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How local businesses can adjust to the ‘new normal’


Nairobi traders wait for customers next to a wall displaying Covid-19 awareness messages on May 28. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

The global economy is going through turbulence due to business shutdowns and unexpected disruptions resulting from effects of Covid-19.

While some countries have started easing tight lockdown measures, Kenya is still under acute economic inactivity, and it is hard to tell exactly when things will get better, with a “new normal” being birthed.

The effects of the “new order” have been a mass loss of jobs, as firms close businesses. Just last week, Central Bank of Kenya Governor Partrick Njoroge warned that up to 75 percent of SMEs may collapse by the end of June if they are not well cushioned.

Despite the current economic contraction, businesses must learn how to survive the current shockwaves, have the right technologies to help them sail out of the stormy waters and adopt best practices for business continuity in post Covid-19 period.

Ms Lillian Ngala, Head of Human Resources at Diamond Trust Bank sees flexible working policies and employee reskilling as one of the solutions in wading through the tough times.

"In the new normal, businesses will need the necessary technology in place to support such policies. Speaking of remote working, organisations will need to be agile as a matter of principle. They will have to train their employees as such, shift their mindset, automate business processes and hire future-proof talent," she said.

With the rise of a contact-free economy, business will need to embrace e-commerce and automation to respond to the changing shopping and consumer habits created by the pandemic. "We will also see emergence of roles around the culture and wellbeing of staff, psychological and physical safety of staff will be paramount," she adds.

The pandemic, she notes, has also created a reality check the on authenticity of organisations, whether they live up to the values they claim to stand for, and they can sustain that after the virus.

Mr Denis Nyongesa, Group HR Director for Ramco Group of Companies says that the job market will undergo a major shift and no employer or employee will be prepared.

"One shift will be a thought of employment insurance fund, whatever they will call it, it will be put in place to cushion employers and assist employees," he says.

Some positions that companies thought are only executed by presence in the office, it has turned out, can be executed remotely, calling for a change in mindset to accommodate the phenomenon, which comes with the benefit of reduced cost of office space and other office utilities.

"This unpaid leave and retaining skeleton staff clarion, has disclosed a natural way of staff lean management. Some positions which held 10 staff, four who have been left working are executing very well without strain, this unpanned discovery of rightsizing is a reality. Not to mean that the excesses need to be fired but can be utilised elsewhere in the company," states Mr Nyongesa.

According to Emmanuel Mutuma, chief executive of BrighterMonday, companies will be forced to be extra innovative to work virtually and reach consumers through digital channels.

"Organisations will come out of this with better ways to interact with their customers or work virtually while cutting down their costs. Those learnings will shape future jobs and how to perform them," he predicts.

The most successful companies in the world, he says, solve major problems for their customers and create a lasting impact. With Covid-19, organisations are thinking deeply about their consumer's behaviour and will find better tech-powered solutions that satisfy their needs even better.

Mr Tom Shivo, Group HR Director, at HF Group says work changes in the expected design will take the form of relationship management, fieldwork strategies, mass mobilisation and trade partnerships.

"The unemployment rate in Kenya is also going to go up due to the industries affected. Front-facing roles are likely to now include an aspect of digitisation and customer behavioural analysis to make activations and customer service effective," he observes.

Fintech and cloud services, according to Ms Ngala, will be at the forefront of ushering the country to the brave new world where digital and contactless payments will be preferred.

"As remote work is normalised, enabling tech like Virtual Private Networks, Voice over Internet Protocols, virtual meetings, cloud technology, and work collaboration tools will have a huge impact. The rise of e-learning will revolutionise employee training," she says.

Ms Heather O'Shea, a talent acquisition professional says that the future world of work will have more options - an agile workforce who are able to work remotely but the challenge remains infrastructure as firms keep struggling to provide laptops, tablets, airtime and stable internet to work from home.

"But most certainly in the near future, these would be easily overcome with more people opting for setting up the correct infrastructure at home," she hopes.

The faster businesses adapt and embrace digital transformation, the better it shall be for the companies. Businesses will be compelled to embrace innovation and find better ways to deliver results.

"Remember, how we work might change but business culture doesn't change. I would advise businesses to be positive and invest more time in re-emphasising their value and build a strong culture," says Mr Mutuma

Businesses, according to Mr Shivo, should now start thinking about managing productivity virtually. There is a need to innovate around providing solutions to customers.

"Innovation should, however, be anchored around speed. Customers will go to the provider who innovates fast enough to meet their needs. Business continuity is therefore critical, and the need for contingency planning is a practical ingredient for survival," he advises.

Firms will be required to customise their business continuity plans to cover financial resilience, commercial resilience, operational resilience and people resilience.

Ms Flossie Njagi, a C-suite corporate leader says that companies should expect further incremental and radical shifts in all aspects of life.

"In fact, the faster the world adjusts to what has already become the new normal the earlier it will respond appropriately to effects of the pandemic to the global macro – economics," she notes.

With signs of additional involuntary job losses becoming more evident, security of tenure has turned elusive and uncertainties continue to scourge workers. raising concerns of emotional wellbeing.

Consequently, certain job roles that were deemed critical are fast falling back as others take prominence in the struggle to remain afloat.

According to Perminus Wainaina, a HR consultant, SMEs need to put in place a business continuity plan and treat workers right, as many were caught by surprise by the new normal.

"As to how to treat staff, I'd request companies to be humane and not just look at the costs. Firing of staff or asking someone to take unpaid leave should be the last thing. Employers and employees should have a frank discussion with a view of achieving a win-win situation. Remember, you still need employees and people never forget how you treated them at their lowest," he explains.

As the situation becomes more dire, economic conditions and government mandates may require businesses to significantly decrease or even cease business operations altogether.

While some employers may not be able to avoid permanent layoffs as a result of the pandemic, others may wish to explore temporary layoffs or other stop-gap measures in the interest of keeping as many employees on the payroll as possible.

"Often, employees show their true value to an organisation during emergent circumstances. An employer benefits from retaining trained, productive employees during a pandemic or other emergency. Once the crisis has passed, these experienced employees can help boost much-needed revenues more readily than new hires," expounds Nicholas Kasidhi, a Pan- African headhunter and HR advisor.

On temporary lay-off, he says that an employer should communicate its desire to retain its workforce in the long-term.

"Explain that the step must be taken only due to circumstances outside of the employer's control, and that the decision is not based on performance or misconduct. Explore any available alternatives to temporary or permanent layoffs like unpaid leave for a period of time. In addition, an employer may wish to institute a hiring freeze during a pandemic. "

But hiring freezes should only affect non-essential positions as employers seek to restructure operations as needed with its current staff.

Employee safety and health will become a matter of priority, and companies will be coerced by the changing environment to upgrade their medical insurance policies to cover unforeseen outbreaks.

Ms Ngala says most companies have struggled to show empathy when addressing employees. "They should not assume the worst when employees don't hit the ground running. Instead, they should inspire and lead with patience and understanding."

Communication, she states, should be clear, calm, assuring and consistent, all geared to guarantee the much-needed psychological health in the organization.

"Given that these are not normal times; normal expectations should be temporarily adjusted to factor in different circumstances. Employers who will take care for employees during the difficult transition period will be greatly rewarded when the recovery is completely," she says.

For new hires, hiring managers and recruiters will have to focus on the potential of talent rather than shortlisting candidates through legacy ways.

For managing existing staff, most efficiency will be achieved if people are placed in roles that they can be most productive, with Covid-19 providing an opportunity to re-assess their skills.

"Succession planning is very important, there are credible online tools to manage employees by evaluating the long-term value and filling gaps where visible. This helps to ensure that there is business continuity," says Mr Mutuma.

A laissez- faire attitude towards business management can no longer survive but the new order presents a historic opportunity to conduct a truthful appraisal of all systems of operations.

"As with every project of which change process is one, cost implications can be a deterrent to already haemorrhaging industries. Amid the challenges; purpose will summon the zeal, tenacity, legacy and faith from the inner recesses of the heart to pick up the pieces and start all over again," says Ms Njagi.

However, companies will try secure their cash flow to ensure and reprioritise what can wait while focusing on staying afloat during this period. More investment in virtual communication services, cloud computing and Big Data will be critical to ensure business continuity and agility.