Francois Dosold, Risk and Resilience Consultant, Protean Business Solutions
When COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization on 30 January 2020, the number of positive cases reported stood at just under 10 000. Two months later, there are more than half a million positive cases – a 500% increase.
In Africa, the first death was recorded in Egypt on 8 March. At the time of writing, South Africa was in the early stages of a national lockdown with more than 1 000 cases and two deaths recorded.
It is difficult to identify opportunities at this time as countries close their borders, economies collapse, and more lives are lost every day. There is no doubt that COVID-19 is hurting everyone, with widespread socioeconomic consequences. However, business must plan for life after COVID-19 – they need to identify possible opportunities that will enable them to survive, and focus on how to become both more resilient and more sustainable.
Respecting the environment
We have seen how nature has taken a step forward, even as human beings have taken a step back from their everyday environments – pollution has been dwindling and wild animals have been spotted where they frequently fear to tread. This gives us the opportunity to rethink our interactions with nature and respect biodiversity. A BBC article by Fox-Skelly, 2017, explains that when we encroach upon the habitats of wild species, and when our actions lead to global warming, we can see the fall-out – an increase in infectious climate-sensitive diseases, and more zoonotic transmission (from animals to humans). This could be the time to start moving away from fossil fuels, doubling down on measures that can mitigate the climate crisis. The economy will need a stimulus in the post-COVID-19 period (whenever that may be), so this is our chance to invest in environmentally sustainable projects that will not only help our planet but also reduce unemployment in South Africa.
Changing office culture
As lockdown protocols force various organisations to implement a temporary ‘work from home’ policy, some might say this is the right time for company management to relook existing policies. Studies have shown that working from home actually increases productivity – the traditional ‘9 to 5’ is no longer efficient and employees waste time (and further pollute the environment) by commuting (Mautz, 2018).
Remote workers have been found to work for an additional 1.4 days more a month compared to office-based employees (Caramela, 2020). Working from home calls for the elimination of micromanagement, which has always led to a low level of trust in employees, and a high turnover rate of staff. It also leads to a lack of innovation. Traditional ways of working do not seem valid, particularly as studies increasingly show that productivity increases when employees work from home, particularly when those employees are granted greater autonomy. Companies end up saving money, too.
The shift to digital innovation
The influence of technological innovation is greater than ever, with innovation accelerating as we come up with new solutions to problems brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the implementation of social distancing, meetings, conferences and trade shows are cancelled, forcing marketers to rely on digital marketing (which is really more cost-effective, anyway). Consumer behaviour has changed in the digital age, presenting opportunities for retailers to rethink everything from sales and customer engagement to products and business models.
COVID-19 presents the opportunity to add e-commerce to your service offering in the retail space. As foot traffic decreases in malls and shopping centres, it increases online, with many clients ordering from home. Offline businesses should look to finally making the shift to digital and curate an online space that will showcase what they have to offer.
In general, companies are prepared for emergencies. However, no board or executive team could have predicted the consequences of COVID-19 – a real ‘Black Swan’ event in human history. The pandemic allows for improved cooperation among companies, which are urged to look to their social compact and not just their profits. New business models (such as digital) are presenting themselves across all sectors. Leaders from all walks of life can step up to the plate and demonstrate solidarity – something that will not be forgotten when the world returns to relative normality.
Now is the time to relook Business Continuity policies and ensure that future disasters can be averted. Re-evaluate your risk management strategies – diversify your business and create multiple income streams where possible. Integrate the offline with the online and make sure your clients are aware of your platforms.
Diversified asset allocation will be fundamental to risk management as various SMEs struggle to pay their debtors during economic lockdown (WEF, 2020). With a depreciated Rand, South African exporters will surely benefit by exporting more once the pandemic has been brought under control. But competition will likely increase in the bounce-back as a new wave of growth emerges among various sectors.
Options for the State
Countries are feeling the pinch as the spread of COVID-19 increases. Economies are bleeding and a global recession seems likely. A decline in trade and consumer spending and an outflow of investments will contribute to this (Market Insider, 2020).
At the same time, COVID-19 is creating room for increased cooperation between the public and private sectors. The South African government has proved to be an efficient communicator during the crisis; after the crisis, there is an opportunity to use social media more collaboratively, driving partnership initiatives.
COVID-19 is the first major challenge the South African government has faced since the advent of democracy (struggling SOEs aside). As government revises what works and does not work, it will be in a strong position to prevent outbreaks from devastating the country in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic should sound the alarm for countries that do not yet appreciate the importance of sustainability. Various nations are dependent upon imports from China and other economic powerhouses. South Africa should now start to increase local production, protect its natural resources, and innovate locally wherever possible. As the State is aware of the level of inequality in South Africa, this should be a top priority – fighting a pandemic with such great socioeconomic disparity in the country is a major challenge.
Although we are inclined to pay more attention to challenges than to opportunities at this time – which is quite natural – we must recognised that, in an ever-changing world, the ability to innovate rapidly and plan ahead so we can face what is to come is of crucial importance. Companies should adapt quickly, not only to survive, but to meet the needs of tomorrow’ consumers. A crisis like COVID-19 shows us, not only which problems we need to face head-on, but which solutions will better equip our companies for an unpredictable future.