COVID-19 as a Catalyst for Change


Power of Ideas

COVID-19 as a Catalyst for Change

Charlie Scharf
Charlie Scharf
(CEO, Wells Fargo)

"Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

Business leaders have spent the last few years talking about and preparing for the future of work. Unexpectedly, the workforce changed to an extent and scale never contemplated in a span of 14 days in March. We saw millions of Americans transition from offices to remote working overnight and millions of Americans lose their jobs as businesses shuttered. As a result, we have gone from thinking theoretically—and with the benefit of time—about the future of work to needing to quickly prepare for the return to work—in a future that is uncertain. Suddenly, the future of work is now.

This is a time for business leaders to think and act boldly about the changes we need.

Cultural and business norms have been upended amid an environment that demands an accelerated pace of innovation. At my own company, I am seeing customer adoption and use of technology rapidly accelerate, from mobile banking to online customer service.

The speed at which companies have pivoted their business models to provide life-altering products and services has been awe-inspiring. And as much as we have adjusted in the last 10 weeks as a nation, more of this agility and innovation will be needed to imagine the future.

I have been a major proponent of the Business Roundtable’s “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” and there is a renewed need for businesses to operate with all constituents in mind. Faced with this monumental challenge, we need to double down. But how we do this has unequivocally changed. Delivering value to our customers and investing in our employees takes on significant new meaning. My leadership team and I spend considerable time contemplating the following questions, among others:

  • How can we promote safety and safeguard our employees and customers?

  • How can we create a collaborative office environment with social distancing?

  • How quickly can we pivot and adjust to new scientific insights and health-care precautionary measures?

  • What will customers want in the new normal?

  • What investments in digital technology should we accelerate to meet the explosive tech adoption trends we are experiencing?

The speed at which companies have pivoted their business models to provide life-altering products and services has been awe-inspiring. And as much as we have adjusted in the last 10 weeks as a nation, more of this agility and innovation will be needed to imagine the future.

I am convinced that the change starts with us. Business leaders must be more prescient than ever. We must take a fresh approach with our actions and behaviors:

  • Active Listening: We must listen to the advice of medical experts as well as feedback from customers and employees and return employees to the office only when required external and internal factors have been met. What is vitally important is ensuring that employees and customers not only return to a safe environment but that they feel safe, too.

  • Leveraging Innovation and Technology: Examples surround us on how technology is being leveraged to improve our quality of life during the pandemic. At Wells Fargo, we are seeing a majority of our consumer customer interactions happen through our digital channels and increasingly through mobile. Customers want simple and fast experiences, the ability to move money in real time, and access to the information and services they need, at the right moment, wherever they are. I see digital adoption rates accelerating during this time. For instance, the amount of money Wells Fargo customers are depositing using mobile deposit was up 81 percent from a year ago (April 2019 to April 2020). I expect this trend to continue.

  • Emphasizing Collaboration: Increasingly, companies are setting aside usual competitive instincts to collaborate for everyone's benefit. As organizations move to reopen their operations, they are sharing best practices about operational and communication changes to keep workers and customers safe. We have seen this through websites that aggregate various advice and insight by economic sector. We also have seen technology companies and health companies, which ordinarily compete fiercely for customers, working together on innovations to help the greater good. It is collaboration for the common good.

  • Operating with Empathy: With the new day-to-day challenges brought by this pandemic, life for many has become overwhelming. It is increasingly important to promote empathy—for your employees, for your community, and for your customers. As we contemplate the best way to collectively navigate this crisis, it is critical to lead with empathy, kindness, and compassion. And we see it taking root in many forms. We see it in news coverage of health-care workers praised as America’s heroes, random acts of kindness, and the volunteer initiatives led by community and business leaders such as Chef José Andrés’ work to feed those in need. I believe this incredible display of empathy and kindness is not fleeting; it is here to stay and inform how we make decisions.

The depth of human generosity has never been greater. We can rise to the occasion, but routine practices and a business-as-usual mindset will not solve the formidable challenges before us. Staying true to a broad base of constituents and understanding how we as leaders must adapt will lay the foundation for the new roads we will pave together.

Published May 27, 2020