Muscat Daily is proud to present a series of interviews with business leaders from a cross section of economic sectors, providing insights and predictions for Oman’s economy as the sultanate emerges from the grip of COVID-19.
Commencing the series today is an in-depth interview with Robert MacLean, principal of National Hospitality Institute, who believes, ‘If you give your team the freedom to explore, without being too prescriptive on what they have to do, your business benefits.’ Excerpts:
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
It has been quite traumatic for our company as we have had to close our doors by the end of March with no visibility on when we will re-open. The Ramadan period did not really make a difference to our particular business though I know it did to many of our clients in the hotel and restaurant industry.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past two-three months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
Our first priority was to our staff and customers which includes our students. For our staff, we kept a strong line of communication and the team quickly adopted the new technology of online meetings from their homes and I am very proud of the way they took this on so quickly. Keeping people informed is vital. We also informed our regular clients and explained what we would be doing. The regular operation ceased completely so there was very little we could do on site, particularly when the lockdown of Wadi Kabir kicked in.
The NHI team quickly developed good communication with the students and, in many cases, set up regular online classes to support the programmes they were signed up for. This has showcased some very good new initiatives by the team and for NHI it has been a learning curve on how we can develop new strands of business by delivering in a more flexible way.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
Our immediate task is to be ready for the reopening, whenever it happens. To ensure this, we have had our own bespoke COVID-19 policies and procedures document written for NHI and many physical changes to the school have been carried out to ensure social distancing.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, work culture and business promotion, in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
Firstly we have created a ‘Covid Task Force’ at NHI which includes two specialist members of staff who have a strong HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) background. The first thing they did was to have all the staff access certified infection control training. The Task Force also looked at the physical space in the school and made several changes to allow for the need of social distancing.
They have re-timetabled future students so that the numbers are smaller and classes will be spread over a longer day. In addition to this, all our team based in Wadi Kabir have been tested for COVID-19 and the rest of the task force will be tested over the next two weeks.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long term measures?
Every business has to take decisions which suits the needs of their particular operation and there is no one plan for all. At NHI, we believe strongly that our people are our biggest asset and we have up to now protected all of them with minimal disruption. As we move forward, things will, no doubt, get more difficult if we cannot open, and decisions will be taken. However, during this period, the team have been busy in the development of different resources so that when the day comes for re-opening we can hit the ground running.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
We have been quite busy on social media by sending out messages to our followers showing them that we are still here and communications are open. We have highlighted our NHI heroes where six of our staff worked hard in Ramadan to provide 3,000 hot meals to a local charity.
We showcased messages of support we all sent out to key workers not only in the area of health but for the hospitality workers who were still working every day, producing food for all the take-away meals in hospitals, camps, etc. In addition to this, we have been highlighting the new online training we now offer.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
As mentioned before, the NHI team quickly adopted the work from home and managed to contact with most of their students. Throughout this time, some of them have been providing in-house training to others on different online teaching platforms. However, as our business is vocational training, there will always be a need for the hands-on side to many of our courses. We will certainly continue with some form of our online training when we get back to normal. This is a good chance to reach other parts of Oman and abroad to deliver effective training.
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the company’s policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
I think it is vital for staff to be trained in the new policies so that they have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them.
Staff have to keep themselves safe, as well as the customers. They should feel comfortable in the work environment and feel that all precautions are in place. We are fortunate at NHI that HSE is one of our core values and we have always worked in a very HSE-conscious environment with many existing rules on hygiene, sanitising, cleaning etc.
Are there examples of new thinking in other sectors that your’s could adopt to good effect?
The many new ideas we have seen over the different sectors across the world has been fascinating, and all businesses with an eye on the future will be looking at these examples and thinking how they can adapt their business in the same way.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
We have seen some great innovation from our team, where they have explored new ways of doing things with new and existing technology. The lesson for the management – Give your team the freedom to explore, without being too prescriptive on what they have to do, and your business benefits.
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