The pandemic paradox: How COVID-19 has also created opportunities to improve how we do business

Jana Matthews covid-19

Australian Centre for Business Growth chair and director Jana Matthews. SOURCE: SUPPLIED

A crisis can present both danger and opportunity, and COVID-19 is no different. While the pandemic has been a dreadful experience for the global economy, and tragic for those who have lost loved ones, it has required companies to innovate at a much faster pace — and that’s a positive.

Here are three more positives that will help redefine the “new normal”.

WFH works — and will change our lives

Before the crisis, people were expected to “go to work” each day. Since the COVID-19 lockdowns, the 40+% of Australian workers, categorised as “knowledge workers”, have proven that they can easily work from home. The new normal is likely to be a combination of days in the company office, days in the home office, and some travel now and then.

Some of the flow-on effects of this mix of work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-office (WFO) will include: the numbers of cars on the road; the need for new highway construction; the frequency of people using public transport; the need for new office buildings; and a requirement for architects to design office spaces into every new home.

All these changes should have positive impacts on the environment, productivity and mental health. And fewer CO2 emissions will have a positive impact on climate change.

Good managers and fast broadband/Wi-Fi are essential

Knowledge workers have proven they CAN work from home, but two inhibitors will affect their productivity: poor management and slow broadband or Wi-Fi.

Regardless of whether people WFH or WFO, managers need to do what good managers are supposed to do: clarify what each employee is responsible for doing, what outcomes are expected, by when, who else needs to be involved, and what resources are available for them to do their work.

Every person on a sports team understands the rules of the game, what’s required to score, what positions and roles individual team members need to play, and the timeframes within which they need to score in order to win.

It’s the same with the great game of business.  People on the company team need to know what each person is expected to do, the timeframe within which they are expected to deliver, and the interdependencies and hand-offs. Managing people from a distance requires managers to be even more diligent about providing game-plans and guidelines, communicating, and clarifying roles and responsibilities for tasks and activities.

The downside to working from home is that we don’t experience non-verbal communication — the body language and interpersonal interactions that we witness when we are working in proximity to others. Communication platforms such as Zoom and Skype help and are certainly more effective than phone calls or emails alone, but regardless of the platform, clarity around the message being communicated is critical.

Clear and concise, written and verbal communication between managers and their teams provide the game-plan and expectations required for high productivity. But appropriate information technology tools and cloud-based systems enable employees to communicate with each other as well as customers, vendors, and suppliers and produce the products or services they’ve been tasked with delivering.

Additionally, if regional locations in countries, including Australia, had the same reliable speed and connectivity as cities, many people would happily move to and work from homes in these locations. Fast and reliable broadband and Wi-Fi will enable better connectivity and open up more opportunities for people to work from a home office or company office, in the city or the country.

Delivering value to customers will be paramount

People may have less money to spend, but they are still spending money. What’s changed is where they are spending it. They can’t go to restaurants and cafes, but they’re buying more groceries. They haven’t been shopping in stores, but they’re buying more, online. They haven’t been going to sporting events, but they’ve increased their spend on streaming video services.

The companies that come out of this pandemic stronger will have used the time to figure out what their customers “value” and are willing to pay for — not what they think their customers should value, but what their customers actually do value.

I have flown nearly three million miles in my career. I have a very clear picture of what a “frequent flyer” would value, and I am hoping that airlines and airports are using this downtime to reinvent and re-think their systems and configurations, so they will be able to deliver what I value.

I would value an airport with digital mechanisms to identify passengers who are unwell and not allow them to board a flight — or better yet, not enter the airport.  There will be an easy, digital check-in system that doesn’t require me to stand in long lines with lots of other people, while waiting for a ticket, or to drop off my baggage. Facial recognition or some kind of digital identification will replace the long lines for security screening or pat downs for people with artificial hips and knees. Seats in planes will be farther apart, the air circulating inside the plane will be cleaned and purified regularly, and baggage will not only be screened but digitally disinfected before being loaded or off-loaded from a plane.

These new digital systems would enable faster check-in, safer environments, and a more carefree travel experience.

The pandemic has accelerated the speed with which companies have acted on innovations they have been talking about for some time. Rethinking the customer experience and offering customers what they value will enable you to stay ahead of your competition and make customers want to buy your products instead of your competitors’.

But in addition to digital systems that support innovations, we all need high-speed internet and effective digital systems that enable us to work from anywhere, anytime. And we need leaders and managers to provide clarity around the direction, structure, measurement, and outcomes that we need to achieve — regardless of where we do the work.

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