Sheri Somerville is Chief Executive Officer of Atlantic Chamber of Commerce (ACC), the largest accredited business association in Atlantic Canada representing more than 16,000 businesses through its network of 93 chambers and 25 corporate partners. Sheri is globally certified communication professional with more than 21-years of multi-sector business experience, and partners with her members to influence an environment in Atlantic Canada where business succeeds.
- How can businesses smooth the transition of reopening their business in the coming weeks or months?
The pandemic exposed areas of vulnerability and opportunity for businesses, and as we start to re-open we will need to think about and do things differently in the new post-COVID environment. The critical factor remains to stop the spread of the virus and that will create lasting effects on both social behavior and economic activity. But for many provinces, we’re approaching a turning point where we need operating businesses to provide jobs and income.
One of the key takeaways from the COVID experience is the importance of agility in business and the ability to transform processes and people rapidly. The faster a business can reconfigure and adapt to new conditions, the better their outcomes will be.
Businesses are at different stages within the lifecycle of this pandemic. While many businesses are still focussed on recovering revenue, others have started rebuilding their operations and are rethinking their organization. The successful reopening will really depend on a business’ ability to demonstrate conformity with public health orders so that employee and consumer confidence is regained. Recent studies have shown that confidence continues to below, so we can expect our staff and customers to be wary and need reliable assurances of their safety until there is a vaccine.
As they prepare to open, business owners must critically assess what measures and equipment are required to enforce social distancing and increased hygiene standards. Most provinces require a written post-COVID operational plan, which will be unique to the operations and physical space of each business. First and foremost, a business must determine if their province has an operational plan template to guide their approach. Industry sector associations may also provide guidance and Chambers of Commerce are gathering and sharing instructive information and resources for business.
Second to operational readiness, communication, and empathy will be key as business owners reintegrate their teams into the workplace. COVID shattered how we see the world and what we believe to be normal and predictable and many employees were impacted. Employers will need to communicate their new operational precautions openly and often, but also be empathetic to their employees’ concerns about personal safety and willingness to return to work in the same way they did before the pandemic. Economic success after COVID will take collaboration and teamwork.
Regaining the trust of customers and providing alternative access to products and services in order to re-establish cash flow should also be a priority for the business. Our future will see the emergence of a contact-free economy and the continued use of online commerce. Communication and demonstration of protective measures to ensure consumer protection will be integral to the successful restoration of consumer confidence. But so will businesses’ ability to accelerate the adoption of digital solutions or advance digitization and automation.
In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve learned that much of what we do—in business, in government, in healthcare—can be done faster and more efficiently than we imagined possible. We mustn’t lose this momentum and knowledge, but rather harness and use it to ensure we optimize our resilience for what comes our way in the future.
2. What are the differences between business operations pre- and post-COVID and what is your advice to small businesses adapting to the new normal?
COVID-19 is one of the moments that mark a new direction in our history, similar to the introduction of computing. It reshapes our world view, what we believe is normal, and ultimately how we do things in response. The outbreak put livelihoods at stake, businesses in jeopardy, changed consumer behaviors, plunged governments deeper in debt, and effectively hit the reset button for citizens and economies the world over. These effects will linger for some and will be socially and economically transformational.
Most importantly, businesses and governments must look at the lessons learned from this experience, change what needs to be changed, and plan for any opportunities or challenges the future holds. Collectively, we now all see the world through a new lens and that triggers an opportunity to do things differently, hopefully in new and exciting ways.
In the near-term, a business will be focussed on revenue recovery and debt reduction to better their balance sheets as they rebuild operations, while simultaneously ensuring employee and consumer protection as they create contact-free operations with increased hygiene requirements.
Once restrictions are eased and consumer confidence is restored, we’ll see attention turned to the security of supply chains, improving productivity and the acceleration of the digital economy and introduction of automation more rapidly than we would have seen before COVID. Ultimately this will lead to new products and services, new types of jobs, new employee roles, and new customers in the future.
For businesses large and small the importance of agility and their ability to change and adapt processes and people rapidly will be an important prerequisite to resilience and success. The faster a business can make decisions, reconfigure, and adapt to new conditions, the better their outcomes will be.
The crisis has a way of accelerating change and innovation. With the collaboration and commitment of business and political leaders, we can transform through innovation, leverage exciting opportunities, and strengthen business and economic resilience.