By Wilfredo G. Reyes, Editor-in-Chief

“Any advertising that would tend to draw crowds is to be refrained from,” a notice read, advising business owners to “(a)void crowding your store” and to “(k)eep all clean and sanitary,” while another noted that those “who generally throng the shops at this season of the year are staying home; but, on the other hand, a much bigger business is being done in delivery orders.”(1)

Such advisories and observations should be pretty familiar to anyone by now — except that these were published more than a century ago at the height of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

As with individuals, businesses have been scrambling for lessons from the past that could guide their response to COVID-19, only to find very few parallels and that a playbook to survive and emerge stronger is a work in progress.

OUR STORY
BusinessWorld is no exception.

My stint at the helm of the editorial team began in January last year by, among others, reviewing SOPs for operations continuity, with disasters like massive floods of Ondoy’s magnitude and disruptive political events like coups d’etat in mind. True, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020, released on Jan. 15 that year, had counted “infectious diseases” as the 10th biggest risk in terms of impact, noting that “gathering pressures are straining health systems on many fronts” (reports of an outbreak of a strange strain of pneumonia began trickling out of China at the end of December 2019). Still, that was before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in mid-March, so I suspect that risk was nowhere on the radar screens of most other companies at that time either. The Forum’s 2021 report, of course, listed infectious diseases and “livelihood crises” as the top two “clear and present dangers” for the next two years.(2)

It soon became clear to us that, unlike previous disruptions, this one would require more than just checking for casualties and those otherwise affected among staff, identifying those who can deliver the product and reviewing the day’s targets.

It was also clear, as the government first announced a lockdown in mid-March last year, that paralysis was not an option — especially not for an organization whose core mission has been to provide timely information to its public.

BusinessWorld’s story since then probably reflects what has been going on elsewhere. As the company stabilized operations (i.e., plugging productivity shortcomings we were blind to before) and health protocols in the wake of the initial jolt from a hard economic lockdown in March, a small team sprang to action and explored the potential of maximizing digital channels for delivering content.

Within three months from the March 2020 lockdown, BusinessWorld held its first of several online interview series with top corporate leaders here and abroad. The company has also held two two-day economic fora since then within a span of six months and will be holding another soon. Those are besides weekly BusinessWorld B-Side podcasts based on leads taken from reporters’ daily coverage (but which could not be expounded on in spot news reports) and virtual roundtables with experts on various issues (many suggested by readers) under the BusinessWorld Insights brand.

During annual strategic planning sessions since the early 2000s, those leading the company had pondered the right time to go headlong into digital space and the answer — especially from 2015 onward — had invariably been: “Not yet, but let’s prepare everyone to stand on the springboard to take that plunge.”

Well, as with most everyone else, the pandemic-driven economic crisis has advanced this digitalization timetable — by about two years by my estimate. And that is one of the very few silver linings our company counts amid all the dilemmas and tragedies this emergency has spawned.

The ramping up of digital initiatives while doing what it takes to maximize the traditional print medium reminds me of that age-old military strategy of strengthening the fort while sending out patrols to foray into uncharted territory. The beauty of digital is that it allows one to aggressively tap opportunities as they open, learn from both successes and failures, and adjust accordingly as you go along.

I identify with those executives who were surprised by just how nimble their organizations and staff turned out to be amid all this disruption.(3) Of course, there was the inevitable resistance to doing things differently and tossing out routines that no longer work; hence, it was imperative that clear signals emanated from the top that we are doing this and it is here to stay.

The digital platform not only enabled BusinessWorld to reach its audience immediately amid the disruption the pandemic and the economic lockdown caused, but it also unlocked previously hidden value by opening opportunities for more products and unearthing hidden talent among staff.

It is also a more sustainable way of ramping up content production and connecting with a much bigger crowd.

Physical distancing fostered closer digital interaction among departments and staff, and the constant push and pull of ideas led to improvements in existing procedures and products, as well as new ones. One editor has taken the initiative to enhance the knowledge of reporters by tackling key issues in monthly online discussions.

NO TURNING BACK
Companies and organizations are now at a crossroads in determining the way forward into a post-pandemic arena.

A scan of thought pieces of some of the world’s leading consultancies yields a sampling of insights on this point.

One is “we cannot snap back to old ways of working,” and this means finding ways to preserve and foster the environment that encouraged fresh, workable ideas. The pandemic is “a dress rehearsal for a new, more turbulent world,” said James Allen of Bain & Co., who emphasized the need to determine how one’s organization can become more resilient. “And so the resiliency question really is a conversation… about, where do you need to add buffer capacity to make sure the decisions we make can last through various crises?”(4)

For Boston Consulting Group (BCG), companies now need to stay on point in their long-term agenda, build “resilience to unexpected shocks and harness imagination to create new offerings or business models that could drive future growth.” Resilience, according to BCG, has six traits, namely:

• prudence, or developing early warning signals to detect potential threats and preparing for plausible negative scenarios;

• redundancy, which involves building buffers for critical supplies or capacities to limit the potential impact of a shock;

• diversity, which involves having a variety of capabilities or products;

• modularity, which requires separating business components in order to prevent failures of parts from affecting the whole;

• adaptability, or having the ability to rapidly adjust to new circumstances by experimenting, identifying appropriate responses and cascading them throughout the organization;

• embeddedness, which means aligning the business’s goals with those of partners and communities, facilitating external cooperation and support in a crisis.(5)

The pandemic has also highlighted the workforce as a key resource for weathering future crises, and not just a cost.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and BCG cited the need to “retain flexible working practices beyond the crisis,”(5) while McKinsey & Co. said “remote work and virtual meetings are likely to continue, albeit less intensely than at the pandemic’s peak” and that most employees prefer a more flexible working model after experiencing work away from the office during the pandemic.(6)

WBCSD and BCG also cited the need to upskill, reskill and even redeploy employees “to enable them to succeed in the workplace of the future,” while Diane Brady said in The McKinsey Podcast that there is a need to hire and train for adaptability. “Look for people who demonstrate an ability to learn new things, who demonstrate learning agility, who demonstrate openness and ability to flex in different directions,” she said. “We’re all asked to do things that were not necessarily in our job description when we were hired. You can look for those types of skills in people, in addition to maybe the hard skills or the specific skills you’re looking for from a business need. But you can also train those skills.”(7)

Employee value is not lost on businesses in the Philippines, according to global advisory Willis Towers Watson, whose 2021 Employee Experience Survey in April found 95% of 91 employer-respondents saying enhancing employee experience will be a priority in the next three years compared with just 65% in a pre-pandemic poll. In the latest survey, most respondents cited positive employee experience as key to engagement (89%), productivity (88%), overall business performance (88%) and employee wellbeing (87%), while 76% said changing leadership competencies over the next three years is a priority in order to improve such experience.

BusinessWorld focused this anniversary issue on the stories of industries, companies and sectors as they chart their recovery, in hopes of contributing to this growing literature on crisis lessons.

Because the saga continues for all of us.

 

(1) “A look back at Butte during 1918 Spanish flu pandemic,” Montana Standard, March 29, 2020 (https://mtstandard.com/news/local/a-look-back-at-butte-during-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic/article_97f57c42-5a7d-533a-89c2-97680c94bf7f.html) and “Shop Trade Hit,” The Sun, Feb. 6, 1919, as uploaded on http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article222644593.

(2) https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2020

https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021

(3) For discussions on “A strategy for embracing uncertainty,” access https://www.bain.com/insights/a-strategy-for-embracing-uncertainty, Bain & Co., July 20, 2021.

(4) “Roadmap for a post-pandemic world,” Bain & Co., April 7, 2021 (https://www.bain.com/insights/roadmap-for-a-post-pandemic-world-video).

(5) “Winning the ’20s in an accelerated post-COVID world,” Boston Consulting Group (BCG), April 30, 2021 (https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/how-pandemic-accelerated-business-leader-agenda).

“Back to the future: resuming the long-term agenda for business,” BCG, April 6, 2021 (https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/three-pivotal-themes-for-the-long-term-business-agenda).

“COVID-19 Business Recovery: A guidance framework for a sustainable & inclusive ‘new normal,’” World Business Council for Sustainable Development and BCG, July 2020.

(6) “It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid,” McKinsey & Co., July 9, 2021 (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/its-time-for-leaders-to-get-real-about-hybrid)

“The future of work after COVID-19,” McKinsey & Co., Feb. 18, 2021 (https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19).

(7) “Building a learning culture that drives business forward,” McKinsey & Co., April 16, 2021 (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-accelerate/our-insights/building-a-learning-culture-that-drives-business-forward).