Hybrid business models present new opportunities
Industries that rely on bringing people together have been particularly hard-hit by the critical need for social distancing - for instance, hotels, bars and restaurants; travel and airlines; conventions and events; live concerts and cinemas. With "circuit breaker" lockdowns, travel restrictions and hygiene regulations, it has become impossible for these industries to operate in their normal manner.
My own company - a networking platform for senior business leaders, leading entrepreneurs and top executives - faces similar challenges. However, over the past few months, in adjusting to the shifting boundaries, we have discovered that opportunities are arising for those willing to explore new ways of fostering human connection. Our membership numbers have, in fact, never been better.
People are getting used to learning, having conversations and meetings online. And today, since so many of us are working from home, we find it more convenient to be able to conduct these interactions without the inconvenience of having to travel - whether across town, or across the world.
Tyson Dowd, Microsoft's director, Modern Workplace Customer Success, Asia, said that by taking events into the online space, the company has been able to increase its audience and impact. "We've changed our own customer and partner physical events to digital only, and in many cases 24/7 worldwide - which lets us reach more people," he said. The tech giant recognises that countless companies are starting to offer employees the option to work from home regularly or permanently. "The myth that working remotely is not productive or secure is now busted," said Mr Dowd. "We've even renamed our 'Modern Workplace' division as 'Modern Work' because increasingly now you can choose the place of work," he pointed out.
Initially, at EGN, we were sceptical whether the sort of clientele our company caters to would be agreeable to an online model, but they have thoroughly embraced it. Delivering our networking events online has allowed us to reduce friction and overheads. We have been able to pass the resulting savings along to our existing members and to secure myriad new members with attractive pricing and more flexible terms.
To seize the new opportunities that our changing professional and social landscape is creating, businesses and organisations need to be flexible, they need to be realistic, and they need to play fair. They must alter pricing and conditions in recognition of the fact that events, networking or training are not necessarily taking place in a real-world setting, thus eliminating many associated costs, logistics and restrictions.
Education is one area that is, for the time being, struggling to adjust. To cite a prominent example, Princeton University in the United States has announced a 10 per cent discount on tuition for 2020-2021 to undergraduates who will be spending much of the year studying remotely, largely prevented from fully utilising the many facilities and resources the college campus provides. A gesture of this sort will strike many as insufficient.
Indeed, students of universities, colleges and private schools around the world are lobbying, and in some cases, taking legal action to extract fee discounts and refunds from educational institutions whose offerings have been diminished as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Britain's National Union of Students said students at UK universities should be given the choice of repeating the year at no cost, or be reimbursed tuition and other expenses.
Studies by a British parliamentary committee found that a mere 7 per cent of UK university students were satisfied with the quality of education they had received this year. Students complained of reduced teaching hours, a lack of access to facilities and networking, charges for unoccupied housing, and professors recycling old recorded lectures. The committee concluded that students "have a right to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course if the service provided by their university is substandard".
Yet education is a sector where the fast-tracked changes that are occurring may have numerous positive outcomes. In an article published recently by the World Economic Forum, Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff suggested that the Covid-19 crisis may well "trigger a long-overdue technological disruption of higher education". He said that by forcing universities to urgently adopt distance learning, the schools may find solutions that will allow them to deliver "better education for more people at lower cost" - as long as these institutions continue to harness technology after the pandemic ends. Most businesses can learn a lesson there.
While some organisations will migrate fully online eventually, many will adopt a hybrid approach, integrating digital-based services innovated during this crisis in tandem with traditional in-person services. One such business working to evolve a hybrid model is Ultimate Performance gyms. Chris Richards, the company's managing director, APAC and Middle East, explained: "During the lockdown period, where our brick-and-mortar business had to close, we continued supporting our clients through virtual training."
In a post-Covid world, he said, "While our core business will remain and require physical locations, we will continue to offer virtual training services. We expect clients will have a desire to continue, especially once travel resumes." He believes offering virtual training will also allow the company to work with a wider range of clients, overcoming the geographical barriers presented by physical locations.
The ways in which we interact - socially and professionally - will forever be altered by the changes our current predicament forces upon us. While we will always crave and appreciate person-to-person interaction, we are now acknowledging that tech-based solutions can be more convenient, efficient, sustainable and cost-effective. In fostering smooth internal and external communication, the successful company of the future will marry the best of the Old World and the New Normal.
- The writer is managing director of EGN Singapore