Beyond protect and survive in times of Covid-19

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The first duty of any business leader in a crisis is to safeguard their people. The second? Ensure the company survives. But every business facing the current Covid-19 pandemic is also having to consider what happens next. And that means making intelligent choices about new ways of working.What's really striking when you talk to business leaders about the current pandemic is the fact that most of them are looking for ways to change their organisations permanently. It's not just the mantra of "we shouldn't just go back to the way it was before." The sheer scale of business dislocation has opened the door to new ideas in a way that 'normal' business evolution would never have allowed.

Let’s be clear: the primary goal of decision-making in the early phase of the pandemic has been to protect the lives of employees, customers and other stakeholders. We’ve seen new policies to allow for social distancing; technology solutions to facilitate working from home; and emergency plans to see businesses through a sharp reduction (and, for a handful, a sharp rise) in activity.

But handled properly, the actions to get businesses through the lockdown are potential long-term game-changers. Conversely, the pandemic has shown many people that today’s investments need to do more than just deliver operational improvements, boost innovation or effect efficiency gains. They ought to make an organisation more resilient to disruption.

What we’ve been seeing so far is the first three stages of a process to bring businesses through the pandemic. These are laying the foundation for a fourth stage – although few businesses are quite there yet.

Stage one: React

Almost all the business leaders we’ve been speaking to had been rightly focused on business continuity, moving to home-working and protecting assets. Some of the efforts have been incredible – shifting thousands of workers overnight to remote operations, for example.

The requirements for the reaction phase varied hugely between industries. In travel, for example, there was a huge spike for call centre traffic as businesses faced an immediate halt to activity… then interactions dropped off completely. In consumer electronics? There was a more sustained volume of consumer interactions (with activity actually growing after the reaction phase as people spend money to stay entertained at home).

For many businesses, supply chain was the focus of the react phase. Consumer demand turned on a dime, and suppliers, including their offshored outsourcing partners, suddenly became unreliable thanks to their own lockdowns.

Some organisations were in a better position when the pandemic struck, with solid work-from-home processes and supporting technology already part of business-as-usual. Where processes allowed, they could also roll out automation projects quickly to lighten the load on dislocated staff as demand increased. As one exec put it, “The best time to do automation was a year ago; but the second best time is now.”

For others, the work-from-home and tech solutions instantly shifted from a pre-pandemic “we know we need to do it” to a lockdown era “imagine if we’d got on and done it”.

Stage two: Respond

Covid-19, then, has pushed organisations to radically greater agility and faster decision-making – and they’ve needed systems and attitudes (the human factors are critical) to support that new immediacy. The response phase has been about emerging from survival mode.

In ‘react’, the equation was simple: the risk of a new process or system not being perfect was far outweighed by the reality that without a fast solution, you’re out of business. Some of the traditional caution has taken a back seat to keeping the lights on. Home-working, automation, cloud telephony, self-service – these were all on the radar for most businesses for three or four years, but they lacked urgency. In the last two months – it’s not been an option. Data security? Productivity? Interoperability? These traditional checks were less important than business continuity.

‘Response’ is more rational: how do we know it’s working? Is it secure for our data and supportive to our people? Where do projects go now and how will that help us? What else do we invest in?

Nursing the cash runway through cost control has been a big part of that. We hear people asking, what projects must we stop now to preserve cash, given 2020 is a washout and you need a decent 2021? It’s making the notion of ‘investment’ an interesting one – and changing a lot of ideas about what ‘ROI’ means. The response must deliver solutions, but balance them against financial reality.

Stage three: Reimagine

But those questions – and the realisation that the world has changed in some fundamental ways – mean that most business leaders we’ve been speaking to are visualising what a new, post-pandemic, version of their business looks like, too.

They’re looking for ways to address processing backlogs and delayed onboarding, for example; but they’re also re-evaluating property, facilities, security and automation programmes – and other building-blocks of their organisations.

Many businesses have been drawn to solutions that they already know and that are proven. For example, cloud document handling is a no-brainer. It’s smart to accelerate an intelligent OCR project because it both addresses a current need and gets you ready for a new future.

Blockchain? That’s a little different. It might be part of the resilience for the next crisis – which people know they need to take seriously. But looking for reliable tools to re-design people, processes and systems around the vivid changes to business models, demand and society is the key.

Most companies accept there will be permanently higher levels of working from home. But that’s not just about social distancing. It’s partly down to productivity increases businesses have seen during the lockdown. How well those stick will depend on the robustness and effectiveness of the tech solutions that support them, as well as how functions such as HR and supply chain can be reimagined.

There’s one other building block for a new model: preparedness for the next crisis. Companies contemplated natural disasters, sites becoming unusable or fail-over plans for the ERP system in business continuity planning (BCP). But we’ve learned what true ‘business disruption’ looks like in this pandemic – not competition from a new rival, an office fire or an innovative technology, but existential and universal threat.

Smart business leaders are reimagining operations with radical agility baked in. The questions to risk managers and CHROs are very different now compared to three months ago. We need to look at the needs of employees to undertake the longer term projects – not just sustained working from home with the resultant requirement for VPNs or bandwidth, but restarting or accelerating projects that were delayed when lockdown bit.

Stage four: Reinvigorate

Can we imagine a brighter future in the post-pandemic world? It’s far from clear how the global recession will play out once things stabilise. But the rapidly accelerated adoption of new policies, processes and technologies in 2020 does create a platform for new and successful approaches to business and society.

Consumer demand is going to be a driver here, with more appetite for digital interactions rather than in-person – from doctor’s offices to coffee shops. That’s going to put the focus on process design and technology – and those new approaches needs to be fit for purpose, whether it’s around internal management concerns such as HR or facilities; or meeting fluctuating consumer demand via digital channels.

The risk profiles for workers has changed – where you can’t virtualise operations, it’s going to be a case of minimising risk around locations. But work-from-home could also reinvigorate businesses. For example, staff attrition has always been a huge issue for any call centre. New working practices and intelligent automation could radically alter negative connotations for those employees.

Despite the tragic consequences of the pandemic in lives and economic activity, it has served to sharpen thinking around a series of people, process and technology questions that have been, to some extent, avoidable before now.

Today, there is a burning platform. People who might have been reluctant to commit fully to automation projects, for example, are now seeing them as viable solutions to the lockdown challenge and beyond. They’ve also begun to realise that the decisions they take will shape many aspects of businesses, not just for the remainder of the pandemic – but for years to come.

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