You’ve heard of digital-tech disrupters having weekly, or even daily, business plans? That sounds like a good fit for business in the United States these days, with the alarming increase in coronavirus cases. Wouldn’t a crystal ball be handy now to help business leaders pivot as nimbly as needed?

Chances are, we won’t snap back to normalcy as we knew it before COVID-19. Are you even a teensy bit hopeful about what will emerge?

You might be if you’d checked out the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon which finished a couple of weeks ago. WHO, Microsoft, Slack, Facebook, Salesforce and Twitter were among the big names backing this call for developers to create software solutions to help address the crisis. Almost 90 projects were ‘winners’ – it’s a space to watch to see which ones enter the market.

Hope will only get you so far. Inaction isn’t an option. Businesses and employees across the globe are making difficult decisions and pivoting. It’s what we do to succeed.

In the aptly titled book of the times, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, Dan Heath, a fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center, talks about what’s crucial to navigate an uncertain future.

“We can’t foresee everything; we will inevitably be mistaken about some of the consequences of our work. And if we aren’t collecting feedback, we won’t know how we’re wrong and we won’t have the ability to change course,” he writes.

Accept you won’t accurately foresee all aspects of the future. Marshal yourself in there with a solid plan that’s got built-in feedback mechanisms and keep checking in.

My challenge to you is to be direct and honest about what your business can achieve. Look to innovate, work out your metrics to monitor regularly and keep your eye on the long-term.

Many organizations have expanded into telecommuting and remote working (many for the first time). IT networks and tools such as Zoom and Slack underpin this foray. Consider how your company’s work processes and systems are flowing into this new distributed business model.

Sales and tech fields have been the exemplars of smooth transition, but other sectors can take their heed to innovate. In health care, we’re seeing telehealth platforms including Plushcare really showing their mettle. Healthcare workers can use them for contactless visits from their centers. Meanwhile, mental health counselors are tapping into platforms such as Betterhelp to pick up online where they left off with their clients.

You can expect that business travel, conferences and in-person staff meetings will be history, at least in the short-to-medium term.

If you haven’t done so already, check out how online platforms and telecommuting can boost communications and engagement for your business. Use them to replace face-to-face training or ramp it up with a learning management system. There are 700+ out there in the market. Elearning, mobile learning, virtual and augmented reality training are useful alternatives to in-person training if your budget allows.

Why is training to important, particularly if you think your business planning should have a short-term focus? This is the key: nest your nimble short-term plan in a longer-range one that covers workforce development and employee retention. That’s critical.

Many businesses want to keep staff on, but have fewer customers or have been forced to close so they have little cash to cover wages. Mothballing your business or just shutting it full stop rather than going bankrupt might sound like a solid option.

But there is help out there for businesses to avoid mass layoffs and keep workers on their payrolls – this is the best insurance for sustainability. Think of it as keeping your business humming so it’s ready to upscale when treatment or a vaccine are in place. You’ll be on the front foot.

Check out the array of resources on the US Small Business Administration website. It offers guidance, loan resources and local assistance for the COVID-19 situation. See what other companies are doing across the globe, according to the World Economic Forum, too.

However, if you do need to close your business or reduce operating hours and if the work can’t be done remotely, there are options. During the downtime, consider incentivizing staff to take part in online education and to upskill. If they can foster and finesse their skills during this time, it’s a powerful tool to engage and retain them as well as lift morale.

Online learning aims to be actionable – it’s practical and focused on skills. Your staff can tackle online courses to reboot, boost or enhance their skill set – cheaply, easily, from anywhere and anytime. And they aren’t just hobby courses.

For instance, Khan Academy offers free math, science and engineering, computing, economics, finance courses as well as a variety of test prep. Also check out other free offerings such as Udacity, Skillshare, Google, Udemy and Memrise. There are also massive open online courses (MOOCs) including the highest-profile EdX from many of the globe’s most prestigious universities. Check out if the course certificates could give your staff microcredentials recognised by the marketplace credential engine.

When you take the long-range view, COVID-19 could mean workforce expansion opportunities. Local and regional communities will be invigorated to work together perhaps in ways that are more self-sufficient. Closed borders means globalized trade will dip. You might not think it, but there will be a greater need for more modern apprenticeship programs. A survey of 900 US employers found most of them said registered apprenticeships produced net economic gains and 87% would recommend them strongly. Apprenticeships are actually a superb fit for roles in health, human services, high-tech manufacturing, even cybersecurity. Expect governments across the world to recalibrate the role and scope of government services. 

The immense problems COVID-19 is causing need solutions from businesses offering technology and data-driven products, as well as services in supply chain logistics, cloud IT, automation, etc. Companies will want to develop operating processes and systems to withstand future disasters, not just pandemics.

Embracing apprenticeships means employers will be a step ahead in working towards future-proofing themselves and the country. Consider giving young people a chance as apprentices in these challenging times.

The modern apprenticeship has proven effective for upskilling workforces. It makes sense to begin investing now in your talent pipeline to prepare for economic recovery.

For companies with apprentices, the message is clear: have the courage to stand firm. Do extra training. You’ll find yourself well poised to respond when the economy improves. Keep your eyes on the road ahead. We’re undergoing an economic transformation which will demand revamped, adapted, or new skills.

Each business is unique, so you’ll need to customize how you’ll adapt. The eyes of workers will be on the C-suite leadership. Savvy senior management teams will listen to all staff about making remote work sustainable while fostering unity and a sense of purpose. Honesty, flexibility, and understanding are how we’ll get through this. Business leaders who take a long-term view of current crisis can see the opportunity to create a more robust and better-prepared workforce for when the economy returns to normal.

Let’s see where this will take us. How will your company tap into workers as a community of learners to ensure resilient and sustainable operations?