The Post-COVID Workplace

Within is my entry for Kyocera’s 2020 Philosophy Essay Contest. COVID-19 has presented an abundance of unique procurement challenges, and adaptation to evolving conditions is imperative for business continuity. This essay captures some of my views on how we might thrive in the post-COVID world.

“You must constantly analyze why things are done a certain way to find the essence based on the truths and principles of a business and its operations. This may ultimately result in denouncing what was held to be conventional wisdom.”

Dr. Inamori – Book II, pg. 67

If ever there were a time to take the sage advice of the founder and scrutinize each aspect of our operation, it’s in response to a pandemic threatening not only to diminish or cancel the lives of thousands, but to upset the global economy in ways unseen for nearly a century. Every conceivable stage of business operation feels the disruption of COVID-19, from raw material to production, from logistics to accounting; each facet with its own unique challenges. A rare moment in history is upon us, forcing us to examine our weaknesses and apply the lessons we learn if we are to thrive in the wake of this affliction.

First, our dependence upon outsourced production of staple products deserves its fair share of scrutiny. This is not an inquiry into necessarily controlled supply lines of highly specialized products composed of exotic or delicate materials, but rather paltry, ubiquitous items such as nitrile gloves, particulate masks and hand soap. The desperate shortage of personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies should beg the question, “Is our current model of ‘just-in-time’ inventory convenient and profitable enough to justify its shortcomings?” Given the practical impossibility of maintaining adequate stock of these standard commodities, the answer appears to be a resounding “no”.

One near-term solution is to increase our inventory on-hand to cover a much greater (but still sensible) time frame, rotating as the product is consumed for standard business needs. The typical nitrile glove retains its manufactured properties on the shelf for three to five years, so product loss by way of degradation need not be a deterrent. Moreover, empowerment of domestic production and distribution of said supplies could be an effective long-term countermeasure as opposed to dependence upon an undisturbed, steady supply from overseas. This shift in priority is, of course, beyond the means of any individual or company, but may be the grounds for a worthwhile regulatory discussion. When a sense of normality is restored, we must not forget how fragile the system was, or how trivial the items were, that caused the seismic faults in our economic monolith to shudder.

A silver lining one might glean from this catastrophe is the implementation of a remote workforce. This tactic has been utilized for years primarily by tech companies that deal in digital commodities, but COVID-19 has forced organizations capable of distributed work to adopt the practice, often to great effect. Remote employees tend to perceive a greater work/life balance and reduced workplace anxiety which in-turn incites focus and creativity. Evaluation of performance gravitates toward objectively merit-based appraisal and is less influenced by superficial, often unquantifiable factors. The practice aligns with the green initiative by drastically reducing our dependence upon paper products for documents, preventing waste from disposable food and drink containers, and cutting carbon emissions from excessive commuting. According to a 2016 American Community Survey study, the average American commutes 52 minutes each day. Extrude this into roughly 200 hours per year, it begins to seem like an unconscionable waste of human time and attention; collective centuries of life squandered in traffic. It is hardly a mystery why remote workers report a greater sense of flexibility and productivity.

This pandemic has yet to run its course and its aftermath remains to be seen, but whatever the resolution we must proceed knowing that humanity will once again be held in utter thrall by infirmity. Distressingly, we now have every reason to view our response to COVID-19 as a mere dress rehearsal for the impending product of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. To remain healthy and competitive through our next encounter with a global contagion, it’s essential that we simultaneously adapt to the demands of the information age and preserve the timeless wisdom of the bygone industrial era.

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