We are living in defining times. Never in living memory has the world seen something like the Covid-19 virus and the disruption that it has caused all over the world. Not in living memory or history. There are those who claim that it is a hoax. But dead bodies don’t lie. The world has come to a halt. Literally speaking. Never again will the word ‘disruption or disruptive’ have the same meaning. Never again will ‘Vision 2020’, be something to trumpet about. Never in my life would I have thought that every country in the world would have the same tale to tell, lockdown. True, the implementation of that lockdown differs from place to place, but the policy and intention is the same i.e. that you stay inside your house. Across national boundaries and geographies, it is the same story, lockdown. There have been many pandemics in the world, but they didn’t get the same uniform global reaction as Covid-19. That is why I titled my essay, BC to AC. I am sure you can guess what that means.
Many people are talking about, ‘Getting back to normal’. But someone said very wisely, “Decide what part of that normal you don’t want to get back to.” Wise, because to put it politely, it was our ‘normal’, that got us here. So, we must think very carefully about what the new ‘normal’ will be. Or I should say, ‘What we want the new normal to be.’ This is my Thoughtshare about the major challenges that I believe we will face in the coming days.
The world AC (After Corona) will be the beginning of an Age of Entrepreneurship. A world where working from home and being self-employed will become more and more popular. Large corporations have learnt the lesson from the Covid lockdowns that people need not come to a central place to work. They can work well at equal or more efficiency from home. That means huge potential savings for the corporation in overheads, capital investment in buildings and infrastructure, taxes, insurance and many other ways. All this will have huge repercussions in the real estate, capital and insurance markets. Corporations have learnt the joy of outsourcing as we have seen in the case of Amazon Prime delivery. Intelligent corporation managements will invest in local entrepreneurs by providing training in setting up businesses and running them efficiently, quality assurance, cheap funding and buy-back agreements. They will realize that their own margins will benefit by developing entrepreneurship and strengthening local societies. We will see major changes in how work is done, supervised, and paid for. We will see an age of greater collaboration and genuine partnership across national boundaries. We will see a world of greater trust and collaboration and mutual learning and sharing of resources and well-being.
Employees have realized that long commutes, being away from the family, living out of suitcases in airports and grabbing a donut and coffee while driving fifty miles to work, are all unnecessary. Work can be done from home, at your own convenience (well, almost), while freeing up time for family, hobbies, and savings in all sorts of ways. I believe therefore that small and medium enterprises will come into their own. A world of small businesses, invested in their local society, creating strong rural and urban economies. Intelligent governments will support and encourage this by providing capital and top-class infrastructure (utilities, power, public transport, health care, roads, schools, especially trade schools, and ports), tax exemption and cutting out bureaucracy to make doing business easy and smooth. Governments will recognize how the entrepreneur does the work of the government by providing support, sustenance and employment for citizens and so must not be gouged for taxes but must be compensated for helping the government take care of its people. SMEs will drive better local health care, schools, leisure activities, services, shopping, entertainment and build for closer, more locally invested communities.
Another major change will be in the way we communicate, and technology will dominate to shrink the world even more. Two weeks ago, I hosted a webinar on the topic: “Staying focused while the world seems to be falling apart.” We had 300 participants from 22 countries. Imagine doing that as an international conference which people must travel to the United States to attend. Just do the math and you will see what has become clear to all corporations; that remote conferencing makes brilliant economic sense. What will this mean for the travel and hotel industry needs little imagination. What new communication skills will people need to develop if they want to remain effective communicators when most of the power of gestures and body language in communication will be lost for them? What opportunities will that create for those in the business of teaching communication skills? I can extend that to all kinds of technical and behavioral skills training that entrepreneurs will need to succeed. There will be challenges of delivering a lot, if not all, of that training remotely.
Travel and holidays will be totally different. In the AC world you’ll see much more local surface travel and much less air travel. Cruises will become more popular. All about space and freedom to move while keeping safe. Sitting in a plane seat for 15 hours with a mask on, is distinctly unpleasant. People will do it only if there’s no other alternative. Technology will give them alternatives.
Air travel by it’s very nature will become far more expensive and so even less reason to use for people. However cargo will see growth and airlines will have more cargo than passenger planes. Even now airlines are flying cargo in passenger planes, in the passenger cabin as well as the hold. Planes will be redesigned with more cargo space and less but more luxurious passenger cabins. The days of the middle seat are over and I for one, am not complaining.
Business travel and conferencing likewise…only if essential. Which means that hotels will take a knock. Though not as much as airlines because people still need a hotel once they get to a place, no matter how they got there. I’d say smaller hotels with fewer frills will be the most profitable option. Good food, clean rooms and bathrooms, great service. No huge lobbies and multicuisine restaurants. Instead special offering of choice local cuisine but limited menus. If you want Hyderabadi biryani in Calicut, you’ll be offered chemmeen curry and aapams and told to go to their hotel in Hyderabad for the biryani. “You can still get it from us, but not here.” Food delivery services will see huge growth. If you can’t go to a restaurant then bring the restaurant home.
AC will be the age of remote everything. Remote shopping, meeting, teaching and learning, sharing ideas and work, open source data, collaborative research across geographies, you name it. If it can be done without physical meeting, it will. But what will that mean in terms of people’s psychological need to meet each other, see and touch and speak to one another? What will the term ‘human touch’ mean in this new world? What will the loss of human touch do to us human beings? We are very touchy, feely creatures. We like to sit close to those we love. We lend each other shoulders to cry on, then hug to comfort. We see eye to eye and speak heart to heart. We lend our ears to others and have changes of heart. We shake hands to seal agreements or make up after disagreeing. We turn cold shoulders to those we don’t like and stand shoulder to shoulder with those we support. Try doing all this while maintaining social distance of two meters between us. Try doing that wearing gloves and masks. Try doing that with the sneaky doubt about whether someone is likely to infect you with a deadly disease. This is also a face of the new world that we will have to deal with. The question at the end of all this is, “How will we be able to benefit from technology that makes distant communication easy while not allowing that to create distance between us?”
Mechanization, automation, machines doing the work of people will rapidly increase. Machines can’t get sick and so no loss of production and profit. If it can be automated, it will be. But what do you do with people? Robotic and drone delivery of products, self-driving taxis and trucks, all look very neat and sexy but remember that every drone, robot, car or truck means someone is out of work. But they still need food, housing, health care, schools and everything else which they paid for until the drone and robot took their job. And remember they still vote. This may result in more crime, enhanced security and surveillance and less privacy. So, finding means to keep people gainfully employed is urgent and critical.
Another thing which will and must change is the way we educate. Currently, barring exceptions, we teach theory and grade colleges based on the salary that our graduates are hired at. In the AC world, we don’t need ‘employees’ so much as we will need potential employers i.e. entrepreneurs and business creators. Education must therefore focus on two critical areas: skill training and entrepreneurial development. We need to teach people, skills to solve problems (each is a business opportunity) and convert each solution into a viable business. How to identify business opportunities, test marketing, how to make a business plan, budgeting, hiring, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, meeting facilitation skills, how to pitch to VCs for funding, must all be taught in schools. Schools must focus very strongly on teaching ethics and values and on contributing to society. Entrepreneurs must not be little exploiters but genuine partners who contribute to the well-being of the society that they operate in. Without sound values and ethics, business can’t succeed. Profit alone is not a suitable basis for decision making. Business must make profit, but business can’t exist for the sole purpose of making profit. They have a much wider and more vital role to play.
Schools must have a clear curriculum to inculcate these ethics and values. Values can’t be legislated or enforced. They must be inculcated. Children must be raised who take pride in integrity and uprightness and hate and look down on sharp practice and lies. Today our society is the opposite of this. Deception is the norm. Wheeling and dealing, corruption, fooling others are all aspirational goals. It doesn’t matter how anyone makes money as long as he makes it. We applaud and look up to that. High Net Worth means having a lot of money. Imagine a world where high net worth means more kindness, compassion, generosity and not merely fast cars, luxury mansions and fancy holidays. This becomes even more important in the light of how working from home will change the dynamics of the employer-employee relationship. When people work from home there can be potential issues of confidentiality. For example, how effective is a Non-disclosure Agreement when the employee is working from home, unsupervised, his conversations can be overheard, his work is not secure as it would have been if he had come to the office. What are potential issues of privacy: Monitoring employees’ work without infringing on their privacy? What are safety measures?
For employees (individuals) what does this new world look like? There will be opportunities and challenges. Working from home means flextime, bonding with family, more meaningful communication and relationships, no commute. This can mean the possibility of earning in more than one way and better use of time. More time for reading, learning, physical and spiritual development, eating home cooked food every day, but you get to cook it too. This would mean a change in pattern of domestic costs. Will they be higher or lower? There will be potential challenges in relating with spouse and children and changed power dynamics? Will you end up with a better marriage or in divorce?
The challenges for individuals will include more distraction, greater need for discipline, learning to work in a more structured way to remain productive. Technology will be the game changer which means that people will need to learn to use it. In addition, they will need to learn new skills of communicating, influencing and relating. The opportunity to become an entrepreneur sounds very good and believe me, it is. I have been an entrepreneur since 1994 (2020 at the time of this writing) and I love it. But entrepreneurship, like anything else, needs a certain temperament, skills and above all, the ability to stay in the game long enough to start seeing success. Many times you succeed not because you were the fastest, but because you ran the longest. The question to ask is, ‘What skills do I need to succeed as an entrepreneur? How can I learn those skills? By when?’
Before I conclude let me share some thoughts about what I believe each of us must do. I am making a numbered list of them. Each needs more elaboration, but I am writing an article and not a book, so this will have to do for now. I believe there are 7 – key areas of competence to develop.
- Assess your skills: What can you do? Please notice that I am not asking, ‘What do you know?’ I am asking, ‘What can you do?’ It is actual skills which are saleable and in a world of entrepreneurship what you can do is the only thing which counts. Learn to take hard decisions. Learn to cut your losses. Learn to change course but not your goal. Learn to be flexible in everything except your principles and quality. Learn to take responsibility and do your own work. No more departments and secretaries. You are your own HR and PA. The sooner you learn that the happier you will be. And learn how to learn on the job, every day.
- Where can you use, what you can do? Look for opportunities to solve problems for people. How can you help people with what you know? Remember that your exact skillset may have been acquired for one purpose, but its learnings can be used elsewhere. That is how hoteliers and people with years of experience in managing hotels have proven to be excellent managers in the ITES industry. They are not making beds or pizzas but their skills in customer service and expectation management are a huge asset which someone from a pure IT background lacks. Look for where you can leverage your life experience.
- Develop creativity. This is a huge stretch because all traditional schooling very successfully destroys creativity and imagination at a very early age. Traditional schooling is designed to create obedient little slaves, which it does extremely efficiently. The problem with our traditional schooling is not that it has failed but that it is very successful. You will need to resurrect your creativity and learn to break out of the fear of imagining things. In an entrepreneurial world, imagination is your greatest asset. That is what enabled the Haleem makers in Hyderabad to use large laundromat machines to stir the Haleem mix which traditionally took someone stirring it in a pot, all night to prepare.
- Develop a structure to your day. Working from home is a double-edged sword as I mentioned earlier. It can be very convenient, time-saving and flexible. But it can also be full of distractions which can lower your productivity and lengthen your day. To prevent that, structure is the key. Develop a routine that works for you and stick to that doggedly. Consistency beats talent, every time.
- Focus on Quality. I spelt it with a capital Q because it is so important. As an entrepreneur, you will have plenty of competition because there are many like you out there. What will help you to make your mark is the quality of your output. “Quality is remembered, long after the price is forgotten.” ~ Gucci family slogan. And they are right. Quality will also enable you to leverage yourself out of the competition and charge a premium for your products and services. Quality will help you to differentiate. Differentiation creates Brand. Brand inspires Loyalty. Loyalty enables Influence. Quality is reflected in everything you say and do. Above all, it is reflected in how you treat people.
- And last and most important, learn to deal with and even enjoy, ambiguity. Entrepreneurship is all about risk taking. Risk means you don’t know how it will turn out. You learn to estimate. You learn to do your best. And you learn to develop your spiritual self and to have a philosophy to deal with loss. And you learn to accept the results. It is great fun. It is immensely fascinating and satisfying. And it is sometimes painful.
- Ah! I almost forgot. And so, this, and not the earlier one, is the last thing. Learn to enjoy the journey. For an entrepreneur, the journey is the destination. I came out of the corporate world after having worked there for 16 years and have been an entrepreneur for the past 35 years. Believe me, I know what I am talking about.
In short, we are looking at a very different world from the one we were locked out of.
We are like zoo-raised tigers being released in the wild. We will survive only if we acquire the skills to succeed in a world that is as different from the zoo as it can get.