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No Way Around But Through

Daniel Saunders

Chief Executive Officer

COVID-19: Responding to THE challenges and recognising the opportunities

In just a few months, life has changed dramatically for millions of people around the world. COVID-19 is a human tragedy that will continue to affect us all long after the virus has been contained. 

“An altered way of life becomes the new normal.”

When Allianz’s Chief Economic Adviser, Mohamed El-Erian, says he expects “a huge paradigm shift for economies, institutions and social norms [leading to] unprecedented sudden economic stops,” I can only agree. Already, emergency laws have been passed and new policies have come into force, restricting travel and limiting the freedom to leave your home. Alongside acts of heroism and selflessness, a rise in racism has been reported, while conversations increasingly turn to self-isolation, stockpiling and social-distancing. Life feels quite different. 

While no one can say for sure how big of an impact the COVID-19 crisis will have, there can be no doubt that the longer it goes on, the greater its effects will be, in terms of both our perceptions and expectations as well as our wants and needs. An altered way of life is becoming the new normal. 

But, not only are we operating in a whole new environment, we’re also heading into a recession. And while it may feel uncomfortable to focus on business in the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, the reality is that COVID-19 is on course to “bankrupt more people that it kills,” which will, of course, compromise the wellbeing of a huge number of individuals and families across the country. The truth is that the wheels of the economy need to keep turning so that people can continue to earn a living, but it’s far from business as usual in these turbulent times. I’ve summarised a couple of ideas for CEOs to consider as they lead their companies through our current circumstances. 

Business model

Right now, in countries across the globe, schools have closed and mass events have been postponed. In some places, residents are confined to their homes. As I said earlier, no one knows how long these measures will be maintained, but many businesses have been left with no choice but to shut down operations. 

“Digital is not the disruptor – it is the enabler. When true disruption takes place, we have new technologies, processes and business models that enable us to continue with our lives and our work.”

We now find ourselves in a time of exceptional change and disruption to our working lives. Over the past decade, it has been hard to avoid the topic of digital disruption, but the current situation is showing us that digital is not the disruptor but the enabler. Indeed, true disruption produces new technologies, processes and business models that enable us to continue with our lives and our work. 

As you’d expect we’re seeing a spike in demand for digitally-enabled businesses, such as online grocery shopping and gaming. So, how could digital technology enable your organisation to continue trading? Is there a way to transform your product or service into a digital or digitally-enabled offering?

Or, can you see an area that is ripe for innovation or invention? How could you create a completely new revenue stream? Can you change what you are currently producing – or how you produce it? We’ve already seen perfume giant LVMH switch to the production of sanitiser for hospitals during the crisis, making use of their factories during the downturn. Things are changing incredibly fast, so it would be a mistake to think only in terms of the previous or current reality. For example, the normalisation of drone deliveries and the related legislature is likely to be expedited to help deal with the demand for home deliveries and reduction in human-to-human contact.

For some businesses, the new normal could have such a profound change on their market and consumers that there’s no way they can revert back to their previous operations after the virus subsides. For those, it’s time to consider a pivot. In every situation, there is an opportunity. The current events have necessitated office closures and employees have found themselves working from home. But working from home may also present new opportunities for self-development, while employees have the space to explore their own ideas for manoeuvring their company in new directions.  

Changing consumer behaviour 

Times of crisis lead to uncertainty, so people are postposing any large unnecessary spending or long-term commitments. They’re likely to have fears and concerns around their safety, proximity to others, future prospects and finances. It’s also likely we’ll see a change in the population age pyramid for many countries, as older generations are hit hardest and stay-at-home couples cause a spike in birth rates. All these factors, and more, will change how consumers want brands to act; our wants, needs and expectations.

At this moment, people are looking for businesses to show empathy. Now is the opportunity to show your customers you really mean what you tell them in your brand values and mission statements. Iceland, Lidl and Nationwide are operating special hours for the elderly and more vulnerable members of our society. These companies listened to customer fears over panic-buying and the vulnerable being unable to shop for fear of being in close proximity to others and took action.

Gym access app, ClassPass, is allowing customers to pause memberships and rollover credit, understanding that people are unwilling to share equipment and facilities with others at this time. As people increasingly choose to exercise at home, they are sharing content that’ll help their members get the gym experience in isolation. These measures will likely stem the number of cancellations in favour of pausing membership until they feel ready to return to the gym.

In reaction to COVID-19, it’s expected that concerns around data privacy may be relaxed. Government bodies are planning to use our data to track and identify cases of COVID-19. As the world continues to shut down and the scale of the situation dawns, it seems it’s a measure we’re more likely to approve of. What will be telling is how governments, businesses and consumers react to this level of tracking after the pandemic and whether access and our views towards privacy are also changed for the long term.

Leadership in crisis 

As the leader of an organisation, the wellbeing of our staff is paramount. Keeping your workforce safe while maintaining operations is what contingency plans are for. For some, putting work-from-home policies in place will be a first, despite many roles not requiring a physical presence. This large-scale experiment will hopefully show many CEOs the benefits of this way of working and lead to lasting change.

“Make change happen. Because when it does happen, you want to be in the driving seat.”

Thinking about how your business will operate now and in the future is incredibly important. Creating a contingency plan will allow you to clearly communicate with your teams, suppliers and customers and act quickly.

At L Marks, we immediately created internal operations and delivery policies to ensure the safety and wellness of the team and our partners, while also ensuring business and operational continuity. We are fortunate to have always operated in digital environment and developed our own processes and technology architecture that supports this way of working. The use of new technologies, financial control, positive team dynamics and creativity is ensuring that despite the disruption, business will continue.

Indeed, in every challenge lies an opportunity. There can be no doubt that operating within the new constraints will generate innovation and propel change that otherwise might never have surfaced.