Business planning

Three ways businesses can prepare for what’s next in 2020

cafe owner takes a call from a customer

For a brief moment, it looked like the world economy might experience a somewhat predictable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in many markets including Canada, businesses’ best laid plans have once again been disrupted – if not as abruptly as in March, with more uncertainty than many would like.

As we enter the fall season, young people are back to school either virtually or in-person, Canadians are being urged to wear face masks indoors and at least half of businesses are expecting post-pandemic consumer demand to remain low. While many are easing into this new way of living, many businesses are faced with a conundrum. They must actively plan for a range of scenarios, from reduced operations, to the possibility of another outbreak, which could trigger an even deeper economic downturn.

How can businesses best prepare for success in this new normal? How can companies who are able to restart some of their operations, or whose employees can return to work, ensure they do so profitably while continuing to plan for wider resumptions?

In this uncertain climate, a key driver is technology. For example, 67 per cent of Canadian CFOs believe that cloud-based, data-driven financial management technologies are essential for their future success. In the manufacturing industry, emerging technology is a top priority for 59 per cent of Canadian manufacturers.

Regardless of their industry, it’s important for business owners to re-examine their operations and sharpen their focus on flexibility and agility. Success in the present moment means prioritizing what matters most to employees and customers, and ensuring it can still be delivered efficiently.

Take a human-centric approach

If there is one value that remained consistent throughout the pandemic, it’s that an organization’s most important asset is its people. Glassdoor recently named Sage CEO Steve Hare as the highest-rated CEO in the UK for how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic. During the outbreak, Sage’s priority was to ensure a safe and effective working environment for colleagues at a time when the stakes were high, and customers’ need for support was greater than ever.

In many organizations where employees are now working remotely, losing access to crucial data and systems can grind business operations to a halt. Just as data access and security have long been a top priority for office IT departments, ensuring employees retain secure, remote access to these systems should remain of utmost importance.

As the second wave looms in Canada, it’s also become increasingly clear that many knowledge workers expect to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future – and that’s not a bad thing. Even before the pandemic, the Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five, modern office culture had been largely replaced by an “always-on” mentality, one better accommodated by the pandemic’s “work when you can, where you can” environment. In fact, Canadians have shown a 25 per cent increase in overall productivity despite recent disruptions – and with proper remote work accommodations in place, are likely to feel more supported too.

Companies that largely depend on having physical labour or staff on-site, meanwhile, should draw up plans to safely reoccupy their offices, warehouses and factories responsibly – perhaps in waves, or gradually week by week. Whatever form the new schedules take, the personal needs and limitations of staff should be considered more than ever. Parents of young children may not have immediate access to childcare, while other employees may need to continue caring for dependent relatives (fortunately, government benefits for these exist).

Whatever your company’s position, doing what’s best for employees requires customized planning and a responsive, real-time view of each worker’s individual circumstances – a difficult prospect when HR and payroll information is siloed across departments. By adopting cloud-based tools capable of integrating data across the enterprise, businesses can ensure their staffing decisions are drawn from a depth and breadth of insight.

Level up efficiency with automation

If businesses want to maintain their agility in the face of the pandemic’s disruption and uncertainty, it’s vital they reduce the amount of time spent on basic administrative tasks. Worldwide, the average SMB loses 5.2 per cent of its time to repetitive data entry and manual processing duties like scanning invoices or updating forms.

Business leaders know this – they want their key decision makers focusing on analyzing and interpreting data, not managing it. No wonder 90 per cent of Canadian financial leaders have already begun automating processes to drive efficiencies, with  93 per cent saying that automation has positively improved productivity.

Automation improves efficiency while reducing costs and the potential for human error. Tools like robotic process automation (RPA) can free up management from routine, time-consuming tasks. Applying such tools throughout a company’s core business functions allows them to gain back valuable time and supercharge productivity across the board.

And while automation can save weeks of work in a regular environment, during a pandemic it can be game-changing, freeing employees to focus on big changes that will grow and add value to the organization while machines sweat the small stuff.

Don’t stop evolving

While the past six months have been disruptive and difficult for many business, they’ve also given rise to equally disruptive innovation. Breweries started making hand sanitizer, restaurants began offering grocery deliveries and gyms used online fitness classes to keep clients engaged. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) also reported a record 38 percent increase in domain registrations, pointing to the growing trend of Canadians starting new businesses, building websites and pivoting to online services. Innovation is born from focusing on what we can do rather than what we can’t.

While Canada has weathered the pandemic better than many other developed countries, the fact that many Canadians – including 83 per cent of Ontario residents – remain fearful of a second wave makes it clear there’s no going back to what we knew anytime soon. Companies shouldn’t view this as a drawback, but an opportunity to rid themselves of old habits, doubling down and expanding their commitment to the digital channels and services which served them so well over the summer.

The pandemic hasn’t changed the most important area of focus for businesses: their customers’ needs. Nor are market fluctuations themselves anything new, despite the pandemic’s unprecedented scale. Customers have always searched for new products and services to accommodate changing needs, and opportunities for growth have always existed for companies that quickly pivot to meet them. As present fluctuations continue, customer searches for new products and services will too.

Behind the scenes, many practices will need an overhaul too; in a climate where many interviews are conducted digitally, businesses should be willing to look beyond their traditional recruitment networks and cultivate new digital talent wherever it happens to be. There is a strong correlation between profitability and innovation, so it’s important that organizations treat every business practice as a work in progress, even – or perhaps especially – when times are tough. And it’s crucial for businesses who have stood the test of time to stay agile, find support and seek guidance to lead them through the next phase. Our long-term success and resilience as a country depends on it.