Fri | Oct 30, 2020

M.A. Hinchcliffe | COVID-19: Reshaping the future of business management and operation

Published:Thursday | May 21, 2020 | 12:13 AM
Audrey Hinchcliffe
Audrey Hinchcliffe

Whenever there is a hot issue, pundits come out of the woodwork, so I am taking licence to join the ranks. However, I am coming from the position of a business owner and a manager who is at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing the impact on business management and operation.

I am also declaring that never in my lifetime as a health management specialist have I witnessed healthcare driving economic activities. Yes, this is the reality brought on by COVID-19, causing the nature of business to be changing before our eyes.

The health sector, long low-keyed, has shown that with support, it can stand proudly among the best systems in both developed and developing countries. This I could have told anyone who would listen, because, coming from my experience when I was the health development officer at CARICOM, and attending international health conferences, Jamaica was viewed as the leader in all aspects of healthcare - in public health, maternal and child health/food and nutrition, primary healthcare, and the environment.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the health status of the country will be the driver for economic recovery.

Another matter for consideration is verification of the extent of workers’ COVID-19 status – the extent of infection spread among the workforce and the implication for the workplace. Here the matter of testing comes into play. Who will be responsible to get timely results? This should be on the agenda for the business recovery task force to come up with a strategic plan for health service to include testing, tracing, quarantine, isolation and treatment.

Business Pre-Pandemic – A Bird’s-Eye View

The pre-pandemic phase of COVID-19 recorded economic growth, though pale; the stock market robust; unemployment trending down; tourism robust; education steady; agriculture and mining in the mix; and other indicators of economic activity were showing that we were inching up to achieving aspects of the 2030 plan for Jamaica to become a place to live, work, do business, and raise family. The health system was dealing with dengue, which appeared to have been coming under control. It is against this background that the COVID-19 pandemic came up on us. The workforce was not on the radar, except statements that it is a valuable asset.

Business in the Pandemic Phase

I am not going to join the naysayers on the outcome of the Government’s approach on the measures to control the spread of the virus, and the effect on business. While there are lessons to be learned, there is no place to beat up on oneself, as we have to do what we have to do to sustain the gains of controlling COVID-19 as the background against which to view business in this pandemic phase. What is obvious is that health got in the driver’s seat, and businesses followed. This historic occurrence brought new respect to a health sector which, from time immemorial, got no respect.

The business response saw a mix of actions, some pushed by fear and anxiety, while others had concern for the health and well-being of their clients and staff. Others took steps to preserve the life of their company and, hence, the bottom line. During this time technology rules, particularly for education and training and some services, and the development of ICT gadgets and paraphernalia.

The entrepreneurial instincts also kicked in as the need for people, process and products loomed. The need for PPEs, especially mask, sent sewing machines buzzing. COVID-19 impacts on the economy became the buzzwords, sending economists, financial analysts and business titans tripping over themselves to see who could land the best argument on the impact of COVID-19 on the respective sectors which underpin the economy.

Those of us who own and/or operate businesses had to respond to the periodic edicts, e.g., whether full or partial lockdown, curfews or restriction on personhood, including for the aged and infirmed. Freak out is an understatement when the lockdown of the parish of St Catherine was effected. The underpinnings of business, regardless of sector, came into full view in the form of shuttered business in the parish, with its long arm into jurisdictions throughout the country, either their headquarters or branch operations, or consumers for the goods and services.

Against this background, calls got louder and louder for a national approach to business recovery, hence ‘task force’ became the buzzword to give effect to the call. The Government obliged with the appointment of a multisector task force. While there are gaps in the representation of sectors and subsectors, I am of the view that when the work programme gets under way, there will be room to co-opt representatives to make presentations. In the meantime, I am putting my two cents on some elements for consideration for business post the pandemic. A strategic plan for healthcare, against which business recovery will be measured. What must be avoided is opening and closing business if COVID-19 is not on a sustained path for control. Thoughtful guidelines and action items must be in place to deal with flare-ups of the spread of the infection and to safeguard the health of workers, particularly where they operate in clusters, such as BPOs and manufacturing establishments.

Business in the Post-Pandemic Phase

I posit that business recovery must, of necessity, be sector-specific after determining that each took a hit of varying proportion. It is widely touted that we will be faced with a new normal which is yet difficult to determine. However, in this scenario, it is important that we must be clear-eyed about the plans for recovery based on credible data showing the different levels of impact. The common thread running through businesses, regardless of size, is the business plan and related strategic action items. Therefore, my starting point is not a top-down approach, but an internal self-study of the business status with the start of COVID-19, where the business is during the height of the spread of the infection, the path it was on, and the damage it has caused. Analysis of the study result will inform the way forward.

Health and Safety

Occupational health will be integral to business recovery, as the health of the business will rest on the health of the workforce and will initially be informed by the state of COVID-19 control, which may very well be among us due to the many unknowns about the behaviour of the virus. It means, therefore, that health will still be front and centre.

If a health unit or first-aid station is not already in place, it is time to add a new position to HR, which I will call a ‘health monitoring aide’. The duties must be informed by the COVID-19 workforce guidelines stated above for implementation. The duties can be expanded to include participating in employee-assistance programme, monitoring cleaning and sanitation, among others. This is one area of job creation brought on by COVID-19.

Restructuring for business recovery during and post COVID-19 will also lead to the need for reskilling and upskilling workers who will otherwise be terminated or furloughed. New business opportunities are likely to emerge from the crisis which will drive education and training to be nimble in producing a ready workforce. The projected economic fallout will be taken into consideration by the task force, but it cannot be an all gloom-and-doom outlook. What will make the mare run will be creativity and innovation. Every sector will have its own take, and since I cannot be even a fly on the wall during the task force’s deliberations, I have confidence that the members will put egos and testosterone aside and come up with a cohesive strategic plan for business recovery.

M.A. Hinchcliffe is the CEO and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Ltd Group. Email: ceo@manpowerja.com