480 DAYS AFTER COVID
Written by Japnit Singh, Deputy CEO of Spire Research and Consulting, and posted at LinkedIn in July 2021.
480 days after Covid
On 11 March 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. On the same day, I had written a reassuring letter forecasting that either the pandemic will pass, or we will learn to live with it. Now over 480 days later, it is clear that it is the later.
And what 480 days they have been! Personally, professionally and for the world in general.
But now the “stable state” is at least visible on the horizon. Nevertheless it is closer for some and further away for others. After taking stock, three things have become apparent:
It’s time to lose the baggage of the past
The Spire group, our clients, suppliers, and associates, have managed to successfully adapt to the new way of life, making big and small changes. This has primarily been an additive process. Businesses have mostly invested in technology and developed new systems in addition to their current ones.
They have enabled their employees to work remotely while retaining most of the office infrastructure. While discussing the new normal, we secretly long to return to the “old” ways.
Now a year into the pandemic, it is time to commit. Leaders will be under pressure to commit to the transformation. There is a need to examine the process and decide between the ones to return to someday and which ones are now permanently and definitively obsolete.
We all need to go through the metaphorical wardrobe of our lives and examine the dresses that we have outgrown during a year of working from home. We need to ask ourselves, “will I ever need these again? Will I even return to this size again”?
Be it our wardrobes, our personal lives or our business processes- a spring cleaning is in order.
" Be it our wardrobes, our personal lives or our business processes- a spring cleaning is in order. "
We are returning to expansion
" In a survey with F&B companies conducted by Spire in late 2020, 79% of the companies in S.E. Asia forecasted that they would adopt a growth-oriented strategy in 2021. "
Of course, vaccinations have a big role to play in this. More interestingly, the recovery will be driven by sectors that adopt and enable “living with the pandemic.” I will resist the temptation to follow many other consultants and economists and enumerate the growth rates of various countries and sectors. I will, however, highlight some broad opportunities:
- Edutech will continue to rise as teachers and student have both embraced the greater role of technology
- Eldercare and home care has received a new shot in the arm (no pun intended)
- Travel, especially for leisure will come back quickly, although
- Supply chains will become shorter and smarter.
Polarization and all levels
First, the virus surged through the world, then came the lockdowns and its variations; then followed the relief actions from the institutions, and now we have the wave of vaccines. Each time the pandemic (and the reaction to the pandemic) unfolded, it exaggerated the difference between “haves and the have-nots”. Today countries like the US, UK and Canada hold a surplus of vaccines, while many others in Asia and Africa have a severe shortage.
The research and consulting industry, in which we operate was able to adapt quickly and most of us were able to work from the safety of our homes. Yet the blue-collar workers and the bottom 2 quartiles of the population felt the real consequence of the pandemic. While we frowned upon strangers who stood too close to us, life in slums all over the world had no choice but to carry on. While we faced the challenges of balancing work and personal life, many had to balance between life and livelihood.
We know that a person’s location and socio-economic class determined their quality of life. But in 2020, it also determined the quantity of life.
Numbers became names
Up until Feb 2021, I was like most others living in Singapore. I would watch the world news with intrigue and some concern. Like most analysts, I monitored the numbers – daily cases and their impact on economic indicators and market trends.
Then suddenly, one by one, my own parents, extended family, and many friends started to join the ranks of the daily cases and deaths. Being from Delhi, one of the hardest-hit cities I saw the devastation first hand. I struggled with finding medicines, hunted for oxygen tanks, hospital beds, and ICUs.
The news stories about India’s crumbling healthcare system and political challenges become all too real. The commentary about the shortage of oxygen and charts and graphs that go along with it resonated with the bitter personal experiences.
But I also saw how private institutions, individuals, and NGOs came together and made a real, immediate, and decisive impact on many lives, including mine. Human ingenuity driven by purpose and a sense of community rose to the occasion. The city picked itself up and fought back.
The reform came from individuals and households. Families started to share the resources they had. Thousands of individuals, small clinics or pharmacies banded together organically. Entire supply chains were created on the back of WhatsApp forwards and last-mile delivery apps. For all its fake news and biases, social media redeemed itself as the platform on which supply met demand. The media did not cover this nor was there any data generated. Soon the daily cases declined, and the fatality was well below the global average. But the reasons were hidden from all those who were not personally involved. There is something to be said about understanding and perspective that exclusively comes from personal experience. It was only when the numbers became names, did I truly realize the meaning of the pandemic.
Names become numbers
I delved into my personal emotional experience to draw a contrast between how deeply personal and first-hand experiences are vastly different from impersonal logical and mathematical analysis. Much like myself, many business managers and leaders make important decisions because of their personal experiences and intuition (which is enforced by experience).
However, the privilege of personal experiences has become scarce. There is now lesser face to face interactions between managers and their staff. Water cooler conversations, the building block of organizational culture, have disappeared. Sales dinners and golf meetings that influenced large deals are restricted and guarded. Even the most basic concepts of power dressing and business body language are limited to the boundaries of a 13” laptop screen.
This fundamentally changes the way business is done. Managers need to now rely on hard data (numbers) a lot more than their personal observations and immersions (names). The ability of a manager to visit a new city, country, or market is expensive, cumbersome, and often non-existent today.
" Managers learn how to make decisions from a distance while using data and insights about the market. "
The dawn of a new era
The history of the world is divided into eras, primarily marked by global calamity or revolution. One could consider the period before 2020 as the pre- COVID era, and in 2021, we enter into the post-COVID era. The new era brings with its a new philosophy that governs business and social thinking and changes the skills and attributes that we consider valuable. Here is how:
Data over Intuition
We were already operating in an environment where data was increasingly easier to collect and analyze. Big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing already give us capabilities to do this at a scale unimaginable with a human brain (or even multiple human brains).
" In the new era, face-to-face interaction, body language, and plain old human contact have diminished. "
In the new era, face-to-face interaction, body language, and plain old human contact have diminished. Yet, these were the raw material for intuition and gut feel to work.
Post-COVID, we will find ourselves relying more on digital prompts and smart recommendations and less on what our gut tells us. It was already an unfair fight, seen most obviously in how we use GPS apps to navigate our cities. Now with the lack of physical connection, intuition is down for the count.
The rise of the introverts
We were forced to lock ourselves into our homes. When we did socialize, we were forced to choose the 3-8 friends to invite. At work, interactions were scheduled and regimented. There was little room for frivolous talk; we couldn’t just run into each other or simply “hang out”.
In essence, we were forced to behave like our more quiet and reserved friends. We had to make do without the charm, confidence and showmanship that has been a predictor of success in the past.
Enter a new kind of hero. One who is a master of communication through e-mails, chats and reports. One who doesn’t need to win over the client based on his personality. One who focuses on delivering actual measurable value and nothing more.
The car salesman is obsolete. It is time for Alfred from batman to shine!
The personal touch may no longer be the human touch
A survey of B-2-B customers by Mc Kinsey indicated that 2X companies are relying on digital engagement instead of traditional modes of engagement. The survey also indicated a rise in preference for self-service amongst customers. In another survey by Edelman, only 1 in 5 B-2-B companies are interviewing their customers; they are instead relying on feedback from sales, social media or market research.
Friendly retail assistants are replaced with online reviews, and customers prefer chatting with a bot to calling a person.
The delight of a sales representative knowing and addressing you by name is wearing thin. It is replaced by system that can access your transaction history and deliver service quickly and efficiently.
Amidst this change 2 best practices are emerging:
- Establishing a deeper relationship between a customer and other customers, rather than between sales and customers
- Engaging with customers digitally but in a flexible and customized way.
Sustainability as a concept will evolve
If a new business buzzword has emerged out of the COVID crisis, it is “Sustainability”. The big question for me is why? Why now?
Did corporates suddenly had a fundamental change of heart and decided to be compassionate? I am more cynical than that to believe so. Or is the whole thing just lip service to a public image and a marketing gimmick? Again, I am more hopeful than that to think so too.
COVID-19 was a clear demonstration that social and environmental issues could spread across markets and customer segments. And this was an unprecedented wake-up call. It was unlike the creeping global temperatures or isolated cases of forest fires and floods. It was bigger than a social uprising in a city or a labor strike in a single city. This time it was personal, ubiquitous and unstoppable. I believe that corporates witnessed the devastation that social issues can have on their bottom line
" Sustainability will transform into a more measured long-term approach and integrate with all aspects of business function. "
Even the greatest capitalists have realized that if the world came to an end, the profits would stop too. Hence the most powerful institutions have a vested stake in the cause. Sustainability will no longer remain a social cause that it currently is. It will transform into a more measured long-term approach and integrate with all aspects of business function.
The current perspective on sustainability tends to pit it against conventional practices and make it an either-or choice. This will change. Sustainability will evolve into nothing more than a long-term view towards running a profitable, legal and judicious business. I look forward to this.
The sun has risen
One of my favorite stories told by my professors goes like this.
Every morning, when the sun rises, the wild deers run. They run because they know that they must outrun the fastest lion, or they will perish. Every morning when the sun rises, the lions also run. They run because they know they must outrun the slowest deer, or they will starve.
The point is that when the sun rises, no matter who you are, you better be running.
The sun has risen, are you running?