Survival Of The Fittest: A Game Plan For MENA Businesses To Get Through The COVID-19 Pandemic

It is well known that a company's biggest asset are their people, so looking after and protecting employees should be a priority for any business.

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Having won the "Boutique Design Firm of the Year" title at the Design Middle East Awards last year in October, we had planned to finish our 20th year with a well-deserved party in one of the iconic venues we have designed. However, the harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has therefore been a bitter blow, not just for us as a company, but for many of our valued clients, who we regard as our extended family, having worked so closely with them for many years. Ask anyone in the interiors industry how this pandemic is affecting them, and you will get the same answer: "It's really tough out there!" So, how do we survive this? Here's how we went about this:

1. Learn from lessons of the past With a wealth of experience across the region, we have learnt valuable lessons from previous downturns, particularly the 2008 financial crisis. Tracking expert analysis and projections for the markets in which you operate is important to shape future plans and drive productivity. We identified the need to develop a more prudent approach with a business model that included a diverse client base, forward planning for a changing economy in the UAE, and the ability to provide our award-winning design services in emerging markets in the MENA region. So, whilst the coronavirus has only been on our radar since January, we unknowingly had already created a working environment that would be more adaptable to a pandemic, and in better shape to navigate the stringent measures and restrictions on working.

2. Take swift action We live in a world that is often critical of the media, particularly their ability to dramatize negative news; however, reports of the potential worldwide impact of the coronavirus highlighted early concerns. None of us have ever been through anything quite like this before, and with little time to plan before necessary government measures were taken, acting swiftly to minimize the impact on business is absolutely key.

3. Know your options We live in a world where we can get information 24 hours a day via social media and online platforms, so we don't have any excuse not to know what help is available during the COVID-19 crisis to help manage cash flow. Research the market so you know all the options available to you. When banks can defer loan repayments, request it. Negotiate with your suppliers and agree on payment plans. Contact your clients to discuss their commitments, and do your best to get payments in on time. With government support initiatives to help businesses announced in Saudi Arabia, there is a hint there may be more announcements from the UAE government, so keep yourself up to date as these materialize, as these could be crucial to your survival the longer this goes on.

Related: How Your Business Can Survive The COVID-19 Crisis (And Then Thrive After It)

4. Know that you and your team are in this together It is well known that a company's biggest asset are their people, so looking after and protecting employees should be a priority for any business. Ensuring they have clear instructions on what to do if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms is paramount, so we all play our part in the drive to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Whilst you may have existing contracts, the prospect of future business opportunities are remote in most industries at this time (unless you are a key business provider); therefore, cutting costs is crucial to your survival. Assessing work schedules and understanding commitments is key to knowing how you can work with a reduced workforce, and once this has been evaluated, offering staff the opportunity to return home to their country of origin on paid or unpaid leave, with the option to work remotely where possible, confirms that their safety is a priority!

For those that choose this option, a company should also look to make this happen quickly, particularly with the threat of border closures and flight cancellations, supporting staff where necessary with quick payment of leave travel allowances to book flights. Once you have established how you can reduce staff overheads with voluntary unpaid leave, you are in a better position to understand your next move. Whilst some companies opt to let staff go during tough times, this should be thought through carefully, and only used if you believe you won't need them again when things turn around. If absolutely necessary, ask the staff to agree to a blanket salary reduction to help retain all staff, especially if it is a short-term requirement.

5. Figure out your business continuity plans People underestimate the importance of having business continuity plans, preferring to spend their time developing sales plans and strategies for success. But, remember the saying: "Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail!" Most SMEs don't have the processes and procedures or the experience of global companies to put these together, and whilst we are a boutique design consultancy, my wife has worked for a large global bank, and that experience meant she followed their standards, implementing systems to deal with a crisis, and building our own business continuity plans.

With a framework already in place, the first step is its execution, setting up and testing remote access to systems, ensuring all staff have the ability to work remotely in case of need, being well prepared and in a good position for the unknown! With new ways of working come challenges, so it is vital to ensure everyone understands the importance of not increasing costs, which can escalate through phone calls, instead of using free online platforms such as Zoom, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams.

6. Keep your communication channels open Whilst some people enjoy working from home with the benefit of no travel time, others may struggle, particularly people that live alone, as they can feel very isolated without family and friends during a period of lockdown. Working in a creative industry, we often brainstorm ideas and discuss concept development, so regular communication through the online platforms, is crucial to build staff morale, keep spirits up, and maintain positivity.

We are living in unprecedented times, and life as we know it has changed. We must however remain upbeat- we live and work in one of the safest countries in the world that has acted quickly to stem the spread of this tragic pandemic, and whilst it is worrying times for us all right now, we fully understand these measures are necessary to protect us in the long-term. I have every faith that if we support each other and navigate our way carefully through this crisis, in the next few weeks, we will start to see the benefit of these stringent measures, flattening the rising curve, so we can get back on our feet, whilst appreciating life from a new perspective!

Related: We're In This Together: Business Resources, Offers, And More For MENA Entrepreneurs To Get Through The Coronavirus Pandemic