Time for a tech-led recovery

“Technology was critical during the pandemic lockdown; now it can play an equally important part in NZ’s economic recovery”. 

It’s fair to say that most of us haven’t experienced anything quite like a global pandemic before. It’s been a strange year, not least from a business perspective.

What is now clear is that New Zealand has emerged from the worst risks of COVID-19 much faster than other developed countries. That means we can get on with economic recovery and while some industries like tourism and education will be heavily affected for months or even years to come, some industries can bounce back better than before.

This could be a great time to be in the film/ entertainment sector, for example.

New Zealand’s geographic isolation, so long a disadvantage for knowledge-based industries, is now a unique advantage.

One of the keys to economic recovery is effective use of technology. I hope we will look back on the pandemic lockdown as a pivot point in our business productivity – a moment when we were forced to use technology in new ways, when we learned to pick the best forms of ICT usage to keep business going.

During the lockdown period, Telcos reported record usage of both data and telephony. We’re a social species and we love to communicate – just as much at work as at home. Businesses which were already advanced in their ICT usage were at a distinct advantage, with cloud-based applications, Virtual Private Networks and eCommerce at their fingertips. But from what one could observe, many less developed companies quickly got their act together – by necessity.

So how can businesses get back up to speed, shedding the most difficult attributes of the lockdown period while continuing with some of the positive aspects?

At a most basic level, you need to keep the ICT changes you’ve made which make your business more efficient, more customer-friendly, faster or cheaper.

I see three big improvements out there which many businesses will want to retain.

Firstly, a contact-free or lower-contact business model. Contactless payment, click to collect and online fulfilment are here to stay – not for everyone, but for many customers for whom they are convenient. These technologies can offer customers faster payment, delivery to the door and a wider product range. From the point of view of businesses, they can use low-contact models to market to new customers, to use ordering data to learn more about customer needs, and to improve efficiency.

Secondly, we will naturally see more automation as more online contact means answering routine customer queries without human involvement e.g. via chat bots. That might put larger firms at an advantage.

Thirdly, we will see more blended working models.

Every business leader who told themselves they didn’t want or need a remote working model now knows that was incorrect. However, the lockdown period has also made clear some of the shortcomings of working from home. How many of us are a bit over Zoom calls as a way of meeting? How do we get the benefits of workplace social interaction, for example chatting informally with a colleague, if we have to book a Zoom meeting?

A blended model of work means firms supporting and encouraging working from home but maintaining an office environment so workers can work there when needed. Different models are emerging for different needs. Some may work from home just a day every fortnight, others two or three days a week. People will choose new work locations like co-working centres, and mix-and-match for what works best.

Some people call this “Working from Anywhere”, and I have written about it before (see “Remote working is better working”, BusinessPlus March 2020). But at the same time, lots of firms will find it best to simply return to an office-based working model.

The net of all these changes can be profoundly positive for the average business, even as we slide into a pandemic-driven recession. Businesses can achieve better productivity, lower operating costs (including office rent), higher employee work-life balance, shorter commuting time and lower carbon emissions. Doing so would position New Zealand firms to survive and thrive, even as the rest of the world is still grappling with the pandemic.

During the Global Financial Crisis, President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. Now is our chance to heed his advice.

Rohan MacMahon is one of the EMA’s IT and Digital Consultants: Rohan.MacMahon@ema.co.nz.

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