The sun rises through the city on a misty morning

COVID-19: How to get back to better, not just back to normal

Companies should accelerate change, not shy away from it, to better position themselves for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

In brief

  • Survey data shows that what customers are buying and how they are shopping have rapidly evolved.
  • To keep pace with a chaotic world, flexibility, resiliency and agility are essential — and innovation is the way to enable them.
  • Keep your head up, identify where you bring value and put new technologies to work. And create an environment that rewards fresh thinking.

The world has never faced so much change in such a short period of time. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has darkened our horizons, each day I see rays of hope: when up against enormous challenges, leaders are realizing that their organizations are more innovative than they thought.

That’s come as a surprise for many of them. It’s only natural for companies to feel the need to slow down when facing new obstacles — to tread more carefully along the path they chose to get to their destination. But hitting the brakes isn’t useful if you need to change directions. Ripping up the road map takes bravery and a belief in the power of your own ingenuity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a bump in the road — it’s creating an entirely different landscape. How we work, how we live and how we shop are all being fundamentally altered. While the pandemic will pass, many changes we see today, whether intensified from existing trends or altogether new, will remain with us.

Everyone wants to return to normal. But leading companies want to return to better. Through a focus on resiliency, flexibility and agility, we can achieve so much through innovation — if we don’t let the demands of today obscure the possibilities of tomorrow.

How do we get there?

Boy flying drone in living room at home

Chapter 1

The now: you’re competing in a new world

Today’s reality shows how digital transformation is a must for success. Doing innovation right delivers results, now and after the pandemic.

Related articles

    Disruptive times push you to focus on what’s most important and direct investments to those needs. Disruption can come from any direction: from changes in technology, industries, governments and societies. Now we can add “pandemics” to that list. In this environment, leading companies we spoke to are talking about increasing their investment into digital transformation and accelerating initiatives already in place. This may seem counterintuitive to some, until you consider how dramatically the landscape is changing.


    The EY Future Consumer Index spotlights the impact that this pandemic has almost instantly created: 42% of respondents said they’d change the way they’re going to shop, and 35% said they’re changing the products that they buy. I don’t think we’ve seen a moment in time where so many customers are saying, “I want you to sell to me differently” — and a third of them want something other than what you’ve been offering. This reverberates through business models, supply chains and beyond, driving the need for flexibility, resiliency and agility.


    The pandemic is also challenging people’s conventional views about office life. How much time did we spend sitting on planes and in traffic and meeting in-person? Was that time spent usefully? Some assumptions about workplaces have been suddenly turned upside down. Leading tech companies, which have historically invested a great deal in their offices and filled them with amenities, are telling employees that remote work will continue until 2021 — and perhaps beyond. Individual behaviors will be different, with a focus on building teams and functioning remotely.

    What I’ve seen within the EY organization

    Doing innovation right delivers results, now and after the pandemic. Organizations that made early investments in digital transformation are really reaping the benefits of it right now — whether internally, in enabling working from home, or customer-facing. Those underlying structures and communication pathways set the groundwork for confronting today’s reality.

    This has been the case at the EY organization. Such investments in videoconferencing and software suites have brought us closer together within our teams and also to our clients, even as we are physically far apart. EY teams have also transitioned from on-premises infrastructure to the cloud. That advantage is evident in EY Canvas, the first totally online platform in the profession, connecting EY people with clients wherever the audit occurs.

    man running up stairs towards bridge

    Chapter 2

    Next and beyond: driving resiliency, flexibility and agility

    How your organization spends its money and its time now will determine how well it’s positioned to eventually get back to normal — or better.

    For many businesses, the pandemic accelerated the pace of change, and amid so many challenges and so much uncertainty, they are learning that adapting and evolving aren’t as difficult as they may have thought. Food services companies have repurposed themselves away from supplying food to restaurants to providing home delivery to consumers. Auto manufacturers, facing much lower demand, have switched assembly lines from cars to ventilators. Fashion designers and local tailors rapidly pivoted to producing masks for frontline health care workers and community members.

    I’m seeing business leaders who are starting to say, “We’ve done the things that we never thought we could do.” This is innovation in action: the results take different forms, but the means by which you move decisively to achieve those results are enabled by people, processes and technologies that you have in place right now — or need to develop. Innovation may often be portrayed as a technological advancement, but it’s a capability that must be enabled.

    Organizations need to maintain that confidence and momentum, because as the world begins to reopen and we return to a very different version of normal, customers’ needs are going to be different and the ways to address them will be different as well. Companies need to shift their focus to be more digitalized, so they provide the platforms that can support employees, and leaders must change the focus to the customer and their evolving needs to guide them through this process.

    To meet the challenge, enable innovation and come back to better, focus on tactics to provide:

    • Resiliency: how to deal with setbacks
    • Flexibility: how to complete tasks on the fly
    • Agility: how to do them quickly

    We have developed an easy-to-use diagnostic tool that provides a methodical approach to crisis management, recovery and reinvention, addressing nine areas that not only drive business continuity now but also help reframe your organization’s future. Additionally, here are five behaviors worth pursuing now to reframe your organization’s future and transform to succeed.

    1. Keep your head up, not just down

    Now is the moment to address your customers’ changing needs and show your value in your ability to be flexible and agile — and it’s the moment where you risk falling further behind. Understandably, you and your people may have their heads down, focused on powering through immediate challenges. But it is times like these when you must keep your head up to see what’s on the horizon.

    When considering innovation, the first thing for CEOs to think about is their people. Do you have time to plan for more than just tomorrow and focus on customers’ changing needs? And how do you as a leader personally listen more and get closer to customers? When how people live and how they shop, and the things that they buy, have dramatically changed, it isn’t enough to get through today’s challenges.

    2. Identify where you really bring value

    Do your products and services still reflect customer needs and values in this changed world, or do you need to revisit your product line? This crisis is an opportunity to revisit everything from your sales practices and customer engagement to your product line and messaging to ensure it aligns with your customers. Innovation is the cornerstone to these strategies, providing the mindset around agility and flexibility.

    If your consumer research is more than 60 days old, it’s likely of little use. As our regularly updated EY Future Consumer Index shows us, 62% of global consumers tell us the way they live has changed significantly in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And they are expecting tremendous upheavals still to come: half believe the way they live will change even more over the long term.

    Meanwhile, consumer attitudes about such topics as privacy and purpose have already pivoted strongly in new directions, with social good taking precedence. For instance, 28% of respondents say they will pay more attention to what they consume and what impact it has, and over half would share their personal data to help with disease prevention.

    3. Put technology to work: a disruptive time requires disruptive capabilities

    Companies that make the investments now into AI, blockchain and advanced technologies will be the ones to move ahead. Business leaders should ask: how can I find the capital to accelerate these investments today to differentiate ourselves tomorrow? 

    For example, AI investments make employees far more effective. Not only does AI make processes faster, better and easier, it also accelerates data-driven decision-making. AI bots can process hundreds of millions of K-1s and contracts for EY clients, freeing up our people to deliver more impactful insights.

    4. Let your people fail — and then succeed

    One impactful strategy has nothing to do with what you invest in or what new platform you buy or develop. It’s providing an environment where workers can take thoughtful risks and learn from those mistakes to move forward, because people are awesomely creative, and they want to evolve.

    The COVID-19 pandemic can be the catalyst for powerful and positive change if leaders set up guardrails around innovation and help their people to focus their energy in the right direction, whether that’s a new product or an entirely different operating model. Give your teams the freedom to figure out possibilities, motivate them and offer praise when they fail fast to unleash a better organization.

    5. Continue the momentum for change in how you carry yourself as a leader

    How can leaders capture the way businesses responded to the changing needs of the customers quickly during the pandemic and keep that spirit? It can be tempting to default back into old habits in the workplace when the time comes, but you can’t lose sight and what has served you well in these turbulent months.

    Consider virtual meetings: we’re all the same-size tile, and we all have equal rights to talk. The comments tend to be in the room, not in private sidebar conversations, depending on who’s sitting next to you or who intercepts you as you walk to the break room. Having a greater number of voices in the group with different viewpoints helps drive innovative thinking: better answers and better outcomes. Do you have those voices, and are you hearing them?

    And consider how you spend your time now. I regularly traveled to conferences and meetings, where I listened to people give presentations. Can’t I do that just as well from my home? What I can’t do is re-create the dinners and coffees between presentations, where I get to know people and learn what makes them tick. Instead of spending seven to eight hours listening to presentations and two to three at informal meetings, I’m committed to dividing my time the opposite way.

    Right now, getting back to normal sounds amazing — but don’t doubt your ability to achieve more than that. Get back to better.


    Organizations that made early investments in digital transformation are reaping the benefits of it now as customer attitudes and workplace norms change. Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t lose sight of the value of innovation when considering how your organization spends its time and its resources for greater agility, flexibility and resiliency.

    About this article