The pandemic pivot to low-touch business

Amid the global shutdown and a raging pandemic, business is having to switch from a binary mode of thinking — lockdown or no-lockdown — to building more nuanced and calibrated scenarios, as the Covid-19 threat is likely to remain with us for at least 18-24 months and perhaps even alter consumer behaviours forever.

Roughly speaking, industries can be grouped into two bundles: High touch, like travel, hospitality, tourism, fitness, entertainment, live sports and religious gatherings where demand will grow only after a cure has been found; and low touch, like food, medicines, autos, chemicals, fuels and infrastructure, which will continue to see some demand even in a no-cure scenario. Some large fast-moving consumer goods companies as well as start-ups are using the social trends of the lockdown to introduce new products, such as vegetable disinfectants.

There are sectors that are looking beyond the pandemic to pivot from being a high-touch business to a low-touch one. At one end of the scale are information technology firms, such as TCS, that have declared that they want to move to a 75 per cent work from home (WFH) model permanently, ending decades-old strategy of building mega campuses to house over 400,000 employees. Artificial barriers like the lack of client approvals and stringent special economic zone norms were washed aside by the pandemic and WFH started to become a reality for the industry. And it may be a win-win for both the industry and its employees. For instance, TCS runs more buses in Chennai for its over 100,000 staff in the city daily than the city municipal corporation. Increasing WFH not only saves the company infrastructure and transportation costs but also adds three to four hours to an employee’s daily productive time that was earlier spent commuting every day. To paraphrase one US commentator, working offsite will be the new on-site and employee off-sites will be replaced by occasional employee on-sites (for cultural and social reasons). What companies with scale have to ensure is that organisational culture and values do not fall by the wayside as they distance employees into a new model. 

Beyond WFH, other sectors such as education from K+12 to college or telemedicine that have been complete laggards in digital adoption are also having to step up sharply to adjust to the new reality and yet operate their businesses. But like all industries that have undertaken digital journeys, the pedagogy seems not to have changed. Giving an online lecture to 30 stamp-sized students on a screen may be a good short-term substitute to ending the current school year curriculum but  in the long-term, the entire education sector will need to reimagine how to educate and provide value for their high charges. Similarly, crowded clinics and hospitals for consultations should also become a memory of pre-Covid days as doctors turn to telemedicine — though it took a pandemic for the government to notify new regulations —to reduce exposure to infections. 

 At the other end of the spectrum, some small businesses are also pivoting from high to low touch to survive in a no-cure world. Personal fitness is one example, where gym closures have made many patrons hire trainers for online sessions on video. Local suppliers of food to restaurants and others in the hospitality industry have also quickly realised that high-touch dining out was unlikely to roar back. Faced with zero revenues, vegetable farms and frozen produce sellers located near urban sprawls have now cut out the middlemen and are delivering farm-fresh products direct to homes — rejigging packages into smaller household quantities to retail directly. 

Delivery aggregators were among the first to activate a series of low- or no-touch operating processes and have benefited as new outlets have sought them out to sell to the indulgent — multiple types of flour for the lockdown army of amateur bakers and hygiene products. Home sanitisation services alongside disinfecting offices, factories, stations and trains are also creating new business opportunities for many start-ups. 

Surprisingly, some of the worst-hit sectors like autos may come back faster than many are anticipating. That’s because, while demand for self-driven cars fell as cab aggregators were a feasible alternative to car ownership, post-Covid, it is likely that car sales will rise as people may reduce their reliance on shared transport. 

 Perhaps, the most fleet of foot in pivoting have been local, neighbourhood shops that have used the lockdown to narrow their range of food sold, for instance, but expanded it to stock other goods that their customers are running out of. 

For the rest like travel, tourism and hospitality, the end of the lockdown and resumption of services will yield clues as to what the new normal will be like. Indeed, the entire sharing economy that greatly increased the ability of people to travel and experience the world using low-cost airlines, Uber, AirBnB, Oyo will have to rethink their value propositions to customers worried about exposure to infections. 

Travelling, holidays and dining were all experiences that had become essential to social identities and behaviours. We must pivot on that too.

The writer is a communications professional

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