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The importance of business agility during the COVID-19 crisis

The ongoing COVID-19 socio-economic crisis is forcing business leaders worldwide to take quick actions to respond to the pandemic and its effects on their businesses. Thousands of companies have crafted crisis management plans, with many of them transitioning to a fully virtual workplace.

Alexandra Marinaki
Alexandra Marinaki

Alexandra is a psychologist with a MSc in Talent Development and Creativity.

business agility during crisis

What do you think is the prevailing (and essential) ability these companies are showing, in order to figure out quick, effective solutions to face this crisis? The answer is business agility.

What is business agility?

Business agility, also known as organizational agility, is the capability of a business to be adaptive, flexible and creative through a changing environment. Agile businesses respond quickly to opportunities or threats, whether internal (e.g. failing business operations) or external (e.g. shifts in trends or competitive markets).

“Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.” – Bill Gates

Other core characteristics of agile organizations are:

  • They are customer-centric: They tailor their services and products to customer demands. Agile organizations are eager to restructure resources and operational systems to adapt to customer needs.
  • They reinforce stable team dynamics: They emphasize on building well-coordinated teams that respond collectively to crises and changes. They achieve that by promoting clarity in task division and responsibilities, and by creating stable internal systems and processes.
  • They nurture a growth mindset: They welcome failure as part of learning and don’t label it as a hindrance to their progress.

“Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.” – John C. Maxwell

The COVID-19 crisis has posed numerous challenges to businesses. Many companies are already financially impacted and the global economy is predicted to be hit to the tune of $1 trillion according to the World Economic Forum. To overcome all these burdens, employers are becoming more agile. When the COVID-19 outbreak evolved into a pandemic, companies took drastic measures to protect employees on very short notice. Provided that most businesses take a long time to make a decision and then act on it, this was a desperate call for greater agility on very short notice. The emphasis of agility is – and will continue to be – in three areas: employee needs, customer expectations, and economic uncertainty.

Addressing and responding to employee needs

What are the biggest needs of employees amidst a health crisis? Staying healthy, feeling safe, and being close to their loved ones are definitely their biggest priorities. That’s why employers search ways to adapt to these needs and protect their employees’ wellbeing.

These are some examples of how companies have altered their policies and practices to respond to these needs so far:

In cases where working from home is not a realistic option, such as in production or retail services, companies have introduced other types of alterations to existing policies. For instance, Walmart and Starbucks, at the beginning of the pandemic, offered a more generous sick-leave package to their employees, showing that they prioritized their health and security. Also, Facebook and other companies restricted office visitors to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the premises.

As the events evolve, companies enable new measures; this situation unfolds so quickly that regulations and precautions become quickly outdated and require reconsideration. By remaining flexible and agile, and available to listen and help, employers will be able to identify future employee needs and act fast upon them (e.g, new policies, safety regulations, etc.).

Understanding customer needs and expectations

The ongoing socio-economic crisis has also affected consumer behavior. Most physical stores are closing until further notice and many companies, for example in the hospitality or entertainment sectors, have “frozen” their services to respect the rules of social distancing and self-isolation. In response, some businesses are offering digital solutions or are altering their services. Some of them are moving their customer support to online, with live messaging and/or video-calling options. Others, for example in retail or supply sectors, have started to expand and adjust delivery services to meet and adapt to customer expectations.

Also, some companies responded quickly to customer needs and gave some of their products free of charge to support customers in these uncertain times. For example, Google is offering its premium feature Hangouts for free until July 1 to help companies continue their meetings via video-conferencing.

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Based on the type of services and products your business offers, here are some tips that can help you stay aligned with your customer needs:

  • Listen first, fix second: Reach out to your customers and listen carefully and empathetically to what their problems are. Once you’ve heard their stories and concerns, consider what you can offer them, and how you’ll make it happen.
  • Restructure your resources: To be relevant and helpful, you might need to tweak some of the services you provide, re-allocate your budget, or redistribute tasks to employees from scratch.
  • Nurture relationships with customers: Even when you have to close your stores or pause operating for a while, stay in contact with your customers and build honest relationships with them. This will enable you to sustain a good brand reputation and motivate customers to be around when the crisis is over. The same advice applies for vendors, suppliers and other partners. Remain available and stay connected.

Surviving the economic turmoil of a crisis

The adverse financial effect of this ongoing crisis on businesses has already started to show itself. Some companies, especially in the travel, hospitality, and entertainment industries, are hugely impacted and forced to take difficult measures, including layoffs or reducing quality in product or service, in order to survive. But decisions such as these – while beneficial in the short term – can severely hurt your employer brand and customer satisfaction in the long term.

There is no perfect formula to predict the future of each sector; business leaders can picture the next day based on each company’s unique characteristics. What is the current cash flow and how will it change? Are the offered products or services useful to consumers during – and after – the crisis? If not, can you transform them and make them more relevant?

Business agility has a crucial role here; being able to consistently evaluate all necessary information to adapt to current effects is essential. So is foreseeing trends of the next day, month, quarter, or year. After meeting with your financial team, shareholders, and vendors, and with a clear overview of the company’s financial status – including current cash flow, credit situation, revenue and expenses, etc. – on hand, here is what you can do to reinforce agility:

  • Be active: It all starts with your attitude; if you perceive it as a challenge and not as a threat, you’re more likely to have a positive approach. Find the silver lining between sustaining and innovating. You might need to adapt some of your products or services; be available, listen to customers, and explore new territories.
  • Be competitive: Observe what your competitors do and get ahead of them. Remain aggressive; bring your marketing and sales onboard and get your best services out there. Keep your brand reputation strong. Your customers will appreciate that in the long run and you’ll benefit from their loyalty.
  • Be resilient: The next step after business agility is safeguarding organizational resilience – the ability to recover and learn from failure and loss. Use this experience to understand your operations’ pros and cons, and what you can improve in the future to thrive.

A final note: the ongoing crisis is just a large-scale reminder that businesses are constantly facing changes that threaten their bottom line – some minor, some major. Being agile, flexible, and resilient will better position you to overcome these challenges as they surface, with minimal impact to your business.

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