The coronavirus pandemic arrived like a thunderbolt and the unique situations it created found many companies unprepared and disorganised. Around the world, organisations began closing as it was found their emergency planning was not up to scratch and basic functions of the company could not exist in the new world.
Now that we are half a year into the outbreak some companies are still playing catch up and many will never manage. For those who have survived and even thrived, there are plenty of lessons to take away from COVID-19 that will hopefully change the way we do business and future proof our endeavours for the inevitable coming emergencies. We discuss six of the most important business lessons we can all benefit from…
“Given the nature of the crisis, all hands should be on deck, all available tools should be used” (Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank)
1. Working from home is possible
Ever since the creation of the internet employees have been pushing for more opportunities to work from home and the vast majority of companies have been resisting it, worried that productivity would plummet or that team culture would suffer. With their hands forced many will now admit that working from home is not only possible but also saves the company money.
Some of the largest businesses in the world are leaning into the trend. Twitter and Square have both notified employees that they may work from home permanently if they choose, while Google and Facebook have extended work-from-home options through to the end of the year.
South African Business and Automation Analyst Grant Buchanan explains, “We are going to see a shift towards shorter and more flexible leases as firms realise they actually require significantly less floor space than before. There will be an emphasis on collaboration spaces and desk sharing and this is going to have an impact on the demand for commercial office space.”
2. Understand your whole supply chain
What the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that businesses do not operate in a vacuum. Your suppliers, in turn, have other suppliers and a disruption to one link in the chain can result in your whole business suffering. It has therefore never been more important to understand just who your suppliers are, how their businesses operate and just what sorts of emergencies may impact them down the line.
Knowing what to expect is half the battle won, as you cannot plan for emergencies you were not expecting. It’s easy to control the issues and items within your own company only to be let down by the actions of others.
Buchanan says it’s important to understand which suppliers you are dependent on for your most critical goods and services. Do you understand how many supply options you have, and do you have plans in place for if they fail to deliver? How capable are your service providers of delivering when they are ill, trade wars kick in, or their key suppliers hit snags? What sort of emergency procedures do they have in place to ensure you will not be negatively affected?
3. Communication and crisis planning is essential
During the scramble of early lockdown a number of companies realised there were flaws in their communication and crisis management systems.
While email works perfectly well in an environment where in-house emergencies can be dealt with on a quick walk across the office, employees at home required other solutions.
Does your company have a way to communicate with all employees quickly and efficiently without relying on email? There are many stories of IT managers breaking curfew to try to fire up servers that had frozen, resulting in significant delays.
The same goes for crisis management. How do you secure your premises and assets? How do you notify your staff? What systems are in place to protect them in the event of a catastrophic incident? And how do you minimise the damage from a future pandemic or related drama?
Leaders need to put plans in place, introduce new technology and train their staff in these new processes before they become necessary.
4. Use the available technology
It’s easy to get caught up using systems that have always been in place. In smaller businesses particularly it’s common to use manual systems for accounting, payroll and other functions, and companies that did this were badly exposed by the virus.
Many smaller, local retailers and restaurants were caught off-guard by the pandemic. Where they should have been at the ready to serve online customers, and provide delivery or curbside pickup to keep afloat, they instead took many months of lost income to get there.
Technological uptake has been phenomenal over the past few months. The need to meet up has seen collaboration apps booming with Zoom experiencing a 1,125% spike, Webex 560%, and Microsoft Teams 108%.
The trick is to take that collaboration app approach across the board, look closely at what solutions are already out there and find innovative ways to use that technology to make your business work away from your desk before the next event strikes.
5. Build relationships with your accountants, bankers and lawyers
Some people only see their accountant, lawyers or bankers during a crisis or tax season but these relationships have recently played an integral part in the survival of many companies.
The COVID-19 business rescue loans were implemented via the banking system, and banks, which are overloaded with applications, are giving first preference to their current customers. Those companies that have a good working relationship with their bankers appear to have more luck with these applications and get them processed faster due the banker’s familiarity with their accounts.
Similarly company accountants and lawyers have been working overtime helping their clients interpret the regulations for obtaining disaster loans and TERS funding, as well as guiding them on seldom-used aspects of business such as suspending rent payments, delaying vendor invoices, and chasing non-paying customers.
“Understanding our clients’ businesses has been integral over the last few months,” says Robin Gerhold of Gerhold & van Wyk Attorneys in Sandton. “Knowing the details of how they operate has allowed us to tailor solutions and secure aid much more easily, efficiently and ultimately, cheaply, than if we were coming in cold without that information”.
6. Broad-based skills are important
The tendency when hiring is to focus on getting in highly-trained niche experts for each position. The pandemic has, however, shown us that the organisations which were able to rethink their business model and pivot quickly had a much better chance of adapting to market conditions and surviving, and these organisations were also full of employees with broad skills, emotional agility and a wide range of competencies.
It is a well-known fact that companies should constantly be innovating, and the pandemic has shown us just why. Being able to shift quickly relies on an employee base of innovative and creative thinkers who are empowered by company culture to take risks and develop new ideas.
According to one of the world’s leading management thinkers and award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, organisations today, “operate within unprecedented complexity resulting from many forces including technology, globalisation, and strong competition. At present, organisations are also feeling the added impact of the COVID-19 crisis. All these pressures require companies to offer swift responses.”
However, she says, “organisations themselves can never be truly agile unless the people who work within them are agile.”
David advises hiring and rewarding out-of-the-box thinkers and supporting those who are risk-takers.
It’s impossible to ignore the difficulties of doing business in 2020. The lessons learnt this year have been hard won, but by putting them into practice, and reaching out for help when we lack the expertise, we can ensure the next set of challenges won’t be our last.