Businesses in the South African Chamber of Commerce share their experiences of the year and how they see their prospects for 2021.
by Antony Shaw, reproduced here courtesy of The South African
Image caption: Businesses in commercial centres like Cape Town are desperately trying to remain resilient after the country’s fragile economic growth was seriously damaged by the pandemic in 2020. Photo: Douglas Bagg/Unsplash
Corporates affected by the COVID-19 challenge across the globe are facing an array of near-term challenges but some are also looking to seize opportunities and looking to future prospects.
The experience of companies in the South African Chamber of Commerce, a UK-based international business network, reflect the diverse impacts arising from the global health crisis. Three member companies were invited to share their experiences of the year and how they see their prospects for 2021.
SA BUSINESSES NEED TO STAY AHEAD OF THE CURVE
While many companies affected by lockdowns confronted the challenge of remote working, Hazel Hoole, founder of VA Centre in Johannesburg, already had an array of UK-based clients using her virtual administrative services. “They were ahead of the curve. When COVID-19 hit they were ready!”
Hoole has had consistent work throughout 2020 but expects more demand for her services going forward, with the exception of business travel support, especially from tech start start-ups. “They begin virtually and that includes executive assistant support.” Hoole has been amazed at phenomenal changes across many parts of the business world. “People had to pivot and find a new work approach,” she said. This extends to VA Centre responding to the acceleration of digital marketing in 2020 with plans to reach potential clients in the new year through video content.
Even for highly experienced virtual workers like Hoole, the challenge of achieving the right work-life balance remains. “Working from home, you can quite easily end up in the office at weekends,” Hoole observed. “You need to draw boundaries.” Despite the prospect of vaccinations, Hoole fully expects further business uncertainty for many and urges other SMEs to adopt her approach to adapting quickly to market changes. “Being a virtual assistant you have to be agile. Your tech skills need to be high, have ambition to learn, and don’t have fear!”
For David White, CEO of DRG Outsourcing, a total solutions HR services provider, the 20-strong team in Durban were given special status when lockdowns started. “We did not realise how complicated it was going to be to administer HR and payroll services for companies,” explained White. “Companies providing payroll services like ourselves became essential service providers.” As a result, staff were granted special permission to travel and open the office in order to assist clients with issues ranging from applying for government funding to support employee earnings to retrenchments. DRG’s division supporting international corporations and NGOs across 14 African countries also remained in demand. “Amazingly, all our clients remained with us,” said White. “In November we saw a flood of new opportunities to provide services across different countries.”
STRICT HOME AND WORKPLACE COVID-19 PRECAUTIONS
The company has met client needs via flexible working arrangements through office plus remote working (with all staff being equipped with laptops and broadband) made possible by strict home and workplace COVID-19 precautions. The events of 2021 also brought about fundamental organisational changes. “We really looked at the foundations of business and looked at everything in our business that was not shipshape,’ said White. “We re-designed our systems and processes to ensure we had more clarity in client service delivery.” Improvements included introducing Microsoft Sharepoint, the web-based collaboration and document management platform, and devising a financial model with the aim of growing the business five-fold in the next two to three years.
DRG’s knowledge-sharing efforts to help companies understand key HR issues arising in the pandemic period significantly helped the firm’s brand. It also contributed to the strong mutual support shown across the business community in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Looking beyond the company’s own experience, White believes that COVID-19 should lead to a wider sense of corporate responsibility. “Business needs to recognise its role in helping to ensure the sustainability of the economy. We must not sit back and wait for the government to do things.”
“A global law firm like Hogan Lovells has been set up to be strategically balanced in terms of sector, geography and practices,” said Andrew Skipper, who is head of the Africa Practice at the firm that has some 50 offices around the world. “We don’t put all our eggs in one basket.”
LOCKDOWNS, TRAVEL DISLOCATION HAVE OBSTRUCTED IN-PERSON MEETINGS
“Business has been reasonably stable for law firms on a global basis,” explained Skipper but acknowledges that for individual firms in Africa, whilst many have continued to thrive, some have clearly faced challenges in certain practice areas, for example where courts have been closed. In addition, on the deal front, Skipper believes that work has not stopped but has been made more challenging by COVID-19, not only in a wider sense of investor aversion, but in the practical terms of bringing new deals to the table or closing existing ones. For example, lockdowns and business travel dislocation have obstructed many in-person meetings admits the respected lawyer. “If you want to do a deal you need to look people in the eye.”
New approaches to communications with both clients and ‘relationship’ law firms working with Hogan Lovell’s across Africa has been a focus area throughout 2020. “We have had to re-define our strategies to remain present across Africa but in a different way,” said Skipper. His team delivered their annual Africa Forum thought leadership event virtually for the first time and doubled attendees. Virtual discussions connect their relationship law firms from eight rotating countries each week while ‘The A Perspective’ podcast series ‘taps’ into leadership thinking across Africa.
BUSINESSES FACE RISK OF ‘ZOOM FATIGUE’
Skipper makes a critical observation about the nature of business communications. “You have to constantly redefine what it is to be connected.” This relates to clients, personnel, and the risk of “Zoom fatigue” arising from virtual meetings. He also highlights that teams have to ‘balance’ flexibility in working practices with retaining the ‘fundamental culture’ of an organisation formed in the workplace.
Looking forward, Skipper believes that international law firms are positioning to see rising interest from major global players seeking opportunities in energy, infrastructure, fintech, healthcare and education across Africa. As co-chair of the UK Government’s Africa Investors’ Group, he expects this to be reflected in the government’s virtual Africa Investment Conference in January. Overall, he predicts an increasing focus across sectors on sustainability and impact investment from the full range of public and private sector investors.
These three firms reflect the importance of continuing to review business strategies and resources in order to have the agility to positively respond to changing (and sometimes very challenging) circumstances. While the future may be uncertain, smart businesses are positioning to meet near-term challenges and those with the flexibility to do so are also preparing to capture long-term opportunities in safer times.