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Thanks for the memories?

Apr 01, 2020
Some of the commercial habits that are already being formed could serve us well once the COVID-19 crisis is over, writes Dr Brian Keegan. 

By now, all businesses and institutions have taken some preventative and containment measures against COVID-19 for their staff, but the early adopters of social distancing won headlines and even kudos for so doing. They were the first to tell personnel to work from home, to block staff from hosting or attending large meetings or any type of gathering, and to have placed an embargo on international travel.

Those early adopters had much in common. Typically they were large, multinational, and flourished in the online sales and services environment. By contrast, the indigenous SME sector often operates within a market segment where having people work from home is not practicable. The sector is now suffering the most from the collapse in demand caused by the pandemic.

We have seen epidemics before, but how well did we remember the lessons of Zika virus a few years on? Or SARS? Or swine flu? How much better are we at defending ourselves? At the time, these were serious crises, but they seem to have faded from the collective memory very quickly. That may be simply because their social and economic impact was far less pronounced than that of the current scourge, but I’m not sure the reason is as straightforward as that. It may instead be because they left no lasting behavioural changes in most of the businesses and societies they affected.

Societies that did remember how bad things could get were better prepared for COVID-19. Singapore is not the most open of jurisdictions, but they read the warning signs early. Also the isolation wards built there to tackle SARS in the early years of the century were still available to hold patients ill with COVID-19, and that in turn allowed the authorities to be more prescriptive about quarantining and testing.

No business, nor even a country, can (or even should) sustain the kind of “just in case” procedures, buffers and Singaporean-style infrastructure to guard against once-in-a-century pandemics. This, however, is a crisis for all of us, and we should not waste an opportunity to take some insight from it.

Some of the commercial habits that are already being formed could serve us well once this crisis is over. Because the situation is changing daily, I am hesitant to be too prescriptive and not all these behaviours will sustain or improve the bottom line. Nevertheless, there is already evidence that businesses are accommodating, and staff are delivering through, more flexible working practices. This is not just about working from home where that is possible, but about varied working hours, role definition and service delivery methods.

In days when demand is in decline almost everywhere, the Institute sees an upswing in demand from members for resource materials and online training. This could be down to a desire to fill empty hours, or more positively, it could be down to a broader recognition that additional skills and tools are needed for future survival.

Behaviour is the hardest thing to change. The reluctance to lend or borrow, an antipathy towards speculative development, overcautious economic policy and even the rise of the gig economy can be traced back to the downturn a decade ago. The legacy of the 2007/08 recession sometimes lingers less on balance sheets than it does in the collective memory.

The businesses that bounce back the fastest could well be those who are the early adopters of the new business behaviours prompted by the crisis. Just like the last recession, COVID-19 is now creating memories of its own. We will need to hang on to the positive ones.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.