Navigating the post-Covid crossroads

Natasha Frangos talks to four businesses about the sort of strategies needed for the next decade

For some time, an evolving landscape has been threatening to fundamentally change the way businesses are run.

The dawn of a new decade was therefore an opportunity for businesses to reset and shape their strategies, be that through adapting to the increasing use of technology and as a consequence the range of skills needed in the team.

Or reacting to the changing needs of the consumer, embracing the evolving nature of the funding ecosystem or embedding considerations around ethics and environmental impact. All such factors in turn influence who wants to work for and buy from you.

Real thing: James Riley, CEO of Mandarin Oriental banned PowerPoint presentations in virtual meetings

The challenge was a veritable balancing act of complex and competing priorities in order to succeed. Fast-forward a few months and a global crisis has seen these existing trends become even more prominent, resulting in a wake-up call for leaders who need to steer their businesses into success for the decade ahead.

To get there, business leaders need to be totally in tune with their teams, customers and broader market, then adjust strategies accordingly.

Remote or flexible working is a classic example of a trend that has been accelerated, but leaders should ask themselves if the enforced, wholesale shift has truly resulted in the best approach.

Jan Bunge, Managing Director of creative digital studio Squint/Opera, argues that the paradigms in which businesses are currently utilising virtual working are inefficient and will, or at least should, change.

For him, engagement is the issue, particularly on complex projects involving relatively large numbers of people. We may be familiar with the experience of listening to one person speak, awkward pauses,  not knowing when to or who will participate.

For Bunge, the solution is to look into creating virtual environments in which they can meet clients in real time 3D, enabling participants to walk around and actively engage with others and the space itself.

the key is simply thinking about different ways of working, the reasons for working remotely and the reasons for getting together to collaborate

Such an approach may a couple of months ago felt like technology of the future, or at least not something that would have such broad appeal as it might do now.

Matthew Cushen, co-founder of Worth Capital and founder of Uprising Consulting, told me the key in his eyes is simply thinking about different ways of working, the reasons for working remotely and the reasons for getting together to collaborate.

The expectations of the workforce, clients, suppliers will have changed, so using technology for the right purposes is key.

Taking another view, James Riley, CEO of Mandarin Oriental International, who incidentally has banned PowerPoint presentations in virtual meetings in favour of generating active participation and discussion, highlights that data and technology should be embraced to enhance current ways of working.

For him this means upskilling employees to use technology as an enabler to better understand customers and ultimately deliver an improved service, far from robots in reception replacing individual’s jobs.

Used in the right way, technology will facilitate teams to spend less time fiddling with the basics and more time addressing a customer’s needs.

Planning for the unknown

Developing a strategy for success towards 2030 would undoubtedly be challenging in the best of times, so what about following arguably the biggest hit to the economy in 75 years?

Cushen suggests such events prove that leaders, no matter how confident, should not make predictions for the future. Instead, he argues that every business should come up with a set of scenarios around the influencing factors for their operations in the coming months or years.

The founders of Gü Puds, for example, put a mock-up of their product on a supermarket shelf to gauge customer interest before developing the real thing

Then think about what the most likely paths will be, how each scenario could be dealt with and which will have the biggest impact on the business. This allows leaders to then identify ways to innovate and come up with solutions in preparation for whatever lies ahead.

It would seem a sensible approach, but is it something that business leaders can truthfully say they do? At Squint/Opera, Bunge says the idea of simulating experiences before they happen is a natural and essential part of the business.

For them this is client-focused, virtually testing settings before committing to spending money on a real build. He says that all major industries have, or at least should, realise they can future proof designs by investing more up front in simulations, getting meaningful feedback and building better solutions. Importantly, the approach is more sustainable too.

This can be applied to businesses of any size. The founders of Gü Puds, for example, put a mock-up of their product on a supermarket shelf to gauge customer interest before developing the real thing.

Cushen explains that this is about leaders creating a mindset of experimenting even with small, creative tasks rather than undertaking huge business cases that risk going too far and generating false positives. In a rapidly changing business landscape, there are certainly lessons to be learnt here.

Utilisation of data: a trend to embrace in the long-term

The utilisation of data and technology in everything that we do will undoubtedly develop in the coming years. Interestingly, Colin Goldstein, Commercial Growth Director at small business lending platform iwoca, points out that use of data is increasingly pervasive in businesses that previously would not have identified themselves as data-driven.

Tools are more universally accessible, thanks to cloud computing, so more businesses of all shapes and sizes are doing data analytics in house to drive business decisions – perhaps evidenced by an increase in job adverts for data scientists in a wide range of sectors.

As a fintech, Goldstein explains that iwoca has real-time access to thousands of data points on each customer, enabling them to assess the customer for credit at market leading speed.

It’s easy to see how this approach could translate to most businesses, and leaders will do well to think outside of the box as to how this could be applied to them; be that working towards more automation of processes or decisions, enhanced customer experience or opportunities to innovate.

Cushen, Bunge, Goldstein and Riley are all from very different industries, but the lessons we can learn are consistent. They all agree that leaders should be focusing their efforts on a post-Covid era, as while we might not yet be out of the woods, strategising for the future will get us there faster. It will be those who recognise this early, and who act in the right way, that will thrive in the years to come.

Natasha Frangos is Head of Corporate and Head of Creative, Media and Technology, at  haysmacintyre