Gifts from Covid: Transform (or be transformed)

Have you tried your hand at brewing homemade pineapple beer during lockdown?

So… we’re back to brewing homemade pineapple beer. With immediate effect.

With the alcohol ban lifted (for now), the home brew trend is hopefully a thing of the past (anyway, from what I hear, the results are less than favourable and beer brewing is better left to masters of the craft). But, it just goes to show, that with some creative thinking and limited resources, us South Africans can make a plan to get things done!

I haven’t tried it myself. From what I hear, the results are less than favourable and beer brewing is better left to masters of the craft – but who knows, maybe necessity will force my hand!

What I DO know, is that within minutes of our alcohol ban being reinstated, South Africans were posting memes and recipes and making plans. If this lockdown has shown me anything, it’s just how resilient we are as a nation. Even when our resources are limited, us South Africans think out of the box to get things done!

The ramblings that follow are those of a business owner who finds himself in a similar situation: needing to get things done, with limited resources, and having to face the fear head on and make very tough decisions in the current pandemic infected economy.

Which brings me to my next trending topic: business transformation.

At first glance the phrase drew my thoughts to the well-used South African version meaning ‘political transformation of society.’

However I was wrong. Business transformation, according to Google, is:

‘an umbrella term for making fundamental changes in how a business or organization runs. This includes personnel, processes, and technology. These transformations help organizations compete more effectively, become more efficient, or make a wholesale strategic pivot.’

It sounds like something one could pick off a menu of services supplied by a business consultant. Something simple and vanilla, ‘do this and expect that result’.

Or something you could select from the wine list at your favourite restaurant (just me dreaming), as in ‘I’ll have the Transformation 2020 please…’

Sadly, it’s not!

So, what does business transformation actually mean, to those of us (read most of us), who have been left floundering in the wake of COVID 19?

It’s a scrap. A good old-fashioned bar fight where you might smack your bestie in mouth – accidentally!

Only this time it’s not with a client or a supplier or perhaps a staff member, it’s with every single role player in the business ecosystem. Because this COVID thing is like one big game of dominoes (not the matching kind). A highly complex set of knock-on-effects on steroids.

Transformation in this context really means, take what you thought was your business, turn it upside down and shake it until every last thing has fallen out and is laid bare on the floor. Analyse each item from every conceivable angle and when you think it’s safe to do so, slowly start to replace the essential parts. Only the ones that will help keep the occupants in your life boat fed, afloat and on course to safety – sometime during 2022.

This is the scary reality that we as businesspeople face today. It’s a supremely daunting task but given the time and creativity, nothing we’re not used to doing. We’ve done this before. Only previously it’s been in smaller more manageable chunks and didn’t involve everyone on the planet. Which means… there must be opportunity now.

Business transformation is an opportunity to de-clutter and work smart

So, what do we need to do?

Basically – any cost or expense (be it physical or human) that is in anyway surplus to meeting basic requirements should be reviewed. Is it essential or not?

Unessential expenses could be outsourced and paid on a success or as-you-go basis.
Once this is done, bed down the essentials and start building – whilst keeping the above principal as the guiding light.

Why fall into the old pattern of accumulating when the gift from COVID could be to de-clutter and get smart. Everyone is being forced to accept this new reality and in the same way transform themselves into their new/best incarnations.

Change + hindsight + technology = opportunity

Here is my hamster wheel version of transformation (short to medium term).

What is the first thing that comes to mind if I were to ask how business is going now?

Aside from a flurry of expletives, for me the answer is ‘cash flow’, or more accurately, the lack thereof. In my case, I have customers, good revenue streams and a lot of demand. The problem is with this doomsday mindset nobody wants to part with their hard-earned cash.

The knock-on ditty goes a bit like this…”if we don’t collect what’s due, we can’t pay for the space and the people to manage the things in and around the space that makes it nice for the people that use the space”.
So, we pay over what we receive, cut costs where possible, repeat and repeat again….and so the negative downward spiral goes until before long, everything in a puff of 70% disinfectant.

Our model, the flexible workspace industry, doesn’t allow for rapid downsizing without it impacting on product and in turn profitability – the space is the product. On the other hand, for those businesses where the people, product and intellectual property are not reliant on the space, the options are aplenty.

So, if you are also experiencing cashflow problems and need to reduce overheads to compete more effectively or simply want to operate more efficiently, let’s explore remote (or decentralised working) and cost cutting alternatives that are available now.

Personal (before Personnel)

Get your house in order! At work and home – it’s all same-same these days anyway. You can’t afford to be distracted by limiting factors when you really need to be the sharpest version of yourself. Stephen Covey you’re welcome!

Build a laager (not made of pineapples) to protect you and your loved ones. Do this by setting yourself up to minimise movement and interactions.

Buy local and order-in. I order and pay for gas, medicine, grass-fed everything from my local butcher and groceries all by WhatsApp and online banking or Zapper. Any suppliers that can deliver, encourage them to do so. If they won’t then it’s time for a change (this applies as much to home and work).

My mom (87 this year), was ‘just popping out’ to get her repeat script from the local pharmacy because they ‘don’t deliver’. I was naturally incensed and told her to change the pharmacy! She did, and her medication now arrives by bike from the new one.

Similarly, if you are a supplier and could deliver but aren’t, it’s time to change. Logistics just became sexy.
Upgrade your internet supply to your home. After all we all need (read deserve) a great Netflix, Youtube and oh yes Zoom connection and we need it now.

Set up an ergonomically correct, comfortable, work-focused space for yourself. Green (screen) is the new charcoal. This is not just for now; it’s going to be a long WFH!

If you need to go out and let’s face it we do NEED to go out, even if it’s for no reason other than to experience what it was like, for Pete’s sake please practice safe public discourse.

Personnel – Let’s look at your staff

Scrutinise each role and responsibility in your business from the inside out.

This is a very tough process but unfortunately, it’s necessary.

Ask yourself:

  • Do they consistently perform out of their socks?
  • Are they remunerated in line with their contribution?
  • Are they there because they are nice or do they add value?
  • Are they right for the role that they are hired for?
  • Could they do more than they have been hired for?
  • Do they have a solid culture fit?
  • Do they understand your ‘WHY’ (your vision, mission and purpose statements)?

If not, this may be the time for an overhaul.

As a final test put your staff through the ‘Rocketship Selection Process’

Would you select them for a moon mission?

It’s not easy, in fact it’s very hard. As business leaders we have an obligation, not to do the right thing but to do the thing/s that are right for the business. So be honest, be fair and follow the law. Also, these processes take profit sapping precious time so be bold and tackle them head on.

I’ve had to say farewell to old and good friends recently but for the sake of the survival of the business it was the right thing to do. I have no doubt that our paths will cross again, and hopefully we will have new opportunities to explore, ones where all the boxes are ticked, and the planets aligned.

Having identified the team core to the success of your business, it’s time to review the wage bill. This is understandably a highly emotive topic. Each team member will have a unique lens through which they view the value that they bring to the business and the remuneration that they in turn receive. It’s very subjective.

Add to that the fact that most people live just within their means. If you rock their income you rock not only their livelihood, but also the core of how they perceive their contribution to it. It’s very personal.

The flip side to this is that most people are driven or motivated by intangible rewards like recognition or belonging to something bigger than themselves. Which means that they are hardwired to want to be a part of the solution.

These are your people, this is your tribe

If guided compassionately and with openhearted communication, your staff will likely be very supportive of any temporary required cutbacks. It could also be a great opportunity to create a better, more inclusive incentive scheme.

This has been my experience with 18 employees empowered to manage 6500m2 over 2 regions and across 5 locations.

What about your partners?

On the supply side, the domino effect should be on your side.

Ask for help! If you don’t ask, you don’t get!

It’s very on trend at the moment and I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Most of our suppliers (I say most because I’m not 100% sure) have been open (if not totally accommodating) to helping us out.

Our approach was simple. We wrote to all of our suppliers (large and small) stating, “We are exploring various avenues of possible cost savings and funding to get us through this difficult period and would appreciate your consideration in assisting us with payment relief.” The response has been heart-warmingly positive.

The reality is that most industry players realise that our fragile economy needs more than ‘positive vibes’. The harder we fall the harder it’s going to be to stand up again. So, it’s in everyone’s interest to slow the dominoes down and help each other out.

More things to consider…

Unless you are qualified, abandon the DIY (do it yourself) approach to:

  • Legal work – including getting advice on all your contractual obligations with a view to renegotiating or cancelling all /any that may be surplus to requirement.
  • Accounting – including, payroll, UIF, TERS or funding applications.

If this is not your core business, then play to your strengths, conserve your energy and pay a professional to do it for you. It will save you money in the long run and free you up to do what you do best OR better still, explore more creative and profitable ways to survive this mud fight.

Processes (and more – product, place, price and promotion)

This is an ideal time to review your current processes and procedures.

What works and what doesn’t and what could be improved, outsourced or streamlined. Perhaps you’re low on systems. Now is a great time to put some SLA’s and SOP’s in place.

Change is vital but outsourcing is here to stay.

There are a lot of examples in history where once it was one way and then seemingly suddenly it was not. The earth was flat, Yoga was the devils work, cannabis was a gateway drug, freedom of movement was your right and open-plan workshare was the hipster’s natural habitat.

The fact is things change, but I can say this with absolute certainty:

Outsourcing is here to stay… for now anyway.

Not only is it fashionable but it’s smart.

With economic contraction front of mind, one can easily fall prey to a lack mindset. Your common and garden variety penny pinching. Now is not the time. Outsourcing may cost a bit more in the short term but the removal of risk, whether contractual, human, energetic, expertise, focus or time, is worth it in the longer run.

There is a lot to be said for buying from a dedicated professional or specialist in a certain field. They will (hopefully) have spent thousands of hours working out the kinks and hacks to make life easier or better for you. And if you are fortunate to find the right partner a level of trust can be established to each party’s mutual benefit.

78% of our business is based on outsourcing to trusted partners

Fortunately, we have spent many years developing and tweaking our SOPs (standard operating procedures).

Knowing what we want and how we do it well means we can outsource with confidence, so we do. Other than our team and our lease agreements, the bulk of the contributors to the success of our business are partners – 78% to be exact.
The selection approach for these partners is vary varied. The tender process is an example of the one end of the scale with nepotism on the other. Price and reliability are common factors and for some this is all that matters. It’s strategic and personal to the business.

My chosen approach is to find the best partner I can using the price and reliability metric and then build a relationship based on honesty and trust.

These relationships are worth more to me than money. This way I always know where I stand.
Oh and do not forget the divorce papers! The SLA (service level agreement) is key to the success of this relationship. Things change remember! When the amnesia kicks in we all need (even though we may not appreciate) a reference point.

Historically, we’ve been accustomed to outsourcing services like legal and accounting but as time and tech moved on so did outsourcing. These days software as a service (SaaS) is a huge business. We also easily contract with call centres, couriers, cleaning, and creativity. In fact, there are companies that provide personal assistant services, personal shopping (style not groceries – although this will broaden too) collecting laundry and booking spa treatments.

So never mind the obvious services (like the ones I’d want to sell you), what other cost cutting measures could you outsource right now?

Perhaps one of your team is a budding barista, could the coffee station become their business?

A competing business to ours empowered the staff to manage the canteen, the owner paid for the stock, but they did all the work and received all the proceeds. The benefit to the owner was a lower head count, reduced shrinkage and the profits were considered ‘incentive income’ to the employees.

What other areas of the business could be turned upside down? Could the person manning the front-line (reception) be upskilled to be the barista or customer services representative (or both)? With the switchboard function outsourced, they would be free to do so.

Social distancing isn’t limited to gatherings. In our current economy business leaders will naturally be distancing themselves from risk too. So, whilst any initiatives to reduce unemployment should be encouraged, as South Africans, we are still faced with onerous labour policies making hiring and firing very difficult (and often expensive) to the business. A no-strings-attached approach will provide for a nimbler human capital strategy.


“Let’s train you ‘one-on-one’ in your living room via Zoom” is something your personal trainer/coach/Yogi said never, until recently that is.

Now, thanks to relativity old technology, this can and is happening in millions of households the world over. As I write, my son is in the middle of a virtual karate class.

So, what can we do to make our businesses leaner and meaner without letting the propeller heads rule?

When lockdown was declared my management team and I shifted focus from ‘can we operate?’ to ‘how can we operate?’
As a serviced office provider our products are simple. People and places – two of the main things we had just been told were totally out of bounds.

Accepting this fact, we shifted gear to make sure that:

  • All of our spaces were available to essential service providers.
  • That our support teams were equipped, ready and able to offer onsite assistance (if needed) but specifically back office services like call answering, message taking and help desk services – just in case our clients needed help with things like setting up a virtual meeting.

We were able to do this because if you have a bunch of smart phones, a few laptops and a decent internet connection, just about anything is possible. An Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) friend of mine managed to move his entire contact centre business (250 people) into a ‘work from home’ scenario in just 10 days. I was gobsmacked. Tech did this.

Use your business network to discover the tech that best meets your needs

Admittedly this can be a daunting task. There is so much information and so many competing brands in this space, and it can be very overwhelming.

I’m fortunate in that as a member of the EO I have instant access to some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in the world. This fast paced, highly critical, yet efficient network channels and filters information and has been crucial in helping me make decisions at record speed. Being able to rely on networks like these is an invaluable asset.

Google is a very helpful tool but until they write an algorithm that can actively assess our personal needs and provide a relevant solution, we will still need to rely on the guidance from others.

Having said that, once I have narrowed down a brief, I would naturally turn to Google for more specific information like reviews and costs etc.

In our case, in addition to relying on my network, I defaulted to my trusted outsourced IT company, knowing that they would guide me in the right direction. Fortunately, we had already made the painful move to Office 365 some years back so the transition to decentralised working was simple.

Our product suite (basic) has tons of features but the ones we have had most use of are smart email (with easy filters), calendar sharing, the cloud based shared storage, document collaboration (including pdf editing) and virtual meetings. Virtual meetings are not new, but the current restriction of movement has produced an unusual by-product – time efficiency We can actually get more done in a day.

There are some cool business intelligence tools available too, but we haven’t progressed to that yet. We opted for Office 365 because all of our computers run Windows and our team are all accustomed to working with Microsoft products, so the integration was easier than starting from scratch. We also needed the system to integrate with our accounting software.

If Office 365 seems like a big commitment or renting licences not an option for you, then there are open sourced products like Google Docs, Open 365 and Zoho that you may want to try first.

The bottom line is find the best, most affordable collaborative tool for your business and get it up and running as fast as possible

It doesn’t stop there though. Tech nowadays means you can turn your computer into a phone and remove the need for the extra Telkom expenses.

In fact, you could run your whole switchboard via a cloud-based solution, making it a lot easier for service providers like Flexible Workspace to seamlessly integrate with your system. This guarantees business continuity or failover whether in a time of crisis, or simply during lunch hour when you might need a back-up receptionist.

Alternatively, softphone technology means that your team can make and receive calls using their smart phones from anywhere – provided they have an internet connection. To avoid costly mobile data charges simply connect to a convenient WiFi access point.

If you’re still not quite ready to empower and entrust your team remotely, there are time and attendance packages available that will ‘clock’ employees in and out during the course of the working day, sending you a report at the touch of a button. If that’s not enough, I recommend upgrading your CCTV system to military grade, this will give you a birds-eye view of your operation via the internet 24/7.

Dialling it back a bit, our business has become very reliant on WhatsApp for our daily team communications.

We have chats set up for the different types of conversations we routinely have. Whether it’s a new sales lead or a birthday celebration, WhatsApp is quick, reliable, cheap on data, and free to use (if you don’t mind giving away your privacy). Most importantly, everyone in South Africa is accustomed to using it.

Another great tech advancement that we recently adopted is ‘contactless payments’. This is a payment method that allows the card holder to pay for services from anywhere by simply scanning a barcode. Services like Zapper or Apple Pay are now commonplace. Receiving money from a client is super easy (for a small fee of course). Simplifying this process has helped us seal new business, arrange last minute bookings and grease the onerous collections process. The bonus is that it is way cheaper that the old card machine system.

Side note: the seemingly increased convenience or efficiency that technology brings has highlighted a downside. Not having the ability to interact ‘normally’, I’m finding that the increased number of virtual interactions coupled with the inability to read subtle social cues means that I’m concentrating harder and using more processing power than ever before. By the end of the day my brain is fried. The solution? Take regular breaks!

Some final thoughts…

Medical science (or Bill Gates, depending on which conspiracy theory you follow) will eventually find a vaccine for COVID 19. We will (indeed some of us already have) return to work. Lockdown will end and given the right amount of effort and time, the economy will eventually normalisE.

So, what are we doing in preparation?

  • Making sure that our office spaces are ‘return-to-work ready’. This means peace of mind for both our team and our customer family.
  • We are increasing marketing initiatives and producing product to meet the demands of this transformed environment.
  • Focussing on the things that are in our control. The here and now of daily tasks or goals.
  • Creating new habits and managing our personal energies to avoid mental health issues.
  • Learning to surrender.

Whether you believe that this pandemic came from a bat or was designed by the evil genius handkerchief salesmen pivoting to make masks, (un)fortunately our new normal is here to stay and it’s mostly out of our control. How we respond (how we pivot) isn’t, this is on us.

Finally, where possible support local and when scrambling for single use masks, gloves or sanitiser sachets, spare a thought for our environment.

Brad Porter

Founder Flexible Workspace Business Centres – caring for people and places.

NEXT: Gifts from COVID -19 Part 2: Delayed gratification – how we’ve been forced to be patient but what have we learned?