After months of talking about boundaries in 2019, and the urgent need for people to set them, Future Commerce declared that 2020 would be the year of boundary-setting.

“Having set boundaries,” I wrote in January, “is good for everyone.”

Little did any of us know just how predictive that declaration would be. Coronavirus has forced us all to live within a new set of boundaries, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. (Also coincidentally that may have been the year the last Strokes album came out - The New Abnormal took about 102 years to be released, and yes you should have a listen). 

These boundaries have forced new ways of co-existing at work, of communicating through Zoom or Slack (or other socially distanced platforms) almost entirely. We may abide by these new boundaries because they keep us safe, but they’re not of our choosing. 

Throughout Insiders #021, I urged brands to find ways to listen to their consumers, to figure out how to identify when enough was enough, and accept that reality. Right now, all businesses must find ways to work within a new set of limitations imposed on us by the existence of a global pandemic. For many companies, this means smashing the limits they’ve once set and insisted upon.

Consider the whole notion of working from home. Many management teams refused to entertain the idea of a remote workforce for one reason or another.

Those managers had their reasons, of course: Would employees actually get their work done? How can people collaborate if they’re not in the same room? How will that impact innovation? Is it fair to employees who must come to a facility, like a warehouse, in order to get their jobs done? Wouldn’t the entirety of our business fall apart if employees didn’t have to commute?

For these companies, disallowing remote work was a hard and fast rule, a boundary that applied across the entire workforce, with little room for exception. Then a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) came along, and these companies were ordered out of their comfort zones by their local governors. And employees are proving that working remotely is both feasible and can deliver results. Collaborating on Zoom is proving useful to many teams, and work is getting done, somehow.

Rather than stifling innovation, we see, as Fortune points out, this fast-tracking of the digital transformation by COVID-19, actually has business far outpacing the benchmarks previously set. 

The genie has been let out of the bottle, it will be interesting to see if it can (or should) be forced back in.

And beyond new WFH policies, there are some other business-based-boundaries that COVID-19 seems to have blown out of the water. 

Role-Based Boundaries Smashed 

Recently, I’ve had conversations with a surprising number of companies whose CEOs have left their corner offices to fulfill orders in their warehouses. These folks are literally grabbing products from the shelves, stuffing them into boxes, printing mailing labels, and shipping them off to their customers.

It’s pretty typical for leaders to jump into the trenches with their rank and file employees to spend a day of learning and solidarity. But that’s not what’s happening today. Entire leadership teams - of nationally known brands - are in the warehouse living the grind, day after day for weeks on end. 

Interestingly enough, they don’t want to make their work public.

For companies that are seeing significant losses- such as fashion brands - the leadership team is doing this manual labor because they’ve had to furlough employees and, well, there’s no one else to ship stuff to customers. For others, like fitness companies, business is booming, and the company needs all hands on deck to help get packages out the door (as of recently, eCommerce sales of weight training equipment is up 307%).

(As a side note, while fashion and luxury brands are seeing a decline, many of these brands are on the front line of helping with COVID-19 relief, we interviewed Rhone to hear all about how Brands x Better is raising over a million dollars to help in the fight ) 

I can’t reveal the names of the companies whose leadership teams now spend their days in the warehouse, but I promise you that you have heard of them. And the phenomenon is more widespread than you might imagine. Even companies larger than mom-and-pop stores have been required to smash the [role-based] boundaries of “who does what” and how they do it in order to survive, and that often means directors and above must fulfill orders and answer customer service calls.

I will respect each company’s request for silence of course, but I think it’s a mistake. 

Here’s why: layoffs hurt, and when they’re on the scale that we’re experiencing now, they’re terrifying. With each new round comes the fear that we, or our loved ones, could be next. Layoffs beget layoffs as businesses and consumers stop spending in response to a shrinking economy. Consumers are also responding to this cycle by lashing out at CEOS who’ve had to furlough employees.

Just look at the way Michael Preysman, CEO of Everlane, has been excoriated for furloughing 42 of its remote part-time customer experience team members without notice.

Dismissed Everlane employees said they were “devastated beyond measure” as they faced the prospect of finding replacement work in an economy that’s largely shut down. Recently they’ve launched an Everlane Customer Service Relief Fund GoFundMe page.

Influential voices noted that the part-timers were in the midst of organizing a union and accused Everlane of using the pandemic as an excuse to union bust. Senator Bernie Sanders even called the layoffs morally unacceptable.

Everlane responded to this criticism on social media, but it’s hard to win these kinds of PR battles with tweets. 

Rather than tweeting, Everlane could change the narrative by following the example of the companies I’ve been speaking with. If furloughing its part-time customer service reps was inevitable, Michael and his team could have demonstrated the gravity of the situation by publicly setting themselves on the frontline of their business. This would prove to their former employees and customers that the layoffs were truly a last resort.

And there’s something that needs to be said about leadership during this invisible war. 

Leadership Changes with Circumstances

There are times when a general can lead from afar, and times when he or she needs to be right there on the front line. 

Knowing where to be, and when, is the mark of a good leader. When employees -- and former employees -- are experiencing pain, a good leader jumps into the thick of things. Every crisis contains lessons, and we are all reminded now that leadership looks completely different in times of crisis than it does when things are normal. 

In a healthy economy, no one would expect company leadership to shelve strategy development or product innovation in order to work in a warehouse for weeks on end. But when massive numbers of employees are furloughed, management needs to get out of their offices and help their essential employees make it through the day. Working side-by-side in a physically demanding or emotionally taxing job for a month or two will have the added benefit of transforming how management views a great many of their essential employees. 

It’s kind of like the way parents, struggling to homeschool their children, say teachers should make a billion dollars a year

Empathy grows when we’re forced out of our comfort zones.

So that forces the question: what’s next?

Will Forced Boundaries Last Forever?

Coming into the New Year, I thought boundary-setting could be the exercise in the discipline we all needed to increase longevity and durability. We started January with the opportunity to place smart, well-conceived limitations on our businesses; by March, we had another, far more rigid set forced upon us. 

As we progress out of this phase and into whatever uncertain future lies ahead, we’ll need to ensure we take the time to review what limits need to be reinstated, and which liberties we should embrace for the long term. 

I suspect that we’ll find many of these newfound freedoms are beneficial in the long-term. 

Few companies, for instance, can legitimately claim that working from home is untenable, and some may be forced to yield to employee demand for flexibility. Perhaps many will see real value in reconsidering their policies, as the costs of office rent and connecting to the Internet shift to employees. And due to the amount of time leadership is spending in the trenches, companies may begin to shift their view on wages for warehouse and customer service staff as they further discover the value of best-in-class essential frontline staff. 

We raised a lot of questions in January regarding the pace of business going into the new decade and the right method for establishing priorities, and the boundaries that companies  themselves needed to set. 

Here we are just a little more than a business quarter later, and it’s time to hit the reset button over again. This is a changing world and due to this pandemic we are all being forced to adapt. 

We should be prepared to reset and re-adapt many times in the next 18 months ahead.