Corporate governance in times of COVID

| March 17, 2021

This is an edited summary of Carla Christofferson’s keynote address presented at the ‘A Vision for Australia 2020’: GAP Virtual Summit on National Resilience.’

Ms Christofferson discussed life under COVID-19 in the United States and the ways her company responded to maintain productivity and worker welfare. In common with NSW Health, DXC took a centralised approach to rethinking its operations and created a command centre. As a technology firm, it was well placed to encourage virtual working, and 95% of its employees were working from home within a week.

The firm’s new head of asset protection had recently written a paper on pandemic preparation for a prominent think tank and was well placed to lead the company’s mitigation strategy. The company documented its buildings to control access and protect the health of employees, for example, and brought an infectious disease expert on staff to brief executives on developments every week.

The company offered resources to employees, and prioritised communication, as well as hiring another medical specialist on the psychological effects of man-made and natural disasters. This specialist has given in-depth online presentations to staff around the world to help them understand normal human reactions to crisis and offered psychological coping strategies.

Managers underwent additional training to recognise signs of stress in their staff, as the cumulative long-term mental effects of the pandemic may outweigh the immediate impact of the disease itself.

Company leaders issued videos during Mental Health Awareness Week offering personal tips to stay healthy, and these and other messages are a crucial part of helping employees feel cared for. These measures have minimised the physical and mental impact of the pandemic on DXC employees, and home working has not affected productivity.

The health and economic impact of COVID-19 on the USA has been much greater, and the failure of federal and state governments to properly address the crisis is clear. Over 230,000 Americans had died by early November, with more than 9 million cases in total and another 100,000 cases being confirmed every day.

While the USA’s lack of a centralised, coordinated response contrasts with Australia today, it aligns with America’s mixed reaction to Spanish Flu in 1918. That pandemic also provoked furious arguments about the right balance between public health and personal freedom, with various cities and states taking sharply different approaches and people jailed in different places for both wearing and not wearing a mask.

The USA’s greatest strength is its love of personal freedom and independence, but this has proved a weakness in the current health crisis. California imposed a swift and complete lockdown which remains in force, but the borders between states remain open, allowing the virus to spread.

The Federal government prioritised the economy over public health, but the extend of the pandemic means the real economy is still struggling. President Trump’s initial refusal to concede the election exacerbated tension and uncertainty, and the new President may struggle to unite a divided nation.

Australian success and American failure in the fight against COVID-19 demonstrate the need for strong leadership and a centralised approach in times of crisis, and DXC has managed to protect its employees by embracing this approach.