Six steps to post-Covid planning

From empowering your remote workforce to protecting against new cyber security risks, companies can take action right away.

FOR companies facing their post-Covid future, making decisions and acting with assurance has never been more challenging.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore expects gross domestic product to shrink by between 4 and 7 per cent this year, with a gradual recovery beginning in second half of 2020. Singapore is taking strong steps to get the economy back on track by providing close to S$100 billion to support citizens and help businesses tide over the Covid-19 crisis - including S$33 billion under the just announced Fortitude Budget, the fourth support package this year.

Key measures include wages subsidies of up to 75 per cent for local employees to be extended for one more month for all companies, and efforts to create more than 40,000 jobs in the public and private sectors.

But questions remain: How should companies and government agencies handle this drastic disruption? Are there any specific actions that organisations can take right now to mitigate the situation, as well as prepare for a post-Covid future?

In April, Oxford Economics and the IBM Institute for Business Value polled C-suite executives worldwide on their perceptions and planned actions. Here is a gist of the six action points that companies can take right away, as well as in the longer term:

1. Empower your remote workforce

Communication is key. Be aware that what leaders think they are communicating would not always be perceived the way they intend. Research shows that while 74 per cent of executives said they were currently helping their employees learn to work in new ways, only 33 per cent of surveyed employees felt the same. Clearly, feedback loops need to be built into all interactions.

What are some near-term measures that human resource leaders should have in place? For one, set up digital channels and information services that provide staff with answers to crisis-related issues. Inform employees of revised policies on remote and flexible working. Offer guidelines on where to turn for help if staff need to travel or need to hire external service providers to handle extra workloads.

For the long term, address cultural issues on how to manage and engage a remote workforce distributed across time zones. Offer staff strong digital communication tools and ways of working. Set up an accelerated online, personalised skills and development strategy for employees. Strive to set up an innovation mind-set that takes the opportunity to step back and assess where work could be re-imagined, refined or re-dedicated.

2. Engage your customers virtually

Given the resource efficiency and effectiveness of available digital tools and the speed with which they can be embedded (virtual assistants can be deployed in hours in some cases), they are likely to become core business tools in the post-Covid era.

What are some virtual engagement features that CMOs (chief marketing officers) should have in place?

First, ensure effective digital messaging on websites - and apps - that clearly communicate to customers, suppliers, channel partners and retailers. Second, automate high-volume requests, voice and chats with virtual agents and cloud-based interactive voice response (IVR). Measure and test mechanisms to gather data on effectiveness and outcomes and refine processes. Build conversational functionality into apps, devices and channels.

For the future, set up a centre of excellence for virtual customer engagements. Expand agent-at-home practices, even when in-office work restrictions are lifted. Adopt messaging - versus voice - as a scalable, lower-cost service channel. Establish a digital self-service environment with relevant, timely communication that provides the value, data, and insights that customers need. Leverage cloud-based platforms augmented with artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and other advanced tech for digital transformation.

3. Remote access to everything

Offer remote access to everything. Here is what chief technology officers (CTOs) and chief information officers (CIOs) should do right away: Take an inventory of high-value assets, including application platforms, services, and data, and organise them by availability and criticality. Update the roster of crisis roles and responsibilities in teams. Distribute mission-critical tools to varied locations and access points. Ensure platforms for remote work are robust. Back-up infrastructure capabilities for critical services and tools, including remote work support for clients and customers.

Set up detailed business continuity plans (BCPs) that make the most of digital technologies. Break down large BCPs into smaller sub-plans tied to geographic sites. Begin a permanent shift to cloud storage and archive. Commit to automation and virtual workflows. Make a greater commitment to open (non-proprietary), interoperable services. Visibility is critical. Deploy tools and processes to generate whole-of-business insights on demand for the C-suite.

4. Accelerate agility and efficiency

Digital transformation, leveraging the cloud and cloud-native technologies hold the keys to be able to take nimble actions that chief operating officers (COOs) need during a crisis.

First, set up a cross-functional leadership cadence for high-impact decisions that includes internal and external teams. Second, foster greater transparency, visibility, and accountability using common performance metrics. Consider redesigning operating models for a virtual workforce, with cloud-based productivity platforms and "zero-trust" interaction models that operate independently of virtual private networks (VPNs).

For the longer term, COOs should plan with these pointers: Note that the services economy will surge. Mission-critical operations and assets will move exclusively to the cloud to enhance resilience, but also to enable workload commoditisation and cost optimisation. Multi-cloud management will therefore become a key competency. On-demand sourcing will become simpler and common through trusted, blockchain-enabled platforms. Increased automation and AI will drive efficiency, collaboration and innovation.

5. Protect against new cyber security risks

Since the outbreak went global, there has been a 4,300 per cent jump in Covid-themed spam. What can the chief information security officer (CISO) do in the short term?

Set up a crisis command centre, with cross-functional members, to proactively track operational health and risk metrics, including employee, client, partner and third party-supplier risks. Deploy cyber-incident reporting and response tools. Issue clear guidelines on approved collaboration apps and how to use them securely.

For the longer term, CISOs should focus on the following: Implement security telemetry and analytics. Early detection and response require automated data collection. With modern telemetry and log-file capture, attack vectors can be modelled, signatures created and breaches re-created. Develop security automation capabilities. Consume and contribute to threat intelligence. Raise security awareness overall.

6. Reduce operational costs and enhance supply chain continuity

Volatility has become hyper-local, with excess inventory in one city and another in dire need. For many businesses, saving a few days can make a huge difference in both preparing for - and recovering from - a major impact.

What steps can chief financial officers (CFOs) and chief supply chain officers (CSCOs) take in the short term? Strengthen cash and liquidity management. Assess supply chain risks, including tier-2 and tier-3 suppliers. Use real-time tools and analytics to address volatility in demand. Re-evaluate sourcing strategy and supplier networks, weighing global versus local. Allocate inventory based on criticality. Ensure you have continuous local visibility on inventory fluctuations and logistics constraints, including labour.

For the longer-term, deploy continuous collaborative planning, leveraging real-time data and coordination across the supply chain. Introduce integrated AI and digital control to enable visibility of supply chain flows and accelerate decision-making. Optimise costs to preserve liquidity and fund growth.

A global public health crisis like Covid-19 is a rare occurrence. We have never been forced to hide in our homes. Is there a bright side? Yes. One fortunate aspect of the era we live in is the sophistication of our digital world. We have a network of virtual connections. A broad array of devices, software and technologies allows us to operate, plan and respond to this crisis in a way that past eras never could. The changes we are experiencing are, in this way, preparation for the future.

  • The writer is managing director, IBM Singapore