Has the pandemic become an excuse for shoddy decision-making?
There seems to be an undercurrent where delays, poor service, inability to make legitimate payments and sacking of employees are all being put down to the coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic has been a serious health and economic problem across the world. Barring very few above the age of 100, none of us who are alive today have seen the likes of Covid-19. Hence it is but natural that, at all levels, decision-making has become even more of a trial-and-error approach.
The big worry, however, is that we may end up accepting laxity and low-quality results as the norm. Because this is a pandemic of global proportions, as consumers, we remind ourselves that we must be patient, as we believe that companies and organisations are trying hard and must be doing their best. But when we start to look deeper, we realise that several organisations, stores and online delivery platforms are not exactly doing their best. There seems to be an undercurrent where delays, poor service, inability to make legitimate payments and sacking of employees are all being put down to the coronavirus.
Retrenchments: Even relatively stable organisations, who may end up making less for a year or more, after having decades of a good run, are firing employees lock, stock and barrel. At the same time, at a more holistic level, the same organisations are waiting for demand of products, services and commodities to pick up. The question is how will that happen, when the two philosophies are working at cross purposes.
Nevertheless, there are a few wonderfully ethical pearls still visible. A friend of mine is CFO for a large local group. When the senior management proposed a reduction in salary and cutting employee numbers, the elderly owner thought about it for a few days and ordered that there will be no cost cuts or employee reductions. He stated that a large number of employees who were working in his organisation helped him when things were rough with his business. This was his time to reciprocate and to show his commitment to those who stood by him in his difficult days. The same is the case of a huge retailing giant who, upon realising that brick and mortar retail had slumped badly during the lockdown, shifted a few thousand of their employees to assist in speeding up their online business model - and succeeded very well.
Shoddy customer service: Another area that has become particularly questionable is online deliveries and promised schedules. I have seen my wife ordering various items from one or two prestigious online retailers. Interestingly, throughout the last few months, whatever is ordered in one single bill will, without fail, be delivered in three or four lots, at all odd hours of the day, in unduly large packaging which must be costing a lot - not to mention, contributing to environmental issues.
On several occasions, the retailer has missed out on delivering some items due to non-availability of stocks, but the money has already been credited to the retailer's account. Then starts the process of how to get the refund back, or getting something totally unwanted in exchange.
Receivables: This is another thorny issue. Rich and influential organisations, and very well-to-do individuals are using this pandemic as an excuse to either delay payments, or shave off large amounts for no reason. The result is that lawyers, courts and arbitration processes are overburdened unnecessarily. And most of them are still working mostly online.
Poor HR processes: The manner in which employees who are asked to exit are handled has also become questionable. All good organisations need to be congnisant of the fact that dealing well with employees who exit, and maintaining their honour and dignity, is an attribute which needs to be ingrained in the DNA of every good, futuristic-thinking organisation. This reaps huge intangible rewards for the future, especially when some of the same employees may be required back as things improve.
Consider future impact
Some rationalisation of budgets is absolutely essential. The focus must increase on cutting costs when demand is likely to take a long time to build up. But what we see in many cases is a serious reduction in the quality of services, thereby deteriorating the organisation as an asset.
We are seeing this not only in the traditional trading and distribution businesses, but also in the real estate side of things. Reductions in real estate prices tend to squeeze developer margins. This leads to a new cycle of renegotiation of contracts. This starts cascading downstream, often compromising the quality of the asset. Sadly, when problems do arise sometime in the future, a chunk of current decision makers would have exited the system, leaving the issues with the newer generation, who may be ill-experienced to manage the complexities.
The UAE and its businesses have faced challenges in the past and each time, there has been an adjustment period, after which a good period of growth has followed. This has always been the hallmark of this city and the UAE. A quality of bouncing back, no matter what.
It is extremely important to realise that, as the business community collectively faces the longest and harshest phase of health and business problems, enough care is taken by all the stakeholders to ensure that the binding glue used is strong enough to wait out this period and to take us to a higher level of professional and personal success in the near future.
The question then is: are we putting our best foot forward? It is quite visible that the crisis has brought out the best in some. But it is equally visible that, for quite a few, the pandemic has affected decision-making health in several ways.
(Niranjan Gidwani is an independent consultant director and former CEO of Eros Group.)