Facing the New Normal
An online summit revealed how businesses must think smart to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus lockdown restrictions may be easing but that doesn’t mean life is about to return to normal. To begin with nobody knows what “normal” means, feels or even looks like after more than three months of enforced confinement, which means that for the majority of companies surviving a post pandemic world will be even harder. Although most businesses have already opened their doors or are preparing to do so, many will have to radically change the way they operate to protect their customers from the risk of infection.
For example, England’s pubs and restaurants which re-opened in early July, will now have to register customers for contact tracing, while bars may be forced to impose limits on the number of people they serve. For a hospitality sector struggling to get back on its feet, the rules are another layer of pressure to add to a growing list of agonies. Uncertainty isn’t much help either. Will eating out be affordable if Coronavirus leads to a recession far worse than the great depression of the 1930s? How many pubs will go under because they can’t allow as many people through their doors as they had in the past? Fears about the restrictions, the impact they could have on customer behaviour and their potential to hollow out the corporate bottom line, is something all businesses are having to come to terms with. Some have acted pre-emptively by freezing or cutting the pay of their workers, or making furloughed staff redundant. That might keep the wolf from the door in the short term, but it might not be enough further down the road. To survive a crisis as severe as Coronavirus means businesses must start thinking and acting differently.
Getting businesses to operate in ways that are innovative and outside their normal comfort zones, was one of the reasons why the international agency Speakers Associates, which represents some of the world’s leading thinkers, held a recent online Recovery Summit. The week-long event drew on the talents of over 70 key figures – among them Olympian Lord Sebastian Coe and Nobel Laureate Professor Mohammed Yunis – covering a range of connected disciplines including economics, politics, advertising, sport and leadership. Constructive thinking was on offer, not a cure all magic bullet, underpinned by the message that it’s possible to find business opportunities even in the depths of a crisis.
The summit’s main objective was to encourage smart or out of the box thinking, examples of which had been on display at the height of the pandemic. Who can forget the heart-warming response to the shortage of emergency equipment for front line health workers? While some companies adapted their production lines to manufacture medical scrubs, hand sanitiser and other vital equipment, enterprising members of the public made face masks on sewing machines set up in their living rooms. It was an extraordinary act of altruism that in the process created new business opportunities, which many firms have been quick to seize upon. But is smart thinking a polite euphemism for wishful thinking? Not at all! Eric S Yuan, founder of the video conferencing app Zoom, got the idea for the company when he was a student in China. Yuan objected to making gruelling ten-hour train journeys to visit his girlfriend (now his wife) and wondered if there was an easier, less stressful way of reaching her. The rest as they say, is history! Thinking outside the box made Yuan extremely rich and embedded the Zoom platform into the lives of its hundreds and thousands of users. Before Coronavirus most people had probably never even heard of Zoom, yet the pandemic has made it instrumental in keeping various businesses alive at a time of economic stress. Zoom has been a first port of call for out of work musicians to stream live performances to paying audiences: fitness instructors unable to access gyms rely on it to workout with their clients: children’s performers use it for entertaining kids at lockdown birthday parties. What all of these examples illustrate (and they’re the tip of a much bigger iceberg), is the value of using a business tool imaginatively to reach out and communicate with clients and suppliers. It’s worth remembering that tools can also include concepts that structure companies along viable lines, which is where partnerships come in.
There’s a lot to be said for partnerships: financial risks are shared, complimentary skills optimised, and new synergies created. One of the big buzz words amongst corporate and management thinkers is “agility” and partnerships have proven to be an excellent way of achieving this. Agility arms businesses with the swiftness to move in on opportunities and Fintechs have worked it to perfection. Not that many years ago some forecasters were predicting that Fintechs would eat the banking sector’s lunch. How wrong they were! Banks are not only alive and kicking, but they’re scaling newer and even bigger commercial heights helped in part by their Fintech partnerships. In return for getting access to their loyal and extensive customer bases, Fintechs have given banks real time software updates, modern cloud-based systems and cutting-edge technology designed to improve the overall customer experience. It’s the ultimate win, win and one that is likely to reap even bigger rewards for the Fintech sector post Covid-19.
As the Fintech story proves, going into partnership doesn’t mean that one business will inevitably get swallowed up by another (which is why it’s worth taking legal and tax advice in the beginning to ensure that doesn’t happen), but it does involve compromises and sharing in decision making. That might be a big ask for leaders who value their autonomy, but in a post pandemic landscape something has to give and behavioural changes are not always a bad thing.
If partnerships are off the menu then it’s worth considering other options, including shutting down parts of a business that might not be cutting it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds given the potential for job losses and the emotional wrench of writing off something that may have taken years to build. The advice from the Recovery Summit speakers was clear: ask a few simple but focused questions before making any final decisions. What is the financial case for transferring resources into an underperforming division? Can the division be turned around and if so, how quickly? Are its weaknesses a threat to the health of the overall business? Could some jobs be saved by deploying workers elsewhere? Leading a company through a crisis (and Coronavirus is about as bad as it gets) means making difficult choices, which is why good leadership matters.
What is good leadership? Quite a few books have been written about this subject and even though authors have their own definitions, one thing they all agree on is the importance of purpose. In (very) simple terms, purpose is recognising there is more to a company than simply making profits. Businesses need to be transparent about why they make a product or offer a specific service and the difference they are trying to make to the world, in other words the “Why” of what a company is all about. The job of a leader is to mobilise their team around that common purpose while ensuring the aspirations that underpin it are authentic. In an age where actions matter as much as words and empowered customers will buy into a brand if they trust it’s integrity, a good leader should value their team, involve them in developing the company’s mission, be open about each struggle and celebrate every victory.
Now that the Recovery Summit is over, what happens next? The organisers haven’t allowed the grass to grow under their feet and plans are already underway to hold a follow up event later in the year. There’ll be plenty to talk about as businesses make sense of the new world to emerge from the lockdown embers. Some companies will almost certainly thrive in this changed, unfamiliar landscape while others (sadly) won’t be so lucky. Hopefully the successes will outweigh the failures. To survive Coronavirus means never losing hope, refusing to give in to fear and remembering that behind the shadow of every crisis lies a business opportunity.