For A Business To Survive The COVID-19 Crisis, Flexibility Is Key (And That's Not Going Away)

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that for businesses to survive, they must allow for variability– they must incorporate a level of flexibility and slack to how they operate, and work with their people in order to navigate challenging times.

learn more about Hanna VanKuiken

By Hanna VanKuiken


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Today, business leaders are operating under more constraints than they've experienced in recent years and markets. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has caused the confinement and lockdown of both people and global commerce. Now, the outfall of those measures is a depleted global economy, which has created more challenges for businesses to prosper.

These constraints have forced new ways of working. Business leaders have been required to implement new, more flexible organizational measures in order to preserve their businesses– to operate and survive under these constraints. Businesses and organizations have moved to remote working from home, wherever their industry allows. Organizations have had to reduce their workforces, removing employees from committed payroll in order to balance their books. They have had to look at their people and talent in new ways– as this time of crisis is a shared experience that both enables and demands empathy and reflection.

These changes have been forced by an acute situation, and businesses and the way that they manage their workforce have changed quickly, because they had to. However, many of those changes are here to stay. This crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that for businesses to survive, they must allow for variability– they must incorporate a level of flexibility and slack to how they operate, and work with their people in order to navigate challenging times.

Many businesses that have been officebound for decades have now managed remote working, as employees join Zoom calls as the only way to connect with their teams and clients. And to the contradiction of the past decade of office policies, many businesses and teams have been successful in this model- continuing meetings, progressing collaboration, and even delivering pitches in pursuit of new business.

Of course, this resiliency come with its challenges, but it has also provoked conversations and individual reflection and recognition of the benefits of working from home. Remote working eliminates a commute, saving time that individuals have been able to repurpose for pursuing their passions, taking care of their health, and being with their friends and families. Many employees have self-assessed that they are more efficient at home, where they are able to focus, and maintain that focus.

The benefits of working from home, however, do not negate the benefits of our former ways– of being in the office together. The office environment enables camaraderie and human connection. It's a place where employees, managers, and team members can look each other in the eye and recognize each other as human beings, and for their skills and expertise.

Related: Why Remote Work Makes Teams (And Leaders) Better

So, what do we do now? To think we have only two options would be shortsighted. Perhaps we don't need to just go to the office. Or abandon the office to stay at home. Perhaps business leaders can decide to do both– they can embrace flexibility, and offer their teams the slack that will enable them to reap the benefits of each working environment. By offering employees flexibility in where they work, this then gives employees further flexibility in how they work, further equipping them to be able to respond to ongoing variable market pressures and changes that we can expect as the globe recovers from this crisis.

While the change in the market and economy was abrupt with the global reaction to COVID-19 in March, the reset will be ongoing. Most people and organizations will go through extended recovery and recalibration based on the upset of the year's second quarter. Many businesses have not been able to withstand the economic crisis and have closed. Many of those businesses that remain are a bit scarred and cautious. For some, their safety parachute has already been deployed, and they have no further back-up to finance the business in lieu of revenue. They have had to let go of staff and are operating with a minimized workforce and limited skillsets. The talent structures that led a successful pre-COVID-19 businesses have now mostly collapsed.

Business leaders must face this talent and workforce deficit with flexibility. They must address the needs of their business, while also safeguarding against potential future variability in the market for the success of their business. For inspiration of approach, business leaders should look to Hollywoodnot to venerate the latest blockbuster, but to learn from how they make the blockbusters. The workforce model in Hollywood is based on short-term contracts, specific to a production or a project. It is the epitome of the gig economy in many ways (although some would say that the gig economy is, in fact, specific to even more contained, temporary tasks than making a movie). The Hollywood model is contracting workers are procured to work on a specific and secured job, with a specific and required set of skills or abilities.

Applying this to ongoing business operations in a time of great economic variability means that businesses recruit for temporary staff or expertise based on secured revenue or projects– addressing staffing requirements, while enabling long-term flexibility by mitigating the risk of salary commitments. By building a network of talent specialisms that can be engaged when and where required, a business can avoid the ongoing cost or liability of having that specialty on payroll, especially if the need for it is variable.

While this approach of tapping into the gig economy may require a bit more organization and planning, the benefits of this model can be great for business leaders. This model enables leaders to tap into more specialized talent for projects that require specific skill requirements. It allows business leaders to utilize staffing budgets more flexibly, so if a project demands a more experienced or higher skilled person, budget can be temporarily allocated to the right talent for the job. Emulating Hollywood for your staffing model also expands the talent pool by removing geographical requirements of the worker, where available. This means that business leaders have more options with who they choose to bring in projects, as they look at talent globally, knowing that the risk of a more dispersed workforce is reduced when the engagement is finite and focused.

Of course, this talent management and staffing model comes with increased commitment and flexibility from the business organization to recruit, vet, and manage incoming and outgoing workers. It also can put workers at risk– as the gig economy becomes more common throughout markets and industries, it threatens job and income stability for workers. However, as priorities continue to change for generations entering the workforce, and evidence of the benefits to individual flexibility continues to come from our current crisis recovery, that trade off of risk may prove to be sustainable, and even desired, by workers.

If there is one thing that business leaders can hold tight to, as we continue to navigate this time of recovery and move into the post-COVID-19 era, it is that the right amount of slack or flexibility can help your people- and help your business perform at its best.

Related: Keeping It Simple Is Key To Being Better Communicators Of Complex Ideas

Hanna VanKuiken

Business Director, Rapp MENA

Hanna VanKuiken is the Business Director for Rapp MENA, a global advertising agency and creative consultancy. She has over ten years of experience leading teams in branding and design agencies as well as traditional advertising agencies. In the span of her career, she has led work with Proctor and Gamble, Mondelez International, FedEx, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, CA Technologies and MetLife. She is passionate about cross-functional collaboration and breaking down silos in order to achieve business goals and deliver to consumers and buyers in new and innovative ways. Originally from the US, Hanna is currently based in Dubai.

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