Coronavirus – Creating a new norm for businesses
This article does not focus on the effects or proportions of the current Coronavirus outbreak we face, nor will it address its impact on business, economy or trade, as I am not qualified to speak on either. It is not an article on healthcare, business or even the legal profession, it is quite simply an article that may touch every business in the future following the precautions taken by governments across the world in response to Covid-19.
It is true that the shutdown of businesses and government entities (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), the quarantine measures taken by businesses, individuals as well as government, extending to military, borders, airlines and trade, has had a tremendous effect on the world, probably unseen and unexperienced by many of us. No single event has affected or crippled the world economy, government, military, trade, businesses of all sizes, as what the world has experienced in the last few weeks. No leader, medical expert, dean of universities, banks, fund managers or any other expert can tell you how long this moment will last and when it will end. No stockpiling of food, water, medical equipment and medicines, military security, disaster protocols or other preparations made by governments, could have planned for or controlled the volume of infected people or the speed at which the virus has been spreading among us throughout the globe.
As a reader, don’t get ahead of yourself. I am not trying to be philosophical or deal with humanitarian issues. I am not talking about the poor or the rich or the lesson that governments have learned. There are plenty of articles that talk about these issues, which naturally humanity will hopefully learn a lesson from.
What I am talking about and what I am certain of, is the impact of the Covid-19 era which has sent shock waves that will last for some time, at worst causing people to lose their livelihoods and businesses to collapse but at best, forcing businesses to change the way they conduct themselves and operate on a day to day level. Certainly today’s modus operandi will change the way businesses are conducted in the future in a significant way for those businessmen, corporates and governments that will survive this challenging time. There is no doubt in my mind that business can nor will continue in the same way ever again and unless people, governments and entities gets used to those changes, their lifespan will be very short and this time will not be taken by the effects of covid-19, but by their competitors in business who adopted change.
We have heard increasingly over the last five years, various methods to improve the effectiveness of businesses, governments, medical sectors and other professions, via technology, artificial intelligence and more recently via blockchain and crypto currency. Bombarded with theories on how the world is changing with technology, including precise surgical operations and the advice of lawyers who are threatened in their profession as they may not be needed when a machine or robot will be able do their job at the push of a button. Blockchain was the talk of governments, banks and large corporations keen on delivering services online, whether banking or delivery of products. Many government and large corporations set up task forces, committees and teams to advise them and spearhead their transformation. Several government and multinational companies were bragging about the introduction of online services, artificial intelligence as well as the introduction of blockchain and the use of screens and talking to their machines.
Why is all this relevant to the coronavirus?
For the simple reason that instead of theorizing, this moment has forced us to act and operate digitally. Businesses closing their doors and the lockdown of people at home during the last few weeks have proven two important facts, which I believe businesses and governments will not only learn valuable lessons from, but will be forced to follow in the future at a much faster pace. The first is that most of the investments that governments and the private sector made in technology was mostly PR and what has been done is only a scratch on the surface, theory, not really connecting business to business or business to people to a level at which it was promoted or to the level it was possible. Despite market chatter, the truth of the matter is that very few entities have the capability of implementation and fewer actually put tech into practice. Most of the work, at least the effective work, was done by human intervention, supervision and delivery. Governments and corporates were either scared from having to apply technology as simple as working remotely, or did not believe in the possibility of switching to technology in connecting with their personnel and consumers. As a result of this, businesses continued to do what they were comfortable with, limited enhancement of emails, text messages, package delivery and use of algorithms in some analysis. They shunned the practice of technology and testing even though it could allow for much more capacity, utlisitation and production in day to day business.
The second lesson is that even though people were talking about distance working and flexible hours for decades, this did not gain much traction in many industries, sectors and countries around the world. It was done well in a handful of companies, but most were scared of the effect of remote working or virtual presence at work and the purported negative effect it would have on their balance sheet and profitability. They were also worried about their competitors, their market share and the importance of personal contact with consumers, clients and colleagues. The quality of work and the responsibility of some employees were questionable in the minds of the decision makers, especially when employees come from differing cultures. Therefore, while distance working was granted to a few employees, and while a number of CEO’s around the globe believed in it, we saw very little implementation of it, despite the fact that technology is available and easily tailored by a software designer who can build a system suitable for an organization that includes, government. While governments and some companies provide virtual connectivity, the use of that virtual world is limited, does not provide full service and often faces reliability issues. That’s because again, it is either done as a test model or for marketing and PR and in addition, the leaders, management and decision makers, coming from different generations to millennials and GenZ, are unfamiliar with technology, used to certain habits or afraid of change, especially if the changes happen fast. Unless, of course, you are forced to live the change.
Forced change is what we have experienced in the past few weeks. Coronavirus has forced us to make fundamental changes to our habits, the way we conduct business and deal with each other. Governments, businesses, airports, restaurants and possibly 80% of effective utilities were shutdown, yet it has been possible to either continue virtually or reopen and provide services virtually. Yes, it might not be perfect, and perhaps not to optimum capacity or usage, but given we were unprepared, that is to be expected. Had we prepared our systems, procedures, manuals and IT support structures before now, the road to perfection would be well underway and not one we are walking now having been forced to do so.
The disruption and lockdown that the world has experienced proves two things. The first, while we have talked about technology a lot, understood some of it and believe in it, government and private businesses have not embraced and used technology as much as they have talked about it. Even government departments that were set up to drive the process have done very little and as result of this, when government and private sector were shutdown, they were not ready to switch to the very technology they had been talking about. This includes hospitals which are today struggling to survive with the pressure of Coronavirus patients and what they expect to happen in the next two weeks. Labs, pharmaceutical industries, governments, border control and many others had to shut down for a few days to adjust their systems and procedures, alter some of their services or the way they did things and introduce an APP or a website to connect governments with their nationals. Had these platforms and systems been in place, we would have continued with business as normal with the support of technology, with very little effect on the economy, business or the service of the community The second is that those businesses, including the services provided by government that have been forced to continue with their business either because of their responsibility to the community or clients, or because of financial needs, were actually able to carry out a good size of their business virtually without having to be in the office and the quality of the services or the advice continues to be of high quality. It has become very possible for governments to carry out their services virtually without the need of buildings or queueing up at their office premises.
Lawyers are able to advise their clients virtually over telephone/video conferencing/email, and similarly many other businesses who did not have the choice, continue their entire business model and service offering virtually, the choice is either that or shutdown completely. Those business, of course, who had a lead on the use of technology, working virtually, selling online, food delivery and other package delivery providers, have continued to grow and benefit from their investment in technology and dealings through e-commerce and have probably excelled in their business targets during this difficult time, well-deserved and well rewarded for having invested in technology and staying connected with consumers way before they were forced to face this situation involuntarily.
What we have actually been talking about for the past five years, has led to us having to rapidly lean on technology to help us through this time, unprepared and with no warning, however, working from home or ordering groceries, clothes or other services through e-commerce, has worked quite well and even dealing with government departments who opened electronically with some glitches here and there because it was rushed, is actually working. So the changes which we were talking about for so long and hoping would happen, now look to be the new norm.
Now that businesses have experienced the invisible enemy who cannot be stopped at the border nor be locked in prison, they should have also experienced that the human response cannot always be done manually and that the reliance and trust in technology is needed more so than ever before. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, dealing across the border with multiple currencies, even if the currency is encrypted currency, to enable people to pay and get goods or services delivered to them, in essence to keep supply and demand going, has been challenging but achievable in most countries. Businesses have realized that should they have invested in technology and implemented virtual operations in their system, thereby softening the blow of the coronavirus on their business and income as a result of business being restricted in terms office hours and movement. This effect, no doubt, will also have a positive effect if people get used to virtual business government/non-government, on the stock market and the future of trade in the stock market as people can still buy goods and receive services, pay for their needs without having to leave their home or even do it while they are flying. The Coronavirus impact has crystalized the absolute need for virtual operation, e-commerce and the importance of technology for the new world economy and now that governments and businesses have had a taste, it is likely that whether for good business or better security, it will be implemented on a wider scale throughout the world, government or non-government.
However, this new norm will not come cheap, and I am not referring to the budgets of private sector or government entities who have to implement those changes, but to those who do not embrace change. That change will naturally be supported by the new generation worldwide who are used to technology and will have a detrimental effect on a number of businesses which we use as a part of daily life, whether that be movie theaters, shopping centers, luxury retail stores, hospital visits and many other trades and services.
In the meantime, let’s all be safe with our loved ones, protect each other, embrace technology and become a part of the new norm.
Essam Al Tamimi
Chairman & Founder
Al Tamimi & Company