How businesses are re-inventing themselves in the face of Covid-19 pandemic
South Africa has entered level 4 of the Covid-19 induced national lockdown with an uncertain ending, scores of businesses from SMMEs to major corporations are gasping to catch up to the fast-paced forced evolution of the business world. Job security has become a far fetched air-thin dream for thousands of employees; despite measures like the Solidarity Fund in place, businesses are closing shop, and South Africans are losing jobs.
Amidst this pandemic of uncertainty, however, there are those businesses that are not only surviving, but are also thriving during these trying times, it seems that Covid-19 has impelled a kind of digital-age evolution, and those that have been working towards this evolutions find themselves on the better end of the change.
Speaking to Sowetan, ICT SMME chamber chairperson, Muzi Makhaye, expressed the positive side of the pandemic saying, “I concur 100% with the view that says the coronavirus has put us all firmly on the digital economy springboard… Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, meetings will, henceforth, be virtual and travel budgets will be directed to online video conferencing facilities, licensing, and training. Planet earth will be a better place for us all if we can travel less than we have become accustomed to in the last few decades. Certainly, business will never be the same, post Covid-19. This is true for big and small business.”
In the purpose of identifying ways in which businesses can have a better grip on the positive aspect of this pandemic, we reached out to two business owners who have been able to re-invent themselves. They shared their experiences and thoughts about the position that the business sector finds itself in.
Pranishka Nayagar is the co-founder and managing director of Catch Consultants (CATCH), a low-cost contact center and BPO partner, with a strong social purpose, and a track record of delivery. When companies are shaving jobs, CATCH recently employed over 20 consultants. CATCH has clients from around the world, in different industries and provide support from resources and leadership, to strategy. On her role in the business, Nayagar shares, “Our primary purpose is to create job opportunities for youth in our country and provide a path to accomplishing their dreams. My role as a managing director is to manage the business operations here in SA, onboard new clients and staff and everything in between. During this Covid-19 pandemic, our business key function was to ensure we were able to continue to support our clients and their consumers in the functions we have been contracted to do.”
The 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre Jefferson Tshabalala is the founder and director of Ub’Dope Shishini (Ub’Dope), a creative arts business, with primary interests in live performance, screen content and urban fashion. Stating the functionality of Ub’Dope, Tshabalala shares, “Our business continues to be operational. We have had to treat this period like a huge strategy and operations development time. All the things we planned to do, we are now planning to do bigger and better. To upscale essentially. Working under the premise that this too shall pass and ours is to ready ourselves and our systems for what is to come. Outside of the philosophical readiness, we have also been getting our technical know how up, so that we may become players in the digital arena. Finally, we are remaining visible and responsive in this time. We want to emerge on the 'other side' having kept our loyal base and having gained new clients. In summation, we are minimising our output and maximising our efficiency and capacity to operate optimally.”
On the questions of a lot of SMMEs being at the brink of closing shop, what in the opinions of Nayagar and Tshabalala could have led to other businesses not being prepared for such a trying time, to the extant that they can't survive passed three months?
Nayagar: “Preparation is the key.
1. In business, you need to always have a buffer or money saved for a rainy day for these situations.
2. You also need to ensure that your business is set up in the most agile and technologically savvy way with flexibility.
3. Business is like a game of chess, you need to be 10 steps ahead. I was fortunate to know at the end of January that this pandemic would potentially be something that would impact us all. My parents live in Hong Kong and I knew what measures had to be done for us to ensure our staff could still work during this period and provide the level of communication and trust to our clients that we could still manage the work from here. We knew what was coming. We planned, and secured staff and our business. Be ahead of the curve.”
Tshabalala: “Most young or small businesses are in debt, and are sustained by managing those debts through their day-to-day operations. To halt income, is to compromise that debt management, and subsequently, to endanger the low hanging fruit of 'regular income'.
So the top three reasons are:
1. No emergency pockets or relief fund contingencies.
2. No interruption of business or loss of income insurance .
3. Working to Sustain not to Upscale. Very few Small Businesses have surplus - and this is a cultural norm.”
On the question of the handle that their business has on this pandemic, and what are the strategies that they have put in place to thrive during this pandemic.
Tshabalala: To be fair, our business is small, and our staff compliment is young professionals. We are working with people whose in-field experience is less than five years, and they are not the heads of households, nor do they have legal dependents - myself included. We have made strides around adjusted working hours, maximising on the video conferencing platforms and on cultivating a stronger online footprint to keep our clientele engaged with our diverse offerings. We are fortunate to also still be outsourcing and hiring, however, I do credit this to the expansion plan that we began at the end of 2019. It is tiding us over right now.
Nayagar: Our roles as leaders in this age, is to ensure we have set our business with technology that is flexible and agile. An example is that the systems we use are online and can be accessed anywhere in the world. All the support mechanisms for staff are communicated this way as well. Everything we do is online. This means, it didn't matter if our staff were in the office or at home. Some organisations are not set up this way as yet, and this gave us the upper hand.
As leaders, you need to know and plan for what the future world looks like from a job creation perspective. What jobs will still be needed, what jobs will become redundant. In turn we need to create a purpose driven environment to guide, mentor and upskill staff to be self-sufficient, high performing individuals with outstanding work ethic.”
What in your opinion is the next step to keep SMMEs alive, whether or not the pandemic persists?
Tshabalala: “We all need to learn creative frugality, while we learn how to exploit opportunities for manageable growth. We also need to break the cycle of unhealthy debt so as to combat my points from response. Finally, we need young blood. I have had the zest and strength to persist because my team is young and adaptable - and people make their positions dynamic. There needs to be creative leadership, which is a poverty that many organisations experience. This might be the time, albeit financial constraints may make many hesitant, for bosses or leaders to start employing advisors, people to mentor, and getting young, fresh and creative energies into their organisations. This is across all industries!”
Nayagar: “These are unprecedented times for everyone. We are in new territories or waters. Below is what we have done.
1. Build Resilience
Build your business with resilience. From people, to your finances, to how your strategies and execute.
This starts at the basic levels of building capacity within your staff to be able to manage their personal life and work life. This is vital and it has been the key to the success. Our approach has always been holistic, and family orientated. We support each other at all levels. Our leaders are all emotionally intelligent and help build our people, not break them using fear-based leadership. We ensured first and foremost our staff was looked after. We paid their salaries early; we gave them computers to work from home, provided internet access to staff who didn't have it. And most importantly we ensured that they were set up at home a few days before lockdown.
2. Be technologically savvy
Ensure your business has online processes, full functionality and that you can operate from anywhere in the world.This means that whatever the scenario is, wherever you are, you can work.
Have a plan, and communicate to your stakeholders early to alleviate any concerns and risks. Be a chess player and be proactive, think 10 steps ahead and eliminate any obstacles you foresee.”
Giving a closing word of advice Muzi Makhaye says, "The first port of call for SMMEs in this situation is to apply to the long list of published financial aid packages. The ICT SMME Chamber discourages SMMEs from accepting loans disguised as aid. SMMEs must note be lured into credit. We expert better of our government and its financial aid agencies in these hard times. They must help small business and not drown them into debt pool. In the immediate future, we shall communicate to the government to provide wage subsidies to small businesses just for them to keep their employees. We urge the government and private sector funding (the foundations) to preserve SMMEs and offer them support if they are to survive Covid-19. SMMEs who would get financial aid are most likely to restore capital they lost to the lockdown. So, there cannot never be enough calls for financial relief packages for small businesses."
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