Featured today in this exclusive series of Business Leaders’ Perspectives, Hayyan al Lawati, Managing Director, Al Habib & Co, shares the company’s belief that digitalisation, automation, and outsourcing is the way to efficiency. 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?
We are predominantly in real estate services, property management, property maintenance, property valuation, and brokerage. The business has been facing pressure for the past few years with the slowdown of the economy. The pandemic has accelerated the slowdown in the rental market demand. Our business nature is one that isn’t seasonal.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
Our focus was, and still is, the safety of our employees. We have reduced the working hours and reduced the in-office population to about 30% at first, and currently at around 50%, and we have also initiated WFH (Work From Home) for functions that are supported by our IT software. It has made a compulsory shift to technologies that were available to us, but we had not availed before. Such actions have reduced our costs to match the drop in revenue.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
We are scrutinising all our business lines and their respective revenues and costs, we are adding a few services to improve our top line, and we will not be renewing some of our employment contracts once they expire. And we are looking to digitalise and use more technology to make us more efficient and resilient going forward.
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)?
We have taken many preventative measures in the office to ensure the safety of our employees, such as reduction in number of employees in office, social distancing within the office, not allowing guests and visitors, conducting deliveries outside of the premises, hygiene measures, emergency plans, full professional office sanitation, only attending to emergency maintenance tickets, to name a few. Also, using digital tools to teleconference and collaborate even within the office to avoid meetings.
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?
Shocks in the system reveal vulnerabilities that have been in our blind spot. As for the solutions, each business is different, and there is no one magical solution to mitigate all the losses from the lockdown. Some measures will be short term, but quite a few will have to be part of the long term plan. Companies are now aware of weak links, unnecessary costs and are clearer in terms of what needs to be done to survive in the short term and prosper in the long term. Doing more with less has never been more true, and technology is at our aid.
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?
I don’t think our image has been affected, we have been able to serve our customers and clients during the lockdown. We have maintained the quality of our delivery without compromising on the quality or time. This itself builds our brand and portrays our ability to sustain difficult times, even ones that are sudden, and unprecedented.
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?
We didn’t have the option of working from home before, mainly because we are a customer facing business, not to mention dealing with keys, cash and checks. WFH for our business is a short term solution, and we believe that we can collaborate better and be more productive in the old fashioned way.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as helping your company experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
As mentioned earlier, we learned where our weak points are, and we are able to quickly build on our existing infrastructure to offer more services to improve our top line. We had started a process to digitalise and improve productivity and efficiency two years ago; the pandemic has accelerated our process to shorten the distance to achieving our goals and we will be seeing the results before the year end, Inshallah.
What additional challenges do you anticipate in 2020/2021 and would you now place greater emphasis on risk management so that you are not caught off guard again?
The real estate sector has been experiencing a slow down since 2016/2017; we anticipate additional drop in rents and additional vacancy going forward due to the reduction of the number of renting expats.
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, that every employee is mandated to be up to par when it comes to use of technology. Such trainings are done internally and we do not see any other way to improve efficiency, and this is definitely a new work culture.
How long do you envisage it will be, if at all, that your particular sector is performing at pre-COVID-19 levels?
As the economy exits the lockdown slowly, we also see our business picking up slowly. However, the sudden drop in demand cannot be plugged easily, especially with additional supply in an unregulated market, which has been the case for the past few years.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?