• Salesforce has devised three scenarios for the next 18–36 months that organizations can use to plan their crisis response to COVID-19;
  • An interplay of uncertainties will determine when and how countries and businesses reach a next normal;
  • Understanding and leaning into these uncertainties is one way leaders can prepare for the next normal and rebuild resilience.

Uncertainty is my stock-in-trade. For nearly 50 years and most recently as the head of strategic planning at Salesforce, I’ve looked at how the future might play out, identifying critical areas of uncertainty to help businesses and government leaders navigate risk and make better decisions. In all that time, I’ve never seen uncertainty like that arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For organizations seeking to stabilize their businesses and communities and rebuild growth and resilience, the unknowns are profound. Safe reopening involves enormous questions spanning public health, the economy and society: how long will our twin health and economic crises last? When can we move from crisis mode back to work? What will the next normal look like and how can we see the signs for change early enough to act quickly when the time is right?

Salesforce is working hard to apply its products and expertise to help all of us navigate these uncertainties. We recently created Work.com, for example, which includes new technology solutions, such as contact tracing, and other resources to help businesses and community leaders around the world reopen safely, re-skill employees and respond efficiently on the heels of COVID-19.

In turbulent times, futurists often reach for a powerful tool: scenario planning. With a team of experts spanning industries and regions at Salesforce and beyond, we’ve come up with three broadly applicable scenarios for the next 18–36 months that organizations can use to plan their crisis response journey.

Mapping the crisis in three phases

As a first step, we looked at the global public health, economic and socio-political dimensions of the crisis. The situation is different for different nations and regions. Nonetheless, when and how any region or country reaches a next normal will generally depend on how the virus and economy behave there and how people respond as a society.

Next, we took those dimensions and mapped their evolution across three distinct phases. For instance, nearly every country first experienced a “losing control” phase, where the virus emerged and took everyone by surprise. Some places, such as Taiwan, responded swiftly, while others, such as North Korea and Tajikistan, took much longer to acknowledge a need for any virus suppression measures.

Nearly every country has now moved into a more structured crisis response mode, aiming to control the virus’s growth through measures like lockdowns, social distancing, border closures and contact tracing. In many places, this second “hammer” phase, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Pueyo’s influential article, has been quite successful — take New Zealand, for instance, along with Vietnam and Hong Kong. In other places, such as Yemen, there may still be a long way to go.

Critical uncertainties defining the next normal

More recently, a third “reopening” phase has started to take shape as countries seek to safely end shutdowns, stabilize economies, and hasten growth. In our model — again following Pueyo — we refer to this phase as “the dance” because it will likely involve us doing the quickstep with the disease, reopening but then potentially shutting down to keep infections under control. Already, we’re seeing wide variations in some of the places looking to reopen. In the UK, for example, along with some US states, infection curves have not yet been hammered down. In others where the virus has been suppressed, the risk remains that it will reappear.

This third phase is what will give shape to the next normal. To understand what that might look like, we worked to identify seven critical uncertainties that have emerged along with the virus. For example:

  • How timely and effective will suppression be?
  • Will healthcare capacity cope with the peak and beyond?
  • How will we go back to work, within and across countries?
  • How quickly and broadly will the economy recover?
  • What are the economic costs of the shutdown and how successfully will they be mitigated?

Three paths to the future

Crucially, it’s the interplay of these uncertainties that will determine when and how a country reaches a next normal. Analysing that interplay, three different paths to the future emerge, each representing a crisis of a different depth and duration.

Image: Salesforce

1. The most optimistic scenario assumes that things go mostly right: people maintain social distancing, the virus does not return later in the year, immunity persists and economic policy is effective. Re-opening begins in mid-summer, allowing a path to the next normal to begin by spring 2021 and a vaccine arrives enabling the economy to return to growth

2. In the second scenario, the virus persists and a second wave resurgence in the winter requires another lockdown, causing a much more severe economic recession. A vaccine is available by mid-2021, signalling reopening and steps toward the next normal.

3. In the most pessimistic scenario, the virus resurges in a giant second wave, as large as what we’ve seen in the worst-hit areas to date. The lengthy lockdown that is required leads to a long and deep recession with profound societal impact. With no vaccine becoming available, no new normal arrives. Instead, a “COVID normal” emerges, with continuing waves of the virus, persistent economic uncertainty and deep societal unrest.

Business and government leaders can use the axes we have developed in our scenario planning materials, layering in details of local dynamics and policies in response to each of our seven critical uncertainties, to help them think through how the next normal may play out in their specific situations.

Designing a better future

Leaning into uncertainty is one way leaders can prepare for the next normal. We have a unique opportunity to learn from this pandemic and intentionally design a better future.

During the crisis we’ve already started reinventing how we work, learn, shop, socialize, operate our health systems and even govern through innovative technologies that allow us to operate remotely. What more can we do remotely, so we don’t have to travel halfway around the world for a one-hour meeting? How can we rethink our supply chains to make them more resilient in the face of disruptions like this pandemic? There are so many interesting questions to explore.

To make those sorts of changes, however, companies will need the enabling foundation of a digital transformation. They will also need increased openness to dealing with ongoing uncertainty and change. Those that undergo that transformation and are willing to think creatively and adapt will be in a stronger position to succeed in the next normal.