacity and operating hours. The pandemic may have permanently transformed the relationship between service businesses and their employees. And with more consideration of measures like a guaranteed annual income, there may be more pressure on the hiring market for workers earning minimum wage or close to it.

Other companies will be facing a different kind of human resources challenge. While some of them will now be able to hire virtual employees from anywhere in the world, they will also be up against other companies who can poach their workers in Ottawa.

And every employer will be confronted with the lasting effect of the pandemic: a physical and mental toll that will last for months, if not years. Managers and executives can’t afford to assume the challenges will end with the decline of COVID cases. They must continue to demonstrate sensitivity and compassion to all their team members.

Employees will still need time off for their mental health. The lower rate of diagnosis of major illnesses like cancer means workers and their loved ones may have undetected health challenges that will surface in the months ahead. We’ve all gotten to know more about the personal lives of others and the complicated challenges of balancing work and home during the past 18 months. It’s essential to maintain those bonds and continue to assess how everyone is doing even after it may seem like the worst of the pandemic has passed.

Another evaluation every business leader must make is how much the market for their products and services will return to what it was in 2019 or if it is permanently changed. The pandemic accelerated several existing trends, such as online shopping. No one should assume that we are going back to the way things were before.

Finally, these next few months are a good time for entrepreneurs and executives to consider the pandemic's lessons. We all made decisions in a crisis. What did we learn from the experience? And what choices should we make in the future, thoughtfully and proactively, about how and what we do, without the pressure of a disaster?

Yogi Berra famously said it ain’t over til it’s over. But even when it feels like it’s over, it still might not be. For many local businesses, the effects and challenges of the pandemic will continue for a long time. 

For entrepreneurs, there is no normal, not even after a pandemic subsides.