Leaders are sticking their heads into the sand of reality on Omicron. Unless they take needed steps, the results may be catastrophic for their companies.
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33% protection from infection: that’s the effectiveness of the Pfizer two-shot vaccine against Omicron. That means Omicron is much more capable of escaping vaccines and natural immunity. Similarly worrisome results emerge from studies of Moderna and J&J.
A Pfizer booster vaccine does raise protection to about 75%. Still, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of Americans to get a booster, or even get a first vaccine dose.
The government is not taking any meaningful actions. That means companies need to take charge. Yet there’s a fundamental lack of vision about the future of work that causes companies to lose their competitive advantage.
The Omicron Wave Is Coming
Scientists strongly believe that a major winter wave of Omicron is coming in the US. That’s because of other countries where Omicron is spreading.
Our genomic sequencing is much worse than other countries with similar cultures and climates, such as the UK. It’s detecting a doubling of Omicron cases every couple of days. The UK health authority called Omicron the “most significant threat” since the pandemic began. The country already had someone die with Omicron.
The only silver lining is that Omicron, so far, appears to cause a milder illness than Delta. Yet the World Health Organization has warned about the “mildness” narrative. It noted that the unvaccinated – or those vaccinated who are older or have underlying health conditions and don’t have a booster – are still at risk for severe disease and death.
Lack of Meaningful Action
The much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, including in the US, as the Center for Disease Control warned.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action in the US. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines, which might have helped if Omicron wasn’t already detected in over half of all states. It’s exploring the possibility of Omicron-specific boosters, which would take at least three months to be approved, long after the Omicron wave sweeps over the US.
But it’s not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA has chosen to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production.
Widely-available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly and effectively. Doing so would prevent those with mild symptoms from infecting others. Yet the federal government had not made these tests available to patients when Omicron arose. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is a nearly-meaningless gesture, as this creates way too many barriers. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late for the Omicron wave.
We see even more problematic behavior at the state level. For example, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, declared “the end of the medical emergency” in a recent interview, despite the rise of Omicron.
Lack of Vision
Unfortunately, most companies are not pivoting effectively to meet Omicron.
Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements.
You probably heard the quote “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts like myself, companies are repeating the same mistakes of failing to re-envision the future of work. That’s despite numerous employees quitting because of the compulsive plans of their employers to get them back to the office as part of the Great Resignation.
Mental Blindspots Obscuring Leadership Vision
What explains this puzzling leadership behavior? Leaders – and all of us – are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet the leadership at trillion-dollar companies – and the federal government – denied the reality of this risk.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders used to office-centric culture and ways of collaborating to reject any alternatives.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of returning to the office over the competitive advantage of preparing for the long-term hybrid and remote future of work.
The way forward into the future of work is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to office-centric culture. Instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, adopt a team-led approach, where each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team determines what works best for their team. Adopt best practices for innovation, collaboration, and accountability for hybrid and remote teams. In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how you might create competitive advantage in the post-COVID future of work.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
What measures have you taken to adapt your workforce in case of an Omicron surge?
What steps will you take based on this article to address cognitive biases in your workplace?
What contingency plans do you have from the Delta wave that can be used in an Omicron surge?
Image credits: August de Richelieu
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a world-renowned thought leader in future-proofing, decision making, and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules.