“The idea of normal life would lead way to a ‘New Normal’ and there would be a new shift in thinking, changes in social behaviours and cultural norms. There would be new business practices too with more emphasis on digital platforms and lesser human interaction.”
Featured today in this exclusive series of Business Leaders’ Perspectives, Aftab Patel, chief executive officerof Al Omaniya Financial Services, shares the company’s experience in dealing with the COVID-19 situation and discusses his outlook about Oman’s business sectors.
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like neverbefore?
These are extremely challenging times, we are sailing through uncertain and unchartered waters. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to fore the most unexpected obstacles, hurdles and challenges. Inspite of institutions having sophisticated risk management function manned by highly skilled personnel supported by sophisticated tools and technology could not anticipate or provide for contingencies that COVID-19 brought.
Ramadan is a very busy period for the businesses in Oman. The per capita spending almost doubles during this period. Businesses ramp up their offers, build inventory to cater to this demand. Automobile franchise are in the forefront offering exciting packages and attractive credit facility in conjunction with the financial institutions. However, Ramadan period went through lockdown and the vehicle sales took an all-time hit.
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?
The COVID-19 crisis threw up a very unique and unheard of challenges. We had to do tremendous amount of brainstorming and devise an out-of-the-box strategy to continue to provide unhindered and uninterrupted services to our customers. We focused more on remote working, working-from-home and revamped out IT applications so that we could operate with 30-40 per cent staff in our offices.
Work schedules were designed in a manner that key management personnel were always available on hand or on call to ensure smooth operations.
A much greater focus was given to safety. We created an integral team headed by a senior manager to oversee sanitisation and adherence to safety precaution in the offices. A very high priority was given to employee safety, health, well-being and counselling was undertaken wherever required.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
As enumerated earlier, we are not only sailing through unchartered and uncertain times, but we are sailing through a storm. The storm is not over and we are still ducking arrows. In the immediate present our strategy is to comprehensively protect every stakeholders which are the employees, the shareholders, the customers and play a positive role in the broader economy.
Having devised a short-term strategy to protect the stakeholders we will craft new and creative strategies, assess our damages, losses and injuries. Once the pandemic is over we will put in place a comprehensive new plan and reinvent ourselves to make us relevant in the new normal economic environment.
What immediate changes were 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)?
The company was in operation from all its branches and maintained all its essential services during the lockdown period and all the senior management team were available in person as well as over electronic platform to all the customers. All customer service requests were processed on time and the company also adhered to all the COVID 19 safety precautions and guidelines advocated by the government and the regulators.
We understood that physical work places (offices) were not as crucial and significant as thought earlier. Wearing a mask, social distancing, hygiene and sanitation within the work place will be a new normal. We also incorporated more physical barriers in work stations, secured and structured entry of visitors. In terms of business promotion, digital marketing and social media started to play a more significant role.
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?
Cost cutting, staff retrenchment and staff downsizing are not necessarily the tools to right sizing the organisation. Our focus therefore was to redefine the roles, redefine our products and services, redefine systems and processes to extract significant value and output in areas where we had greater control given the pandemic uncertainty.
We crafted a strategy to make the cake bigger. As a result of which we did not have to resort to retrenchment or downsizing. We also ensured that we had extremely robust cash flows, maintained strong liquidity and could provide uninterrupted services to our customers.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company’s image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
Our products and services were available throughout this period and our staff was accessible. We had to ensure that our staff, customers and visitors have a safe working/visiting environment. We ensured the customer felt secure while entering the office building, this was done by having sanitiser units strategically placed in all of the office building, waiting areas with social distancing norms followed, our representatives always wearing mask and gloves and guidelines for COVID-19 were put in all prominent places in the office building.
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?
Our IT department had set up home-office in the key managers and staff homes with laptops, printers and net connections on stand by for any exigencies. However, since most of the key managers attended office during the lockdown this option was not required. Since this option is on standby it can be made online in a very short time if required.
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?
The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experience. As a corporate entity, employers, employees, citizens and humans, our attitudes and behaviours and outlook are changing. This time period has presented an opportunity to reinvent and to build capacities and competencies, to be more on digital platforms like B-to-C and B-to-B, more data driven, to have more variable cost structures, agile operations and creating more automation with enhanced security layers etc.
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 offguard again?
This is a period of unpredictability and possibly muted economic recovery would happen in phases which will create with new competitive opportunities and challenges. The idea of normal life would lead way to a ‘New Normal’ and there would be a new shift in thinking, changes in social behaviours and cultural norms. There would be new business practices too with more emphasis on digital platforms and lesser human interaction. So, the businesses have to redefine their business model to go more on digital platform and automation and have to build internal controls and risk management practices to safeguard and mitigate the associated risks and challenges. The company is already started the review and study to equip ourselves with strategies and necessary physical as well as digital infrastructure to align with the expected new normalcy.
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?
It is very important for the businesses and employers and employees to adapt themselves to the new environment and equip themselves to adapt to new technologies and new ways and practices. Those who could not do so voluntarily would be left behind as this has been the way of evolution and sooner than later everyone would adapt and realign to the new way of living.
How long do you envisage it will be, if at all, that your particular sector is performing at pre-COVID-19 levels?
It is very difficult to envisage at this junction the time-frame for the end of the pandemic. The current challenges what the sector is facing pre-COVID-19 was due to the lack of demand for capital goods and due to reduced budget spending on investment activities. The things can revive if the spending increases in infrastructural activities and more and more new industries are licensed and begin operating.
It will certainly take a considerable time to go back to the pre-pandemic levels. The micro and macro economic will both have to change for the economy to grow. The pre COVID situation itself was very challenging so the strategy would be to attain level of economic activity we saw in 2015-16.
What is the No1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
The country took immediate and proactive steps to contain the spread by closing the border, imposing strict lockdown measures in the hot zones, restricted workforce in essential departments etc. The governance and the remedial actions, education and creating awareness were really commendable.
Oman has suffered much lower casualties on account of COVID-19 than most of the other nations. The Supreme Committee under the wise guidance of His Majesty the Sultan, did a very commendable job in containing the pandemic.
In spite of the continued economic crises and oil prices, the country and its people showed resilience and stood up to the need of the hour by readapting themselves. This manoeuvrability over uncertainty will help to invest in the right direction to get the transformation required.
We certainly became a more caring and a more sensitive organisation and started understanding values what can be quantified beyond an income statement or a balance sheet. The mantra therefore is to readapt, recreate and reinvent and embrace the change or be left behind.