EY convened a group of CEOs representing major US companies to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting businesses, employees and communities.
A number of common themes emerged during the discussion, including accessing liquidity, employee safety and planning for a new normal.
Accessing liquidity from an increasing number of sources
Securing liquidity was an early priority for many CEOs. Some expressed reservations about accessing their full lines of credit, but CEOs are evaluating whether to access the credit lines as a backup. Large company CEOs, who regularly use commercial paper, expressed optimism about emerging options, including moves by the Federal Reserve to provide backstops and easier access to credit. While these options may expand access to cash, it was noted that some programs come with conditions, such as restrictions on share buybacks.
Changing the nature of board interactions
The pace of interactions with the board has accelerated. Companies are now having weekly or biweekly board calls. Several speakers emphasized that total transparency is critical in these board discussions, especially in cases when the outlook is bleak. Some have also adopted a practice of scheduling individual outreach to select board members to complement the formal board meetings.
Protecting employees and communicating openly
CEOs acknowledged that employees are naturally concerned about safety, as well as job security, as they observe employers cutting capital and discretionary expenses. Employee communications need to be frequent and direct and should address these concerns, to the extent possible. Three specific points were raised regarding how to protect and engage with employees:
- On-site employees: Concerns have been raised by factory workers who remain on site. Remedies are still emerging, with some companies providing additional vacation days and others evaluating incremental financial compensation.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE): There was broad alignment on the need to provide protection to frontline employees, and recognition of the need to solve the immediate supply shortage for medical responders.
- Cyber attacks: Some noted the dramatic rise of phishing attacks, in the form of offers to procure masks and other types of PPE. They are now engaging their technology teams and employees to be vigilant.
Expanding scenario planning
Most CEOs stated their companies have emerged from the triage stage of the COVID-19 response and are now spending most of their time on strategic and financial scenario planning. Their collective challenge is determining the range of realistic assumptions, given the levels of uncertainty. Previously believed worst-case scenarios now appear more likely, or not conservative enough.
Sharpening a view of the new normal
Uncertain demand will be a significant issue for the foreseeable future. Some sectors, e.g., travel and hospitality, have seen sharp declines in activity as lockdowns continue to expand across states. Other sectors, however, are experiencing a surprising level of variation in their businesses — demand is plummeting for certain product lines while demand for others, including those related to medical response, is surging.
Looking ahead, companies anticipate that customer behavior will fundamentally change and significantly impact their business. In fact, 59% of the CEOs noted that customer behavior changes will have the most impact on their company’s new normal. Additionally, 19% felt that changes to the workforce and how work gets done will affect their company.
The recovery and new operating models
The shape of the recovery will also play a significant role in future planning. More than 80% said they expect a U-shaped recovery: a longer period of slower economic activity extending into mid to late 2021.
As demand recovers, leadership teams will need to re-examine their operating models, redesign their business processes and adjust accordingly. When asked to reflect on their capital agenda in 12 months, 38% said they plan to invest in core operations for continuity and growth, while another 32% chose conserving cash and capital as a main priority.
Testing and managing sites where employees test positive
It will be imperative for management teams to correctly set policies to protect employees and make certain that critical operations can continue. Several executives shared their protocols for sites where an employee has tested positive. In some cases, site leaders are reorienting the work environment, separating employees and creating a pod-like environment to minimize the number of workers in contact with each other.
Preparing for a continued global impact
Several executives called out concerns regarding the impact of the virus in India. They noted that employees there may not be as successful working from home because of infrastructure and internet limitations. They are looking now into countermeasures and new ways of working.