30/03/2020 - 10:28

Confronting challenges with an eye on the future

30/03/2020 - 10:28

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Flexibility and clarity are two attributes business leaders need in times of economic upheaval.

Confronting challenges with an eye on the future

Flexibility and clarity are two attributes business leaders need in times of economic upheaval.

An online forum of business and industry leaders has highlighted the need for courage in decision-making during this time of crisis, noting that not everyone will get it right every time – they just have to be prepared to change in the face of new information.

The forum, hosted by Business News and Velrada, found corporates had, in the main, adjusted quickly to office closures, embracing existing technology options to stay operating where possible and learning to deal with productivity challenges.

Some focused on the need for government to reduce compliance issues that stood in the way of getting decisions made.

Many of the leaders in the forum were already looking to the end of the crisis, encouraging government to pave the way for an economic revival by relaxing approvals and using infrastructure funding cleverly.

Transition

South West Group director Tom Griffiths, representing several councils south of the Swan River, said his members had already shut down public-facing operations such as recreation centres, and aimed to close their offices by the end of the week. Many were implementing staggered rosters and planning to open virtual customer services centres.

“Some are looking at how they can help businesses respond,” Mr Griffiths said.

Most businesses had transitioned to working from home where possible, although this did present challenges.

Wrays chairman Gary Cox said the technical aspect of the shift had been relatively simple, but the firm was working to fill in some gaps.

“We’ve had to, in many senses, change our business strategy,” he said.

“We’ve had to rebuild things.

The biggest and most challenging aspect of it has been how to still engage with the clients.

“It’s all well and good to be engaging with large multinationals, but we work with a lot of small to medium-sized businesses.

“They are struggling as you all know, so it’s a real challenge to be able to connect with them when everything else is otherwise not going so great.”

Making the best use of existing resources, often in a creative way, could help alleviate shortages, Australian Institute of Company Directors state manager WA Jody Nunn said.

Ms Nunn highlighted a Swedish decision for emergency-trained flight attendants to act as personal assistants to doctors to reduce medical expertise being tied up with paperwork and tracking results.

AICD had pivoted emphasis on its courses to existing online training and had plans to launch new offerings to those who wanted to upskill as a result of the crisis.

“We are piloting tomorrow some opportunities for some further virtual and online learning, which we will announce to the market in due course, acknowledging that this may be a shorter or longer-term scenario, so we want to make sure during the time when people may well have capacity to focus on learning and ongoing self-development, that we have products and services in the marketplace,” Ms Nunn said.

Leadership WA chief executive Dominique Mecoy said she had developed a simplified document for staff to outline how to work from home.

Dominique Mecoy. Photo: Supplied.

Ms Mecoy said she believed honest communications around financial concerns and other important matters was critical, as was checking on her employees’ physical, emotional and mental wellbeing over what could be months of disruption.

“I know sometimes it can feel like that’s a really obvious thing that you do, but actually providing people with some … exceptional communication and … a clear roadmap, so I’ve been working on providing clear road maps for my team and things that they can do to support themselves through this time, through working from home,” she said.

Technology

Velrada CEO Rob Evans said customers had acted with agility in the face of the crisis, helped by the fact that many had already been on a transformation journey, so switching on remote operations had been relatively smooth.

Mr Evans believes additional benefits will become apparent to those who had been prompted to fully embrace change.

“It’s an interesting shift though because it’s not just a technology shift, it’s a way of working and it engenders a whole bunch of other questions around how information is managed, governance around information, and a different working style,” he said.

“And that agile outcome-based approach seems to be becoming more prevalent.”

Microsoft national public sector industry lead Andy Wood said the crisis had proved even larger organisations could move quickly when required.

Mr Wood pointed to WA Police as an example. It had implemented a collaborative tool set across 8,500 employees in four days, compared to a typical period of up to 18 months for such a change.

He said many bureaucratic departments actually had access to such services but had put off implementation.

“[They are] often licensed for this technology but there is resistance to turning it on,” Mr Wood said.

AGL state manager WA Jackie Shervington said her business, with a national staff of 3,000, had switched on Microsoft Teams because it found another common communications tool could not cope with the volume.

Velrada chief innovation officer Dan Hookham said most industries went through the occasional form of compelling shift due to regulatory change or other factors, it just happened to be across the board in this instance without time to transition.

“People need to make decisions today that affect tomorrow, it doesn’t need to be perfect,” Mr Hookham told the forum.

While the technology discussion naturally focused on managing the virtual workplace, there was at least one comforting surprise from a participant who highlighted the fact that opportunity can be borne from disruption.

“Needless to say, my background is in virology, so I've been fortunate enough to be bombarded with all sorts of different client questions,” WraysMr Cox said.

“I mean, I think in the last two weeks, I've had two potential cures come through, which have been for COVID-19.”

Compliance

Unsurprisingly, when a group of business and industry leaders get together the issue of regulations and compliance is raised as a roadblock, both to dealing with the crisis and the economic recovery.

AICD has appealed for a more business-friendly environment to help industry manage through the crisis, in terms of providing essential services and being able to manage its workforce and ensure survival.

“Government, business and community organisations must work together to lead Australia through this period of unprecedented disruption,” Ms Nunn said.

“The scale and impact of the COVID-19 crisis will continue to present challenges to organisations across Australia and demand further innovative and decisive steps by governments to mitigate the impacts, and by organisations and boards in every sector to work through the crisis and plan for recovery.

“The AICD is calling on all levels of government to reprioritise and adjust regulatory expectations, including deferring upcoming new compliance obligations for six months. Steps should include extending timeframes for 'BAU' filings, removing government charges for business and consumers, and targeting policy and regulator resources at urgent short-term regulatory demands.”

Mr Griffiths said the Local Government Act contained a number of bureaucratic obstacles to fast action at council level, including a requirement that councils provide 72 hours’ notice for a meeting.

“In these sorts of circumstances, it does revolve around those sort of bureaucratic obstacles really being swept away very quickly to enable all kinds of public sector organisations to respond the way that they need to,” he said.

WAFarmers CEO Trevor Whittington surprisingly raised an area where more compliance would help, claiming the use of illegal mobile phone boosters in the country was interfering with communications and that the authorities needed to crack down on it.

Again, somewhat contrarian, Mr Whittington also felt that major supermarkets were being overly cautious on pricing, no doubt fearing they would be accused of gouging desperate customers.

With shelves stripped bare and producers struggling to resupply supermarkets in a hurry, he asked why items like milk were still being discounted.

“The big retailers [are] allowing those shelves to be empty and not letting any price signals to flow through to slow down panic buying,” Mr Whittington said.

Wearing another hat, that of Wines of Western Australia chairman, Mr Whittington was equally critical of the latest move to ration alcohol to reduce panic buying, believing the limit on wine sales was unnecessary and would hurt local producers.

Another to raise an issue with private sector compliance was Emergency Triage Services founder and chairman Michael Henderson, who heads an acute trauma business that services mining and engineering groups.

Mr Henderson believes big business in Western Australia, such as major resources firms, are equally resistant to change within their organisations.

“The COVID crisis is something that isn't just going to need to be managed by the governments with the public sector and the Health Department; it’s something that really needs to be considered more broadly with an interface that comes between the major mining and engineering firms and the health department, and I haven’t seen that leadership,” he said.

Policy responses

Mr Henderson added that the recently convened National COVID-19 Coordination Commission led by industry heavyweight Nev Power was an example of the type of broad-spectrum taskforce needed. However, in his view, even that was announced seven or eight weeks later than it should have been.

Ms Shervington highlighted the New Zealand government’s approach to communications, which had explained the response step by step so everyone in the country knew what was next.

She believes not just Australia but many big organisations could engage in the same strategy.

“I look at New Zealand and what [Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern] has done, it’s just so sharp,” Ms Shervington said.

“There’s very clear milestones that when you get to this point, that’s what’s coming.”

In the regions, the rural sector wants help getting unskilled and semi-skilled labour onto farms ahead of the harvest at year’s end, otherwise another crisis will unfold, according to Mr Whittington.

Looking ahead, he believes bringing forward a year or two of roadwork would be a simple way of providing post-crisis stimulus to regional WA.

Mr Cox bemoans the fact that the government missed the boat on life sciences 20 years ago. He believes we need those skills and expertise, which are good for the economy.

Mr Henderson said WA needed to look beyond its borders for ideas.

“We need to look globally and come back with ideas about what’s happening in global best practice in medicine and to be able to say, ‘This is what the state government’s doing. This is what’s happening internationally. This is how big the gap is. As a state we need to close the gap’.”

Hope

Some at the Business News/Velrada online forum had hope this experience would change things for the good, in the longer term.

Mr Hookham said he had seen evidence of government at its best.

“When you can actually strip bureaucracy out of the decision-making process and really just focus on the outcome you’re trying to achieve and navigate the quickest path there,” he said.

“It’s amazing what these organisations can actually do and my hope is, in the wash-up out of all of this, we’re actually going to see almost a new public sector by default is now more agile in this decision-making process, and realises that it can actually make these decisions in some pretty hairy circumstances, and not have to worry to the nth degree about all of the different ‘what if’ scenarios. Instead, they'll just get to the outcome as quickly as possible and ultimately that is what is going to be best for the citizens.”

Ms Shervington was more philosophical.

“I kind of hope that we don’t return to normal,” she said.

“I hope that we find a new level.”

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