Six traits for competitive advantage in a post-covid world
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High inflation, labour and talent shortages, the “great resignation”, supply chain disruption, cyber and security risks, and continued uncertainty are just some of the concerns and considerations that businesses of all sizes are facing currently. Many of these issues are not new, but most now have added complexity as a direct result of the pandemic. As a result, business leaders need to be prepared, but most importantly they need to be thoughtful and human in their response.
In an article at the beginning of the pandemic, we articulated seven clear phases of crisis (see image of the Crisis Curve below). If we take the optimistic view that the UK, and indeed much of the developed world, is moving from pandemic to an endemic situation, then leaders will now be considering the future and imagining success in our new reality. It is likely therefore that many organisations are now nearing – or in - the final phase. We previously described this phase as crisis futureproofing.
Perhaps one of the most positive by-products of the pandemic has been the fact that it has forced organisations to innovate and transform at a faster rate than they had previously thought possible. In order to do this, many firms shifted to a mindset which is at the very heart of crisis futureproofing and one which we will reflect upon in this paper.
In our own business, we have accelerated development and thinking across all necessary working models, from home working, to working in the office and, indeed, all sorts of hybrid models in between. In fact, the rational that sits behind this complexity has become a core part of our Webhelp Anywhere approach. The methodology of this approach has provided us a structured way of designing these new ways of working, based on specific organisational and commercial criteria. Of course, the output of this work is undeniably useful, providing a blueprint for competitive operational advantage.
However, the most valuable part of it is that it opens minds and starts to engender a new way of thinking; a way of thinking that moves us all beyond the reactive myopia of a demand-intensive pandemic. Notably, it helps us with crisis futureproofing.
As we have worked through this approach with various clients, we have seen some common organisational traits that have, more often than not, dictated a faster route to success. These traits can be summarised as follows:
All organisations have needed to respond to adversity over the last few years. At times, leaders have (understandably) felt tired and lacked energy. Those who have been able to see problems as opportunities and convince their teams to invest time and energy into new ventures have succeeded. Certainly, re-inventing oneself is not easy, and it’s even harder when working remotely. But resilient leaders have created that positive energy at their lowest ebb. The best successes have seen existing capabilities repackaged as fresh new propositions to solve present-day issues.
The repositioning of a value proposition to solve a new problem does not mean changing the core capability of a business. Engineers don’t become artists overnight. Mercedes F1 diverted significant energy and resources with University College London (project pitlane) to develop a continuous positive airway pressure device which saved many lives during the pandemic. Just 100 hours elapsed between their first meeting and the production of the first prototype. Machines that were normally used to produce pistons and turbos were used to meet the new demand. This is adaptability at its best.
The huge numbers of cafes and restaurants that did survive the pandemic totally reimagined their service model. Home delivery models, opening hours, packaging, payment methods, menus, distribution location, workforce planning and skillsets – all had to evolve if firms were to survive. Capturing those headings provides us with a great checklist for a future crisis.
The inability to understand exponential growth, led to the UK suffering above average deathrates versus similar European economies. Although the early rollout of the vaccine decreased this gap, most adults were given a life lesson in lead and lag indicators. The relationship between infections, hospital admissions, ICU numbers and deaths has been horribly predictable. Political pressure has prevented the scientists from being able to flatten waves as effectively as we might have hoped. Nonetheless, this is a useful illustration of how daily tracking of data and trends can inform decision-making. Trusting your gut can work but using the data intelligently has never had such a prolonged advertisement.
Both Brexit and COVID-19 have caused substantial pain for UK businesses and their supply chains, and for the first time in a long time, the country is dealing with rising interest rates and inflationary prices. Continuing public health concerns, ongoing supply disruption, and the unpredictable nature of the months ahead are also all shaping the market. When looking at this challenge, there’s a danger companies look for solely cost-based solutions, not least as they can be an immediate lever. But when they do so, they often confuse efficiency with effectiveness and fail to recognise that cost savings achieved in one area of a business can become larger cost increases in others.
Take the contact centre environment as an example, where customer demand is dynamic and can be unpredictable. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) solutions are typically deployed to manage this demand, with cost efficiencies achieved versus staffing costs. When poorly implemented this approach can lead to repeat contact, call backs and customer complaints. Our work with clients in this space consistently highlights that an approach traditionally viewed as inefficient can be the best, most effective, next step. We often find that being slightly over capacity from a staffing perspective i.e., less efficient, can be more effective on a holistic level - and help deliver a better customer experience.
Being effective is all encompassing. It requires a deep understanding of the operating model, from considering where technology can benefit the operation and the customer, to looking at how Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), coaching and incentives can shape staff behaviour, with much more in-between. New ways of working, with operating models free from silos, are needed.
Companies are changing their workplace strategies, with employee preferences as much of a driver, as concerns about health and safety. We expect flexible work policies to become increasingly important to businesses in their ability to attract and retain talent over the coming years, and greater flexibility for remote work will be a priority long-term change to the workplace. There is no doubt that the labour market is the lynchpin of future recovery and, more than ever, empathy, understanding, and a clear people-focused strategy will be essential to retain and delight employees. Certainly, the companies who are weathering the storm the best are doing so because they are putting their people first. They are also switching to a hybrid working model and offering flexible employee solutions, such as remote working and outcome-based work solutions.
Aside from the qualities and traits outlined above, there are some very tangible challenges that leaders must address too. These challenges are threefold:
1. Closing the talent gap
While there are ongoing reports of a post-pandemic talent shortage, as the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ impacts headcount and increases talent competition, trouble was already bubbling under the surface long before COVID-19 struck.
Long-term workforce planning will be critical to balancing both short- and long-term objectives in preparing for the future of work. With this in mind, leaders must work alongside their own employees to identify skills gaps and investigate how to acquire those skills, both from within the organisation and outside.
Development and training programmes are being overlooked at a time when they have never been more critical. This is another way that employers can demonstrate their commitment to investing in their people, building their workforce to fill skills gaps and prepare for future disruption. Setting employees up for success and empowering them in their work through reskilling, upskilling, coaching, mentoring and encouraging the development of personal skills like listening, diagnosis, problem-solving and empathy building alongside job-based skills training will re-engage employees and help retain them longer term.
Company support for the employee life experience will become “table-stakes”. Manage the ‘Great Resignation’ with long-term workforce planning, developing your people and closing your skill gaps.
Businesses will need to rethink their recruitment process, hiring staff for potential, not just for their experience. Flexible work policies have already become more important in the race to attract and retain talent and must be viewed as a long-term investment. The recent influx of resignations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means there is more talent in the market looking for roles in companies that are better suited to their skills and values. That’s a win for companies who have immediate gaps to fill, but they must also prepare for continual change, vetting candidates for the skills the business needs to ensure they continue growing, rather than just replacing someone who has left.
The dynamic has shifted with a switch back to a candidate’s market (and employees know it). With increased opportunities and a working landscape that has permanently changed since the pandemic began, workers have become far less accepting of facets of their jobs that they have just put up with before. In 2022, companies with a compelling “employment value proposition” will attract and retain talent.
2. Cyber and resilience
A cyber pandemic is probably just as inevitable as another future health pandemic and, as such, cyber resilience must now be a top priority for organisations in 2022. COVID-19, whilst incredibly destructive can actually help to provide some insight into how business leaders can prepare.
As we have seen with the pandemic, even a short delay in response can cause substantial damage, and whilst it’s impossible to prepare for every possible risk, companies can prepare using scenario exercises to reduce reaction time and realise the range of strategic options in the event an attack occurs. Continuity plans are essential to ensure businesses can continue to operate in the event of a sudden loss of networks and digital tools – a necessary part of the digital transformation is having important, sensitive information accessible in a physical form.
Pre-planned actions, as well as clear, quick and consistent communication can help to increase resilience. Develop an effective, holistic operating model, that’s cyber secure, free from silos, balances the digital with the human and values customer experience.
Technology exists in the workplace to aid performance, but what’s really important is the people within that business. It’s people that really matter.
Businesses often start with technology when it comes to Digital Transformation but, we believe that starting with people – be they customers or colleagues - is the key to reinventing how a business operates, especially in light of the year just gone. By viewing every business challenge through a more people first lens, organisations can drive significant and sustainable change, whether the ambition is to increase revenue, reduce costs, or both.
Technology is about ‘taking the robot out of the human’ by eliminating mundane and repetitive tasks. The best way to prepare workers for automation is to help them understand how it will benefit and bolster what they do—improving the quality of their work, reducing routine, removing the mundane tasks, and giving them the time to think and add value at a higher level.
Support your people to embrace technology, leverage automation and spend more time on rewarding, value add work.
In writing this piece, and indeed by collating insights from a number of experts, we feel that our thinking has changed somewhat through the process of considering what a business needs to survive and thrive post pandemic. During the crisis, and when drafting our first article on the crisis curve, we very much felt that there was a road map approach that could be taken; a step-by-step process if you like. However having reflected on it, we can now be clear that the future simply doesn’t lend itself to a one size sits all approach. There is no cookie cutter here. Rather it’s about businesses creating a mindset shift and having the ability to truly reimagine what they do.
We believe that the future belongs to the organisations who have the right mindsets, not those who have merely joined the dots. Businesses who have ‘reimagined’ will win out today, tomorrow and in the years to come.