The United Nations, after a period of uncertainty and prevarication, eventually declared that a novel corona virus which caused unusual illnesses and death in the Wuhan Province in China, had actually become a global health pandemic.
Only a few people initially understood the implications of this declaration until we began to see the impact of the situation. Reductions in regional travel. Governments imposing restrictions on movements of its citizens. Expansion of travel bans to larger lockdowns. The entire country of Italy placing all its citizens under quarantine. Other countries followed suit. International air travel ground to a screeching halt. Billions of human beings were restricted to their homes by their own governments in countries all across the world. Naturally, markets followed suit. Every major bourse plunged to global depression levels. Previously unforeseen scenarios rolled out before our very eyes. The price of oil, for the first time in history, dropped below zero.
The free press responded accordingly with proclamations of the actualization of apocalyptic prophesy that could be summarized as: Sorry, folks. We didn’t realize it at first, but THE END has finally come. Indeed, current indicators bear them out. Global trade has ground to a halt. Economic variables in every country demonstrate utter devastation: zero aggregate exports, monumental unemployment claims, humongous foreclosure figures, sub-zero consumer confidence, monstrous bankruptcy levels, miniscule manufacturing numbers, and on, and on.
Many lives have been lost. Many people have lost jobs, businesses and even loved ones. Numerous patients with unrelated health conditions cannot gain access to normal care because of the disruption in the health sector. A lot of people in the developing world who are reliant on daily sales from subsistence trading face starvation for themselves and their families because of the pandemic.
However, despite the obvious devastation, I will be so bold as to suggest that the prognosis for the future is not entirely dire, and I have a few thoughts regarding the post pandemic outlook, especially from the perspective of labour and talent:
1. The fundamentals of the world economy are still solid. The single commodity that was withdrawn because of the pandemic is labour. Supply and demand of goods and services are still strong, but remain latent due to a temporary halt in production on the supply side, and a correspondingly temporary halt in wages on the demand side. This will be switched back on quite rapidly post-lockdown. Let us be very clear. Very many companies will go bankrupt and never recover. However, there are many alternatives waiting in the wings to snap up the demand. For example, let us bear in mind that Amazon recruited hundreds of thousands of workers during this pandemic
- Global collaboration is a formidable force for good. Unlike the Spanish Flu that plagued the world in 1918, The current pandemic comes with solutions in the form of globalization. Lessons in public health and contact tracing from Nigeria and mass-production of vaccines on a large scale from India complement number-crunching and lab work in Atlanta and London that will provide solutions to the pandemic within a much shorter time-frame than the norm
- Millenials were right all along, and companies that bet on work flexibility will win. Pre-COVID there was a view, particularly among corporates in this part of the world, that remote/flexi work was nice-to-have; an optional extra to be flaunted. Companies who are able to leverage on large-scale remote/flexible work as the norm for most of their workforce, will be at a significant competitive advantage. Furthermore, science indicates that a secondary spike of the virus may occur later in the year. Imagine the advantage you would have as a corporate organization if you could sail seamlessly through such a scenario because 98% of your employees already worked remotely?
- The world used to be flat, now space no longer exists. Remote work enables company employees to work seamlessly anywhere around the globe. Prior to the pandemic, many international corporates based in London or New York understood this and had call centres in India servicing customers in Uganda, or tech support in Vietnam trouble-shooting for teams in Ghana. Post-COVID, smaller corporates will be more willing to seize opportunities that existed all along: mid-sized firms in Dusseldorf or Hong-Kong or Adelaide who are willing to hire high quality talent working remotely from Mombasa or Durban or Abuja will find themselves at a significant competitive advantage
- The war on talent will go global. As a corollary to 4 above, Corporate entities will need to work harder to keep their talent. The market for talent has always been global, but employers (despite interviewing for people who can think outside the box) had consistently locked themselves into the box of geographical/country constraints. When they discover that their top talent is being poached by corporates from other countries (without having to physically migrate to Canada or Australia), they will be forced to consider talent retention strategies more rigorously
- Technology will increasingly become a key differentiator. The pandemic has demonstrated the huge effect of technology. Schools have suddenly realized the impact of remote learning. ZOOM has now become a verb. Companies who optimise their IT capacity now will have a demonstrable advantage going forward. It will not be sufficient to invest in generic applications. The differentiator will be in building in-house IT teams that can rapidly create bespoke solutions for the needs of the business. In this game, in-house coders are the kings and queens
7. The gig economy will soar. Many companies will realize that pay-per-use makes more sense than in-house capacity. Imagine you have a profitable delivery company with a staff strength of 30, and you realize that you have high-impact compliance needs, legal needs, risk concerns, and financial reporting requirements, but not necessarily every day. Do you really need a Head of Compliance, Head Legal, Head Risk and CFO given your scale? You will suddenly find you can access these services at world-class quality, and at a fraction of the full cost. On the supply side are the companies who will offer these services per use, and create value at scale. You will begin to wonder why you were not using them all along
Indeed, there is a whole new world out there post-Lockdown and it is there for the taking. The pandemic has shaken the entire global order and exposed numerous vulnerabilities. However, with vulnerabilities come opportunities. This is certainly not the end. The onus is on both business decision-makers and members of the workforce to learn from crises and create new paradigms.
Now is the time to seize the day.
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