It was on 31st December 2019 that WHO came to know about a novel coronavirus that had attacked the people of Wuhan in China. It was everywhere in the news, and the dragon did everything to stop the spread of the virus. However, the coronavirus managed to sneak out of the country and spread across continents. On the one hand, WHO was giving explanations, and on the other, the world had little idea of what this virus was capable of doing. We are now almost mid-way of the year 2020, and there is no relief in sight. The economies have started to cripple. Lockdowns continue to impose across all borders. Billions of people are staying at home to ‘flatten the curve.’ Doctors, health workers, and security services are the frontline warriors – this is a warlike situation! But unlike any other war in history, this war has forced the nations to be on one side.
The pandemic has changed the way we live and understand the world. Restaurants aren’t operational, movies are not getting released in theatres, children aren’t allowed in the playgrounds, schools, and colleges moved completely to Home-based Learning. Is this a new normal? Some experts believe that it will be the new norm. We will witness fewer people commute to their workplace, office timings will be staggered to reduce congestion, public transportation will not run at full capacity, travel will require additional documents, and stadiums will be somewhat empty. AND there is a possibility that we may never go back to the older world!
Life at the Workplace
Most of us spend a significant part of our day at work. Therefore, the new norms will be felt more pronounced in this sphere of life. Strategies to minimize the spread, like social distancing, will force the companies to rethink their floor plans, office locations, and even man and material movement. Work from home will continue to become a significant part of professional life. HRs will have to think of ways to ensure the mental well-being of the employees while working remotely. And in general, every policy will have to be revisited and re-written/re-phrased to suit the new workplace norms.
Here is a small review of how the companies and businesses have been trying to adapt to the changing situation.
Work From Home
Covid-19 forced the companies around the world to enable their employees to keep working from home amid the pandemic to ensure business continuity. The businesses that lacked the infrastructure started acquiring the required setup to allow remote working. Singapore, in this case, was in a better situation as compared to many other countries. The Government and companies of Singapore had been actively supporting the employees’ alternate work arrangements for a long time. The pandemic helped the companies in the city-state to shift gears quickly and continue working without losing any time. SMEs, for instance, faced resistance due to infra initially, but with quick decision making, the companies were able to create work from the home facility for their employees. On the other hand, some companies, like the Enable Group, an HR consultancy firm in Singapore, set a fantastic example of pro-active thinking by allowing all its employees to work from the comforts of their homes since its inception. The companies have also realized that such working practices yield better results in terms of productivity and higher employee retention. As a result, we are nowadays companies like Facebook, Twitter, Googles’ of the world are talking about job opportunities that offer permanent work from home options. IT companies like TCS have decided 75% of their employees to work from home permanently by 2025. Google announces a $1000 allowance to all their employees for working from home. It is also beneficial for small businesses because it can bring down the cost of workspace and maintenance and allow you to hire the best talents from around the world.
Social distancing is an important step that promises to reduce the spread of the infection. However, in the workplace, this translates into two options. The first being lesser staff present at the office. Second, expand the workplace’s size to enable 100% of the workers to maintain social distance. Either way, the companies will have to compromise with one aspect of the operations to continue working post-pandemic. In many countries, companies have resumed activities, and the governments are allowing only 25% of the workforce to join the office. While this is an attempt at enforcing social distancing, but it can also turn out to be fatal for individual businesses. Many debates have been going over whether or not the cost of maintaining social distancing is worth the benefits. Of course, the spread will decrease, but keeping the workers and their families on the toes are the side-effect that we will have to deal with!
The Immediate Challenges
Pandemic is going to leave a trail of challenges as it goes. These challenges are going to affect our lives in several ways – social, psychological, and economical. As a small business, you need to think pro-actively and plan your future to minimize the costs incurred in adjusting to the new environment. The next question arises – what is the new environment? The new environment, as many thought leaders are suspecting, is going to be financially shocking. The first wave of changes is going to demand adjustments. As time passes, we may soon witness the return of a lot of principals from the pre-pandemic order like small-scale media events, team building activities, and trade fairs.
It is no more news that we are looking at a period of recession during and post-pandemic. IMF has projected the most significant drop in the global GDP of -3% since the great depression of 1930. Being an open economy, Singapore has already started experiencing the burn. In fact, as per some reports, Singapore is going to witness its darkest period ever. The Ministry of Trade and Industry forecasts that the GDP of Singapore will contract to 4 to 7 percent. It is way worse than any other recession that the country has seen in the past, including 2009 and 1998. The Government expects the construction and marine engineering, which make up for almost 11% of the country’s GDP combined, will take the most hit and lay off several workers. The problem with the recession is that it lingers for a while before the country can recover. During this time, it causes a lot of financial and mental trauma. The most significant side-effect is the rise in unemployment, as the companies fail to pay the salaries. The Government is taking every step in their power to save the economy. The authorities announced an additional SGD 33 billion fortitude package to support the workers and businesses. A part of the budget will also be used to enhance the coverage of the existing Job Support Scheme.
For the first time, we are noticing a situation where the economy is taking a hit not because of mismanagement of the wealth, but because of a disease. The pandemic has forced the industries to stop production, and halt the operations. As a result, money has become stagnant. And when that happens, people lose their job. Initially, the people were expecting that the lost jobs will be offered back as soon as the pandemic is over. However, as per a recent study by a university, claims that some of the job losses that are right now temporarily will convert into permanent firings. The study says that approximately 40% of the people who have been fired during the pandemic will never get their old jobs back. However, for Singapore, the conditions can be slightly different as the Government has pumped in more than 20% of the country’s GPD, which is close to S$100billion to help workers, businesses, and households.
Singapore, unlike any other nation, can step out of the economic depression due to strong governance and a giant small and medium enterprises sector backed by powerful technology. This sector produces the maximum number of jobs for Singapore. When economic conditions improve, this sector will have the ability to pull the people of the nation out of the depression. In the new Fortitude Budget, the Government announced to create 40,000 new jobs by SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package both in the public and private sectors.
- The Health of the Employees
The health and well-being of the workers will be a priority for the business owners. Almost 80% of the Singaporean white-collar employees are working from home. However, there are still tweaks needed to ensure that these people can perform to their highest potential. The companies will also have to redesign their interiors and movement plans related to working in the office, team meetings, meetings with clients and investors, cafeterias and canteens, employee break areas, and recreation centers within the company premises. Also, the degree of change required will vary from one industry to another. For example, IT will have little trouble with the new norms. However, a factory producing auto components, or a construction site will find it almost impossible to function at its highest efficiency. Technology will play an essential part in monitoring the health of the employees and ensuring risk mitigation strategies like social distancing. The HRs may also have to consider a permanent or partial move from the current 5-day working to 3 or 4 days working, with remaining days as mandatory work from home.
The New Norm
- New Ways of Schooling upon Reopening
Reopening of the schools and colleges will require thorough planning. Home-based learning has become a big part of the education system due to the outbreak of the virus. It is estimated that 90% of the students are unable to attend the physical classes. As they are the future of the nation, it is essential to protect them from the virus, and at the same time, trained to be responsible citizens of the country for the future, new ways of schooling is need of the hour. The concept of classrooms will require some rethinking. Like office spaces, social distancing, staggered classes, virtual teachers will be a norm that will have to be followed very strictly at the educational institutes. Technology will play a more prominent role in education, and the virtual classroom and examination model will probably have to be strategized and developed from the ground level. The Year of 2020 will be marked in history as, for the first time, all IGCSE and IB qualification examinations for Grade 10 and 12 got canceled. The students were given admission to undergrads schools based on their predictive scores. A growing number of Ivy League schools are considering to phase out the standardized test requirements like SAT & ACT by 2025.
- Retail Stores
Retail stores will have to rethink their strategy. People would shy away from touching or being near the items that have been affected by previous customers. As a result, the retail, as we know it today, will undergo a significant overhaul. For starters, there will be technology everywhere. From promotions, to ‘try before you buy’ and even in-store experiences will have to be made contactless. The stores may want to use immersive technologies like AR and MR, to enhance sales. Retail stores are building new concepts like Interactive mirrors, where shoppers can have a virtual shopping experience. Similarly, immersive technology and AR are being experimented with online shopping, creating virtual showrooms. It facilitates the sellers to build their presence online. The movement towards online store has already started. The growth in companies like Facebook, Shopify, and Amazon is proof that people are looking for ‘safer’ ways to buy. As time passes, the buyers may or may not flock back to the malls and brick-and-mortar stores, and hence it is advisable to move online to stay profitable in the long run.
- Dining Out and Socializing
For restaurants, the post-pandemic period is going to be even more challenging, with customers being wary and demanding regarding safety, hygiene, and food quality. There will be greater emphasis on hygiene standards, and FDA approved food quality scores going forward. It will apply to the entire supply chain in the restaurant business. Also, customers will want to avoid crowded places as social distancing is here to stay post-COVID. They will have a hard time trusting the people in their vicinity. It will result in a surge in food home delivery, catering, and pick-up options. Therefore restaurant owners need to accelerate to build infrastructure to migrate to off-premise services. With changing times, the restaurant owners have to gear up to opt for an omnichannel selling strategy for the business continuity.
Event management is another sector that has taken a significant hit and will continue to suffer. Companies like Microsoft, Facebook have announced the cancellation of all large events over 50 attendees till July 2021. Currently, companies are going digital by organizing webinars over Zoom, Google Meet, Webex, and many more video conferencing apps. But this means that attendees lose the opportunity to network, which is one of the prime reasons to attend such large events. However, even if these events have to take place in the future, the organizers will have to consider the health and safety of the attendees – Social distancing, Insurance (Force Majeure clause), thermal scanning, health record of attendee, sanitation, and disinfection, and much more. It will impact the cost of organizing the events in a big way.
- Travel & Tourism
With the closure of borders across the globe, travel and tourism will have a hard time getting back in action. The travel & tourism industry will witness more than 50 million job cuts globally. Due to the travel ban, the airline industry expected to have an annual loss of $112-253 billion. The industry has to ponder the face of the future in the alarming social distancing era. Architects will have to go back to their drawing board to redesign hotels with spacious corridors, biggers spaces with improved ventilation, and options with minimum human contact. Engage robots for room delivery, housekeeping, or contactless check-in process. Travelers will experience touchless travel and will need to carry digital health passports. Airports will be complete automation process from identity verification, touchless fingerprints, face recognition, and contactless document scanning. Stringent health protocols will set while traveling like sanitization, thermal scanning, wearing masks.
It will not be just the public that will be extra cautious of the outlets that they visit, the business owners and other authorities will be equally cautious and worried. For example, a salesperson in a retail store will always be concerned about touching the clothes of a customer, a person on the ticket counter will be worried while accepting the currency notes, airport security will always be watching the thermal screens, waiters will be afraid to serve, and taxi drivers will be under a constant threat of accidentally catching the virus from the commuter. If nothing else, the on-coming times are going to be confusing and worrying.
Thankfully, there is a bright side to the pandemic too. Every such catastrophe comes with an opportunity, and COVID-19 is no different.
- For instance, the current global supply chain has flaws that need to be fixed. We need more parameters and variables to improve logistics. For small businesses, this could be an opportunity to jump in and present a fresher perspective.
- Similarly, healthcare is going to gain importance. Almost every country has realized that they are not ready for another pandemic like the COVID-19. It presents an opportunity for the medical sector to come up with solutions to enhance the coverage and efficiency of the industry. The pandemic has made it clear that the world does not have enough PPE kits, gloves, thermal scanners, and ventilators. Companies can look at manufacturing such equipment for starters.
- Technology is going to find countless applications. Right from working from home to healthcare, robotics, internet of things and immersive technology is going to be in demand. Technology is our shortcut to enhancing productivity while socially distant. Moreover, technology is also going to play a significant role in our personal lives with domestic healthcare devices like affordable vitals monitoring gadgets, personal assistants like robot nurses.
- Airlines may require travelers to carry medical records or proofs of well-being, or maybe something that shows that they are not infected. Not just airlines, many other outlets, like a mall or a restaurant may demand a similar proof. It can be an opportunity for businesses to build applications and devices to support new requirements, such as immunity passports.
- Personal hygiene is another area where the demand is expected to rise. People are practically trained to adopt better habits, such as washing hands, respecting their own space, and so on. The people will carry these habits post-pandemic, and the opportunities for devices that can help maintain these habits will be uncovered. Examples: Manufacturing sanitizers, re-usable designer masks, no-rinse soaps, mobile apps to remind about washing hands, etc.
These are just a handful of use cases, and large ones, that have been presented in the recent scenarios. As time passes, we will find more such opportunities, and most of them would be viable for small businesses to undertake.
There are Better Days Ahead
Although many vaccines are in different stages of the trial, we cannot rule out the possibility that we may have to live without a vaccine for a couple of years to come. If that happens, the new norms will be in full swing, and all the challenges that we just discussed are going to be persistent. However, the problems will need solutions, and that is where the businesses will have the opportunities. With creative thinking, small businesses have a chance to tap into the riches that the world has to offer. A straightforward example is the establishment of the PPE industry in India in a matter of 2 months.
Healthcare is another area where businesses will have opportunities. As the markets around the country open, there will be a constant demand for items like sanitizers, soaps, disposable gloves, affordable face shields, and so on.
Specific industries like tourism will take some time to get back into the action. However, as it does, the need for safety will make way for innovative solutions that can make the life of the people more accessible and contactless. Immunity passports will be a thing, and the quick and accurate solutions will emerge winners. For SMEs, this can be an exciting opportunity. Since now, the companies have time to develop and test such products, and as borders open, the companies can deploy their solutions.
Yet another opportunity will be presented due to a new practice that the big companies will now follow – diversification of suppliers. Due to the lockdown in China, many companies have realized that they need to expand their supplier networks over a vast geographic location. Thus, providing ample opportunities to SMEs to work with big companies and make money. Technology and the global supply chain will play an important role in catering to a more significant geographical spread. And all this would eventually bring prosperity to the world.