The importance of creating the best new normal possible

As the phrase ‘new normal’ becomes more prevalent with each passing day, industry veteran John Gubert says we need think carefully to ensure any change is for the better.

“The way we do business is going to change.” I keep on hearing people declare this about the post COVID-19 environment but the critical issue is “how are we going to change the way we do business for the better?” It is no use institutionalising some of the ad hoc solutions that have had to be implemented overnight. It is worthless to see bots with multiple options as a long-term way to handle exception processes. The new service model has to enhance the old. And it can.

We need to look at the service model we have in lockdown and previously across our day-to-day processes and identify the strengths and weaknesses of both. COVID-19 could be with us until at least early to mid-2021, assuming a cure of some sort can be found. But the risk of COVID-19 or another pandemic will overhang the market for the foreseeable future. The time gap between SARS and COVID-19 was lengthy but that was due to factors we do not understand; many believe the cause of both may be similar, while it is clear the globalisation of goods and people accelerate their spread. This changes the automation dynamic. We are used to automation on a cost saving or, to a lesser extent, an efficiency or business risk-enhancing basis. Extraneous risk needs now to be added to the package. If remote working becomes a norm, perhaps for social reasons but also for community health drivers, then we need to automate the process gaps in our business models. They need to become as agnostic as possible to office or remote working. And in this light, we need to examine how we look at exception processing for much of it is not industrial strength and, with the advent of intelligent automation, we need to look at those more complex processes that we have defaulted to human solutions. Intelligent automation needs though to produce an audit trail that can allow one to interpret the drivers for its decisions as otherwise the risks of corruption and contagion are too great. A fresh look is also needed at cyber security as we move from the ringed fence of the office to the broader reaches of the internet in the home. Blockchain or alternative methods of creating single data sources are urgently required, for reconciliation is one of the biggest enemies of automation. We need to look at price and other data feeds, at instrument and other identifiers to drive away anomalies, often commercial rather than business imperative, before they hit user applications. I am sure the list could be extended and cooperation is needed across markets for this to happen, but we need that cooperation to avoid the historic universal consensus process that acts as a barrier to change rather than a driver for its execution. Is there a prestigious industry body, one that would need key and committed intergovernmental and regulatory support, that can grasp this as an initiative and produce a global action plan?

We need to look at the client communication model. If change is to happen, an enhanced dialogue is needed with clients on their priorities, perhaps changed in the COVID-19 world, and their ability to adopt change. Options such as back-to-front processing take out risk and make future change easier to implement between impacted parties. But the multiplicity of solutions, even within firms, make the current choice difficult. However, these new and novel operating models do totally re-engineer the business relationship.

For this to happen, direct dialogue is needed, but it cannot be binary; it requires interaction with different subject matter experts. In the current environment that demands webinar-style communication rather than the classical whiteboarding sessions. How to hold meetings and create value added dialogue in this, and other areas, is no simple matter.  I have operated both physical and remote sessions in the past with my management teams, out of choice and necessity, and would suggest that up to half of all historic face-to-face meetings, client-specific or conference-style, can be operated remotely with direct dialogue being needed in the others. I suspect that domestic client and team meetings can easily be made compatible with social distancing norms, once greater freedom of movement is accepted, although international ones will take longer to come on stream. From experience, I would be eager to subdivide remote meetings between telephone only – which are simple to arrange – through to video linked which bridge a small part of the gap between telephone and physical. But be careful of all such meetings for the curse of the iPhone hangs over them and the true participation of all attendees.  

I would also be concerned about corporate culture. Remote working is fine but does it come at the cost of teamwork and corporate identity? Having spent years – for it takes so long – building up trust within a business line and then across contiguous business areas, I am nervous that remoteness from the office will be at the expense of the glue that brings together a company and makes it more valuable as an entity, economically and, especially, client-wise than are the sum of its parts. Assuming the many CEO briefings, staff and client social events or cross business line working groups were not just for show but did add value, and I believe that most of them did, then we need to continue them. In-country ones are possible although research currently shows a great reticence at assuming any unnecessary risk pre-the universal adoption of either a COVID-19 vaccine or, at least, a powerful antidote. In the immediate-term we need to continue with a dominant theme of remote communication but a huge effort will be needed at some time to re-instate that corporate pride and empathy that makes sound organisations great. And that effort, in the immediate phase, appears to be somewhat lacking from many organisations. Treatment of employees during this time of hardship will create an environment that will be one of the main drivers for the morale of our people in the future.

Communication is key. For clients, we need to focus on future business models we can use when pandemics become an entrenched part of our business recovery planning. For our people, our treatment of them in these horrifically hard times and our interaction with them as we work out our new operating models will drive our performance as businesses. But most of all, we need to get our brightest to gauge how we can change for the better in a new normal where it will be harder to perform than ever before.