Irish businesses are beginning to consider the post-pandemic world, and what their premises and business models might look like. In doing so, they can take something positive from the Covid-19 experience, and look to reinvent themselves.
You don’t have to dig too deep into the survival mechanisms that businesses hurriedly put in place to work out what will be needed to achieve permanent and positive change.
Some of it is about embracing digital technology to become more agile, but a lot of it is about people - the employees who rose to the challenge of the national restrictions and kept their businesses going as they worked diligently from home.
I have lost count of the number of executives who have told me they want to bottle the collective resolve and focus that emerged during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Industry has experienced the power of a single mindset as people put their heads down and worked together through the crisis. A recent Accenture survey found that 85 per cent of businesses in Ireland were as productive, if not more productive, during the lockdown.
Business leaders have also surprised themselves at how quickly they were able to stand up new technologies – principally solutions such as Microsoft Teams for remote working – which will encourage even the most tech-wary to accelerate digital transformation projects in the future.
Rather than return to the old ways of working, there is an aspiration to find ways to create a permanent culture of shared goals and collective alignment with everyone in the business united behind a common purpose.
There is a real appetite for innovation and doing things differently. We see many of our clients planning to use the time between now and the government’s final phase of reopening to reposition themselves and reset their business models.
Most businesses recognise that what they face now is much more than reopening an office; it’s about reopening a business for a more complicated future, responding not just to the longer-term impact of Covid-19 and a possible second wave, but to the economic uncertainty of a nation turned upside down.
What business leaders have learnt to do, and must continue to do, is outmanoeuvre uncertainty in agile ways. More nimble businesses that had already embraced digital technology fared better during the height of Covid-19 than more reluctant adopters.
Accenture, where I work, is a case in point. We have a culture of remote working that comes from the top down. Consequently, our teams are very familiar with working and sharing documents online, and collaborating using digital tools.
Not every organisation was as well positioned, but it’s not a big leap to imagine that they can quickly follow suit. The reality is that a lot of the solutions and services now identified as business-critical were on most organisations‘ radar before coronavirus - their importance has just been magnified.
Roadmaps haven’t fundamentally changed; they have just been accelerated. Conversations are the same; they have just been amplified.
Businesses were already talking about cost optimisation and exploring ways of becoming more digital before Covid-19. Flexible working was recognised as increasingly important, and empowering the workforce with digital capabilities was already a hot topic.
What has changed is that it is now a top priority. Business leaders know they need to transform more quickly and that they need an agile and flexible workforce with supporting technologies.
Employees have responded well to using the collaborative technologies that were forced upon them by extraordinary circumstances. With so many people learning on the job, many businesses came up with innovative training programmes to make homeworking a success.
The speed at which employees became comfortable with new ways of working was a revelation to many businesses that they will not forget.
Perhaps the single biggest lesson is that businesses will need to stay closer to employees and customers going forward. At Accenture we have identified five key steps for re-invention and it’s no coincidence that people feature prominently. Caring for them, ensuring a safe workplace and redesigning for the “never normal“ are foundations for change.
The five are:
1: Put people first: Place caring at the core and engender trust. Deepen your understanding of people’s circumstances and feelings to truly tailor work environments and experiences to their needs.
2: Design spaces that work: ensure a safe, inclusive working environment. Segment key workers who must be physically present on the frontlines from those who can work remotely.
3: Solve in phases: Redesign for business as unusual. Look to reopen the business components that generate cash and/or profits fastest to fuel new growth streams.
4: Commit to an elastic cost structure: Create the fuel for growth. Invest in greater data intelligence to better adjust cost structures and manage liquidity.
5: Get future-ready: Create next-generation agility. Stay close to the evolving needs of customers and put innovation at the heart of your reinvention.
The leadership demonstrated by the Irish government resonates with me, not least because it reflects the principles of agility I’ve been talking about.
The way they have the adjusted the phased reopening of Ireland shows a flexibility to changing circumstances that organisations would do well to emulate, not just in their response to Covid-19 but in their entire approach to business. An uncertain future will demand it.
Hilary O’Meara is managing director of strategy and consulting at Accenture