New York has the ways and means, but just won’t let you be

How is the New York (NY) corporate world coping with COVID 19? According to my NGS NY colleague, the city is hardly recognizable and not for reasons you expect.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” – Winston Churchill

New York City, the largest and most densely populated city in America, has been home and place of business to Larry Fraser, NGS managing partner for 30 years.

He says it has always been a place of extremes, creativity, contradiction and wonder.   Living in the Age of Covid-19 is no exception. This is his view.

A typical New York kind of evening

Each night, at 7:00pm, from his terrace, I look west, seeing faces I’ve never seen before, now familiar. He listens as the city’s stillness is broken by the swell of cheering, bells ringing, horns blowing, and those ordinary citizens bang on pots and pans and wave, expressing gratitude for the health care workers and first responders.

After that dies down, he walks into his kitchen, opens the window and looks north up Broadway.

There’s a crowd of more than 100 strong, mostly socially distanced, gazing at a building that is home to Brian Stokes Mitchell, a powerful baritone singer and one of Broadway theatre’s central leading men since the 1990s, well known for his rendition of ‘The Impossible Dream’ from Man of La Mancha.

After being stricken with the Corona virus, Brian survived serious illness and hospitalisation.  

A few minutes after 7pm, he sings his very own “Impossible Dream” through his window at full opera/Broadway tilt to express his gratitude to those who saved him and the city he calls home.  

I can clearly hear him and the thunderous ovation that follows from two blocks away, while the police flash their lights down below.

My family and I are amazed that in a time of such peril and uncertainty, there is still beauty in the world, and the forces that could tear a community apart appear to be increasing our resolve to stick together.  The desire to connect is alive and well!

These amazing scenes are being played out against the backdrop of a city that is hardly recognisable. Traffic is down 69% overall, and 84% in my neighbourhood.

Tuesday 4/28/20, 9:00am. New York’s workforce scattered, and the lifeblood of tourism, ceased for now.  

New York accounts for 40% of the country’s COVID 19 cases

The “Stay at Home Order” for New York State began on March 22nd, 2020.  At that time, NY State had 7,100 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed.  Today there are 313,000 cases, out of approximately one million cases throughout the US.  

Neighboring New Jersey has 120,000 cases of its own.  This means more than 40% of cases in the U.S are in the New York Metro area.  

Lastly, of the 56,000 deaths nationally, over 24,000 are in New York State.  

“I cannot  overstate how psychologically, not just physically, pervasive the virus has been in this area.

The news is now improving with each day as both the number of new infections and deaths is decreasing.


The re-imagining of a “new” New York is now taking place

New York will re-open more slowly than many other states, according to New York Govenour Andrew Cuomo.

He says, "We've been talking about re-opening the state and re-imagining a new New York. To do that we're going to have to make governmental decisions in partnership with business.

"Every business leader understands that we can't just re-open and go back to where we were and what we were doing before. We have to move forward in light of the circumstances that have developed.

“We are going to re-open the economy in phases, based on regional and specific industry determinations and CDC guidelines. In the midst of all this, we will continue to monitor the public health impact otherwise all the progress we made by flattening that curve, we could lose in a matter of days if we're not careful."

The Re-imagine/Re-Open Phases:

Phase one will include opening construction and manufacturing functions with low risk.

Phase two will open certain industries based on priority and risk level. Businesses considered "more essential" with inherent low risks of infection in the workplace and to customers, will be prioritised, followed by other businesses considered "less essential" or those that present a higher risk of infection spread. As the infection rate declines, the pace of reopening businesses will be increased.

The region must not open attractions or businesses that would draw a large number of visitors from outside the local area.

There will be two weeks in between each phase to monitor the effects of the re-opening and ensure hospitalisation and infection rates are not increasing.

This plan will be implemented with multi-state coordination, especially in downstate New York. It will also coordinate the opening of transportation systems, parks, schools, beaches and businesses with special attention on summer activities for downstate, public housing and low-income communities, food banks and child care.

The phased re-opening will also be based on individual business and industry plans that include new measures to protect employees and consumers, make the physical work space safer and implement processes that lower risk of infection in the business. The state is consulting with local leaders in each region and industry to formulate these plans.

Insights from financial services executives

As a result of his discussions with many financial services senior leaders during the last few weeks, I have been privy to the emergence of the first few re-imagining trends.

Notwithstanding the enormous support of the governmental interventions in financial markets, which is for now holding up asset prices, almost all of the executives I spoke with, foresee a prolonged recession.

But every one of these leaders, without exception, suggested a narrative about how the crisis creates a chance to gain market share, get closer to customers, innovate and take creative risks.

They believe it has the opportunity to make business more efficient and they describe it as a period of “mettle testing” and professional development.  

No one seemed happy about this terrible situation, but like most things in life it’s what you make of it that matters most.  

People can work from home and be very productive (in-person meetings are now considered over-rated).  

All of the executives I spoke to, do not expect to resume full occupancy of offices until there is a credible treatment plan and/or vaccine.

Plans are being hashed out for staggered work force returns, new commuting patterns, continued working from home, and the reality that home life and work life is getting further blurred.  

Many executives said they have a heightened awareness of co-workers home lives since they literally see their homes on video, as their staff navigate child care and other mundane aspects of day-to-day living that were not in open view before now.

Almost every executive said they have communicated more frequently, and on a broader range of topics with their CHRO or Human Resource leader, than before the crisis.  

The trend toward digitising financial services just hit a higher gear.  Technological innovation is accelerating at the time when customer (consumer and business) behavior is changing fast and perhaps permanently.  This trend would seem to be broadly applicable across industries.

Increasing globalisation is no longer a universal assumption.   This raises more questions than it answers though. Will this last couple of years be a temporary blip, or have we seen the apex of global travel, technology partnership, coordinated monetary policy and relative peace amongst the largest economies with the biggest standing armies?  

As a firm that thinks globally about our clients and their businesses, this is a trend worth watching.

My own observation is whatever were one’s challenges as a person, family or company going into this crisis, Covid-19 puts a spotlight and pressure on those issues.  

The healing process will deliver a stronger outcome

There is no direct analog for this crisis in other major down markets/recessions.  The causes, the damage, and  I suspect the healing process, will be somewhat different.  But history does clearly show that things will improve over time, and the best way to be prepared for an improved operating environment, is to be proactive in helping others.

At NGS, we are totally committed for the long haul to our clients, candidates, and community.   Like everyone, we are writing the script on the fly, though trial and error on how we can use our resources to add value in this unprecedented time.  

I would welcome a chance to discuss some of our key learnings and observations so we can prepare for the ascent back up the mountain together.

Wishing you peace and safety.

Larry Fraser



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Larry Fraser