Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired

 

 

 

 

 

Designing The Future Workplace

Last week’s blog was about reshaping the Future of Work. From both the feedback I have received, and the recent work I have been doing with Re-Imagi, what really comes across is the opportunity to move the dialogue of “work” from “employer and employee” (transactional) to “co-contributors” (relationship). In an ideal world, companies contribute resources (capital, structure, equipment, tools, opportunities, projects, compliance, risk management), and individuals contribute resources (hard and soft skills, experience, knowledge, contacts, ideas, time, relationships, networks, creativity, thinking). If this is this the new Social Contract, what is the best environment to foster this collaborative approach?

Image: “MDI Siemens Cube farm” (Photo sourced from Flickr)

Many recent articles on the Future of Work and the Future Workplace have identified key social, organisational and architectural issues to be addressed:

  1. On-boarding, engaging and “nurturing” new employees
  2. Trust in the workplace
  3. The workplace structure and layout
  4. The physical and built environment
  5. Design and sustainability

Underpinning these changes are technology (e.g., cloud, mobile and social tools which support BYOD, collaboration and remote working), and the gig economy (epitomised by the tribe of digital nomads). Together, these trends are redefining where we work, how we work, what work we do and for which organisations. (For an intriguing and lively discussion on collaborative technology, check out this thread on LinkedIn started by Annalie Killian.)

Having experienced a wide range of working environments (cube farm, open plan, serviced office, hot-desking, small business park, corporate HQ, home office, public libraries, shared offices, internet cafes, co-working spaces, WiFi hot spots, remote working and tele-commuting), I don’t believe there is a perfect solution nor an ideal workplace – we each need different space and facilities at different times – so flexibility and access as well as resources are probably the critical factors.

The fashion for hot-desking, combined with flexible working hours, is having some unforeseen or undesired outcomes, based on examples from clients and colleagues I work with:

First, where hot-desking is being used to deal with limited office space, some employees are being “forced” into working from home or telecommuting a certain number of days each month – which can be challenging to manage when teams may need to get together in person.

Second, employees are self-organising into “quiet” and “noisy” areas based on their individual preferences. While that sounds fine because it means employees are taking some responsibility for their own working environment, it can be counter-productive to fostering collaboration, building cross-functional co-operation and developing team diversity. (One company I worked for liked to change the office floor plan and seating arrangements as often as they changed the org chart – which was at least 3 or 4 times a year – it was something to do with not letting stagnation set in.)

Third, other bad practices are emerging: rather like spreading out coats to “save” seats at the cinema, or using your beach towel to “reserve” a recliner by the hotel pool while you go and have breakfast, some employees are making a land grab for their preferred desk with post-it notes and other claims to exclusive use. Worse, some teams are using dubious project activity as an excuse to commandeer meeting rooms and other common/shared spaces on a permanent basis.

Another trend is for co-working spaces, linked to both the gig economy and the start-up ecosystem, but also a choice for a growing number of small businesses, independent consultants and self-employed professionals. In Melbourne, for example, in just a few years the number of co-working spaces has grown from a handful, to around 70. Not all co-working spaces are equal, and some are serviced offices in disguise, and some are closely linked to startup accelerators and incubators. And some, like WeWork, aspire to be global brands, with a volume-based membership model.

But the co-working model is clearly providing a solution and can act as a catalyst for other types of collaboration (although some co-working spaces can be a bit like New York condos, where the other tenants may get to approve your application for membership).

Given the vast number of road and rail commuters who are on their mobile devices to and from work, I sometimes think that the largest co-working spaces in Melbourne are either Punt Road or the Frankston line in rush hour….

Next week: Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?