Flexibility is your best weapon to limit the damage from unforeseen, unexpected change

This is true at all levels and in all sectors, not just healthcare

How should we react best as a society, business or individual to the many challenges that the coronavirus poses? The extent of the impact is being felt in terms of health, but clearly also in the economy and society. We are exploring new forms of communication and rolling them out at an accelerated speed. We are redesigning and rationalising the range of employees’ tasks because of the slowing economy. Our healthcare system is shifting further into crisis mode. Flexibility is the most important key theme here, irrespective of the change or the level at which the change is introduced.

Flexibility is not a new concept: we use it to try to implement a chosen strategy. Slack and Lewis (2002) describe flexibility as an operational measure of performance, alongside cost, quality, speed and reliability. Furthermore, they distinguish between

  1. volume flexibility as the extent to which you can change the volume of products and services,
  2. delivery flexibility as the extent to which you can adjust the time of production or service provision, 
  3. mix flexibility as the extent to which the mix of products and services on offer can be varied, and
  4. product and service flexibility as the extent to which you can develop new products or services.

Especially in the healthcare sector, we are currently seeing a lot of measures and decisions that fit within the concept of operational flexibility. For example, we are constantly preoccupied with ‘flattening the curve’. That means that we are trying to slow down the demand for coronavirus care and spread it better over time. That may help to reduce the peak consumption of limited but crucial resources such as ventilators and make the peak more easily manageable (delivery flexibility). This is also a way to gain time to adapt hospital wards for coronavirus patients, or to increase the capacity of the intensive-care units (volume flexibility). Hospitals are also reducing their non-essential care to anticipate the impact of the coronavirus better (mix flexibility). Healthcare institutions – along with other companies – are starting to produce their own protective equipment such as the sought-after face masks, or they are looking for ways to sterilise them and prepare them for reuse (product and service flexibility). Note that the scope of operational flexibility as a response to the challenges posed by the coronavirus is not limited to healthcare institutions and providers. Many companies and workers are looking for suitable adjustments to the workplace to be able to be of value to society as best they can.

However, aiming for flexibility also means that we are probably performing less strongly in other areas. For example, flexibility is often linked to higher costs. If you want to achieve functional flexibility, for example, you need to train your staff to do multiple tasks. Besides cost, efficiency is another area that often suffers. Expensive, specialised tools are underused. Utilising mix flexibility also results in major inactivity for specific services, which will lead to increased costs and may also mean that the pattern of healthcare after this crisis will not be the usual one. As a result, from an economic perspective, decisions made today also have a considerable opportunity cost, which will ultimately play out in the financial health of many organisations and companies.

Time plays a role, and sustaining efforts throughout this period is a challenge, both financially and with regard to employees. After all, if we succeed in flattening the demand for care effectively, it will not just mean that the peak is lower. If we consider the issue in statistical terms for a moment, the tails of how the demand for healthcare is distributed will also be larger. In other words, the period of intense effort will last longer, with a higher likelihood of absenteeism for both physical and mental reasons.

Protecting workers’ resilience will be very important in order to face up to the increased and changed burden of work. Here we should not confuse the burden of work – the objective quantity of work you need to do – with pressure of work. Pressure of work is a result of the balance – or imbalance – between the burden of work and individual resilience, and so it may be experienced differently by different workers in the same circumstances. However, this pressure of work is what will result in the absenteeism due to physical and mental complaints mentioned earlier. The higher their resilience, the more likely workers are to experience the pressure of work as feasible.

Motivating workers generally falls within the scope of human resources, with a varied range of measures being developed to support them. You might think of concepts such as self-scheduling or clear career paths that offer perspectives for the future. The situation today is revealing that there may be even more possibilities. That is why all the activities to show appreciation that we see appearing in our streets, on social media and in the traditional media are very important. What is more, anticipating the concerns of healthcare workers, whether great or small, will strengthen individual resilience and motivation. Access to structured, high-quality childcare, a telephone helpline for healthcare workers or efficient access to food without the stress of empty supermarket shelves are all small miracles in their own right. My thanks to everyone – in the healthcare sector and beyond – who is adopting a flexible attitude and working for the greater good.


  • Slack N. and Lewis M. 2002. Operations Strategy. Pearson Education.
  • Schoonaert L., Cardoen B. and Gemmel P. 2018. Flexibel werken in ziekenhuizen: OM en HRM perspectief. Vlerick Business School – Healthcare Management Center Working Paper, 42 p.

Interested in more insights on how to cope with turbulent times?

Discover the learning lessons and expertise from our faculty on how to adapt to this new reality.

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times