Will COVID-19 bring in a permanent change in the way we do business?

When it started there was a feeling that we wouldn’t be bound to our homes for very long. But we put up a brave face as the lockdowns continued. It was cooking time, sharing-of-hobbies time and learning-new-things time for some.

Now it has been four months and counting. And these four months have changed our lifestyle in a way that we couldn’t have thought possible. Except for those in production units, others were forced to embrace new ways of conducting professional engagements, wherever their line of work permitted them to do so. Even in early March, before the lockdown, who could have thought of a new sales pitch happening without physically sitting across the table with a client? And accounts getting settled without a closed-door physical meeting?

Notice how I am putting ‘physical’ in italics! Or writing ‘meeting’ with physical as its adjective. Four months back, a meeting by default would have meant physical as opposed to virtual. And if we needed a virtual meeting, only then would we have described the meeting as virtual.

Even the addas are happening online! Who would have thought that a bunch of ageing school friends, living in the same city, would get together on a virtual platform to chat or share jokes? Something that was once quite unacceptable despite all the tools being there is now an accepted as normal.

Yes, life has changed in the last few months and it has also changed the way we conduct business. We are now afraid of physical closeness let alone contact or crowds. And we are finding online meetings much easier to deal with than physical ones.

The lockdowns have made “WFH” or work-from-home an everyday phrase. I haven’t come across any authentic productivity survey related to this yet, but some evidence suggests that WFH is working fine. Even employers have found new advantages in allowing their people to work from home.

But is too early to jump to conclusions. Changing social behaviour across the board is not very easy. And we should remember that professional behaviour is but a part of our societal character. But there are a few points that have been noted by everybody across the spectrum. It is possible to work without being ‘there’. And work from home may not necessarily reduce the productivity of an employee. In the coming days, we will see a lot of changes in the functioning of a business, but the extent of change will take time to crystallise.

Adapting to organisation changes

Getting a job is easier than keeping it. This mantra has perhaps been there ever since business organisations came into being. Yet very few pay heed to this timeless, classic advice - be flexible and adapt themselves to changes in the workplace.

How many times have we witnessed employees getting frustrated after seeing a peer getting promoted! The person getting bypassed sulks without even trying to understand why it happened. Look at the turmoil in workplaces that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Work from home, downsizing, pay cuts – one of them or all three of them together. None of this has any precedence in living memory.

The challenge of adaptability is now more intense, testing our nimbleness, our willingness and capability of fitting in with the changes, more than ever before. Who will survive? If you are a person who, instead of sulking or blaming others for the change, usually goes searching for the reason behind, you will have a better chance of survival than others in the team. This is a trait that will help you understand the ground reality better.

Once you start realising the 'whys', you will also know or anticipate the impending changes. It may so happen that the line of work that you are involved in may vanish – either due to changes in technology or due to an organisation’s strategy to merge roles. For example, in the not-so-distant past, in every newspaper there used to be a very important function called proof-reading. The proof-reader’s job was to check spellings and punctuation and tally the copy with what had been sent by the editors. The proof-reader was the last line of defence before the news got printed. Now, following computerisation, proof-reading is no longer a separate job profile. Those who could anticipate the change upgraded their skill and shifted to other lines of work. Those who failed fell by the wayside. The same thing is happening in the information technology business as artificial intelligence automates many tasks.

So try to anticipate change and upgrade yourself or learn new skills.

But employees often do not understand their job role and the expectation of the organisation about that role. Before everything else, one needs to understand this and deliver. And then will come the change realisation. Then, of course, is the issue of understanding the change and its implication for your job. As in IT or in the newspaper industry, the lines that vanished left some survivors too. And the survivors were the ones who had kept upgrading themselves for a higher, or a different level of fit.

So, it’s important to relentlessly keep building on your skill. Staying updated is staying one step ahead of change. And, of course, you need to be flexible enough to accept the change. Nothing is permanent; nor is your job. And to meet this challenge of uncertainty one needs to have an entrepreneurial mind-set to ride over these ups and downs. In short, this is what adaptability is all about – ability to analyse your job role, to anticipate change and be ready to float with that through continuous skill upgradation.

As in Nature, adaptability is the only survival mantra in the job market.

How social media helps keep you abreast of the news (and change)

The use of social media has been rising sharply following the advent of smartphones. Facebook and Twitter added to the acceleration and platforms such as Orkut fell by the wayside. The fact that social media, by providing us with a platform for group interaction, has changed our world is now irrefutable.

It’s also irrefutable that there are views that are critical about social media. The critics hold the platforms as responsible for spreading unsubstantiated content that can be misleading or harmful rumours.

Be that as it may, the pandemic is credited with transforming even the sceptics into neo-converts on social media. Look at the figures of newspaper reading. In April this year, one of the largest newspaper houses in India did a survey and found that 72 per cent of the total readership is getting their daily newsfeed online. A large chunk of the increased readership is sourcing their newsfeed from the social media itself!

People have also started hitting social media more to check on national and global developments. Politicians are tweeting their thoughts, individuals are sharing their issues, and organisations are telling us what they are up to. From Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide to Big B’s COVID-19, we are now getting to know about everything even before the TV channels get it. In short, the information-consumers have never had it so good. Whatever may be the area of your interest, you click a "like" on some news or comment on social media and more of similar content will be headed your way.

The pandemic has singularly contributed more to the rise of social media subscriptions than any other events in recent history. There has been a 100 per cent rise in screen-time use even among the children and adolescents. Those who were denied access to smartphones by their parents now own smartphones because classroom teaching has shifted online and schools demand it.

This is also getting psychologists worried. What is interesting is that even this fact is getting streamed to us through social media! While social media indeed has been the greatest information sharing and updating platform in human civilisation, critics, including the not-so-conservatives, are worried about its impact on mental and physical health. Even a large section of adults is not equipped to handle information that is not mediated. For example, all the medical "facts" about corona on social media have created more confusion than awareness.

Similarly, staring at a mobile phone’s screen for hours on end has implications for our eyes and general health. This addiction is keeping us away from physical movement and affecting our general health as well. What is interesting is the fact that doctors and others are reaching out to us through the social media!

Weighing the pros and cons and of course from personal experience, I would say use social media to the hilt. But use filters so that facts are mediated so to minimise the chances of being misinformed. And please don’t stay hooked to a level that your health suffers. And yes, teach your children to benefit from it and how not to get sunk by the sirens on social media.

Stay safe. Stay well by staying well-informed.

MSMEs are our best bet for economic growth in pandemic

It’s difficult to avoid the context of the COVID-19 pandemic while discussing any aspect of our lives now. With the economy (and our life) having lost a quarter of a year to the lockdown that was imposed to contain the pandemic, a view on the importance of the MSME sector naturally gets tagged to the reality that is the pandemic.

And the coronavirus behind COVID-19 reminds us how, without MSMEs - the micro, small and medium enterprises - we would still be struggling to meet the sudden and huge demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) that is so crucial for doctors and healthcare workers who are in the frontline of the battle. At the end of March this year, when the first lockdown was announced, there was an acute shortage of PPE for healthcare staff. Sanitisers vanished from medicine stores, as did handwash soaps. As the lockdown snapped the national supply chain infrastructure, there was a cry of anguish and helplessness all around.

But it did not take months to fix the supply crisis. Stores managed to stock up with fresh supplies, we started going out with masks on our faces and sanitisers in our bags, and doctors got their supplies of PPEs. It happened not because the big industries swung into action, but because local MSMEs got into the act to meet the national challenge head on. Local inventory and local transport got strung together into a singular act while the nation got busy to settle the countrywide supply chain issue.

Statistics and data do not always reflect reality. We knew that MSMEs are the second-largest employment generators in India after agriculture, and that MSMEs account for half of India’s exports, but the pandemic showed us how nimble this sector is in responding to drastic changes in market reality.

We realise now that we need to be self-reliant in manufacturing, and it is up to the MSMEs to rise to the challenge. We need to ramp up production capabilities, and very fast. Achieving the target through large-scale industries - that too in the present state of the economy and physical distancing constraints imposed by the pandemic - seems an extremely challenging task. But, with proper support and some handholding, MSMEs may be the logical hope that we have in ensuring that India overcomes the challenges.

This is the only sector that is nimble enough to rise to the occasion as we saw in the early days of the pandemic.

Green shoots as India gets back to work WHO

Green shoots. A term that is slowly getting into everyday use as did “social distancing” after the coronavirus began wreaking havoc earlier this year. Before March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and many countries including India announced lockdowns, social distancing had a negative connotation. If you did not like someone you would try to distance yourself from that person socially. But social distancing (physical distancing is the term the WHO prefers) is now part of our daily life. Irrespective of your liking or not liking a person, you need to keep that precious physical distance – two to three meters for strangers and one meter for family and good friends. This is the defining boundary between possibly getting the COVID-19 disease and staying uninfected.

From March-end, when the nationwide lockdown began, to July, when it has been eased, economic activities had come to a standstill. We struggled to keep the wheels of business and industry running remotely where possible. But work-from-home cannot keep a tractor factory or a steel furnace running: so core economic activities remained firmly shut except for agriculture and essential services. Every day, newspaper headlines reminded us about the number of people who had been afflicted by COVID-19 and the number who had succumbed to it that day. Even the pink papers kept the COVID-19 news at the top. Unemployment kept inching up while growth rates dipped as we watched the spread of the disease with horror.

It was natural. With factories forced to shut down production lines and markets closed, how could there be any growth? Globally the scene was the same except for a few countries such as Vietnam. We worried. And we talked about disasters in the marketplace. Closures and more unemployment were anticipated.

It is July and COVID-19 still rules. But we have realised that life needs to move on and it’s time to unlock in phases. Instead of death, we have already started talking about green shoots! Green shoots are the signs of recovery. And as the Honourable Prime Minister mentioned, there are strong signs that the economy is finding its way back to pre-COVID-19 days. The employment rate is picking up as are market transactions.

But given the situation, we should not expect a steep recovery trajectory, as the menace of the coronavirus still rules. The workplace is getting redefined by the rules of physical distancing and sanitising everything. We cannot have the same workspace as we had in the pre-Coronavirus days. We will take time adjusting to the new reality. And the marketplace is reflecting this. With new distances specified between employees on the production floor, the workspace is being redrawn. That will take time to evolve through trial and error to reach an optimum level. What is the work that can be done from home and how, so that workplace crowding can be avoided? But the market wheels have started moving and the green shoots are out.

So, it’s time for us to get back to work – slow and steady – adjusting and adapting to the new reality.

Rural enterprise holds key in recovery from COVID-19 lockdown, home-quarantine

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to adopt lifestyle changes such as social distancing and home-quarantine that we have never experienced, the fabric of the urban economy unravelled and we are yet to weave a new one that can handle the new equations dictated by the coronavirus. The shocks on the rural economy have been milder in comparison. The reasons, starting with lower population density, are many. In the first phase of the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24, some agricultural activities were allowed. In the urban sector, however, the government shut down all our familiar activities barring those considered essential for surviving.The rural economy, helped with the normal pre-monsoon showers, trudged on.

The rural economy did feel the pain of the lockdown, but this pain was mostly the result of logistics issues that had not been factored in by the lockdown’s planners. For example, the dairy industry continued production but it was cut off from its market, which is predominantly urban. The government took some time to realise this and managed to sort out the issue before it extended the lockdown.

The pandemic has taught us to value the basics in our lives. The nation survived on essentials. Not since the Sixties has the nation as a market become so focused on agricultural products.The lockdown, imposed to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious SARS-CoV-2, shut down all economic activities save those in agriculture. So whatever little movement that we are sensing in the GDP’s engine is being powered by the rural segment. Now that the monsoon is expected to be normal, the nation is expecting a bumper crop. Add the recently-announced stimulus packages for small- and medium-enterprises to all this, and it looks like the rural economy will resurrect India’s GDP since manufacturing and services were locked down.

The government’s decision to free farmers from the agricultural produce market committees and so remove barriers to trade in agricultural produce will allow farmers to earn more.

As farmers start earning more, the return of migrant workers to their villages and small towns looking for jobs closer home is expected to power rural enterprise.

Meanwhile, scores of joint-liability groups and self-help groups, all led and staffed by women, have gotten into the new business of making masks, sanitisers and personal protection equipment. This rapid entry and scaling up is not only helping protect our corona warriors but is also creating more entrepreneurs, startups and business leaders.

When Nature unleashes her fury, the only option for many is to pick up their lives and start from scratch after the storm has passed. Devastation is an acceptable outcome. It should not be. Improvements in science have given us early warning systems for rains and cyclones. In India, the east coast, though, is more prone to cyclones than the west. To make matters worse, West Bengal also sits on an active seismic zone.

One may ask why cyclones hit the Bay of Bengal coast and why they are so frequent. Meteorologists have an answer but that doesn’t help us much in saving ourselves from Nature’s fury. The more important question is how we can recover from the impact of a cyclone.

According to the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, between 1891 and 2000, 308 cyclones have hit the eastern coast of India out of which 103 were severe. Given the early prediction system in place, the question that begs an answer relates to our readiness to face the next cyclone of Amphan’s intensity and our ability to repair the devastation wreaked by such an intense cyclone.

The West Bengal government claims super cyclone Amphan has left a repair bill of Rs 1.02 lakh crore. The state has announced financial aid for eight lakh people hit by Amphan. The prime minister has announced a grant of Rs 1000 crore as preliminary relief.

Apart from the financial burden left behind by Amphan, there is the cost of the lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted the economy on a huge scale and forced us to think of a new way of functioning that factors in social distancing, work-from-home, a depleted labour force in manufacturing and how the pandemic will play out and how many it will kill before we can control it.

The experience sadly has underscored our limited resources to contain damage resulting from Nature’s fury.

One must, in this context, keep in mind the fact that West Bengal has been a lucky sufferer. Odisha and Bangladesh have faced many more powerful cyclones than Bengal. It is argued that Odisha has mastered the art of managing cyclones and other states can learn from it. (After Amphan, we did borrow Odisha’s disaster management teams to work alongside our teams.)

So, in a sense, our mission to become better prepared to face natural disasters starts now. The era of technological advancement and digital Darwinism calls for advanced protective measures. From building embankments to disaster management technologies, cities and villages must build the infrastructure that can handle such natural disasters.

We need to focus more on sectors such as health, finance, housing, food supply, energy supply and communication while preparing for such eventualities. The immediate response and rehabilitation procedures should be laid out in a detailed framework. Timely preparation will not only save lives but will also minimise the damages.

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