The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting our societies in a profound way, says the writer. Picture: 123RF
The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting our societies in a profound way, says the writer. Picture: 123RF

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

In January 2012 I took up a position as CEO of Vodafone in the Netherlands. Even then the Dutch were talking about Het Nieuwe Werken — the new ways of working, which encompassed flexible hours and locations, remote working and technology tools for collaboration. I had come from Vodacom where every day my driver Chris ushered me to my large office in an S-class Mercedes.

When I came home after my first day of work in Amsterdam, my son asked me: “So, do you have a cool car?” and I said: “No, I went to work on the tram.” “OK — but do you have a nice office?” I said: “No, there are no offices for anyone.” “Well, do you at least have a nice desk?” I said: “No, we all sit on open-plan benches.” He looked at me for a while and then said: “Well, what do you have?”

It remains a good question — when the trappings of executive life are removed and people work remotely and we cannot rely on the design of our offices and the artefacts that adorn them — posters saying “care for the customer” or “innovation is everything” or “tomorrow’s share price is up to you” — to set the tone and culture of our companies, then what do we have? And, more importantly, what do we need?

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting our societies in a profound way. At its core it is a human tragedy that has already claimed almost half a million lives across the world. Africa has 17% of the world’s population and only 2% of the Covid-19 cases, so it seems the worst is yet to come for us. And already we see the pace at which what starts as a health issue becomes a social issue as unemployment rises, and then builds into an economic issue as it affects not only our own economy but also global demand as well as interest in emerging markets. In many African markets it is also exposing the fragility of undiversified economies too dependent on resources, and undeveloped social and health-care systems. Truly, many African governments now need to fix the economic roof in the pouring rain.

For businesses, like in any event, the view depends on where you sit in the stadium. Some players can simply not survive this: think of airlines with already marginal economics. Some players will need a complete transformation of their cost structures to survive, and some will see an acceleration of demand for their services. But everyone will need to adapt in some way to survive or prosper.

One common theme is what we describe as “accelerated digitalisation” — where companies need to adapt to not only service and sell to their customers in a digital or online way, but also need to be able to run their own businesses that way. Het Nieuwe Werken was not really new in Amsterdam in 2012 and it is certainly not new in 2020 — what is new is that it has moved from the “early adoption, nice to have” to the “mass adoption, have to have” category.

So, in the post Covid-19 world, what do we have and what do we need? At an industrial level, we need the tools to do our work from wherever we are. That is a mix of pure connectivity — reliable high-speed broadband at home and access to the same when we are travelling or “nomadic”. We also need to be able to access remotely (and securely) the business applications we use to run the business, whether that is for a sales person accessing customer databases, a call-centre agent accessing the call-centre systems, or someone in finance accessing the company’s records for processing payments. And we need the communication and collaboration tools to work together, whether that is simple e-mail, virtual meeting technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Blue Jeans, Skype or Google Meets, or the “business/social applications” such as Yammer, Facebook Workplace or Salesforce Chatter.

But they will not be enough. In the same way a society is not united by the roads that connect people or the places they meet, a business needs something more than these “tools of trade” to connect people, to bind them, to give them a sense of purpose, to unite them in a way that is needed even more when we can no longer rely on being physically together. For many years companies have relied on vision and mission statements or company values to cement a corporate culture. The reality is that in most cases these do not have the power to move people — something more compelling is required.

A few years ago in Amsterdam I attended a presentation by Travis Kalanick of Uber (I met him again in the back room of a bar in Davos in 2018, but that is a story for a different day). He told us that when your people believe that what your company does matters, you have patriots; when they do not, you have mercenaries. It may not be an original thought, but it is a powerful concept. I was an investment banker for many years and, on reflection, it was not an industry patronised by patriots. Perhaps that, at least, was a factor in the global financial crisis of 2008/2009. To grow and thrive now, to be relevant and to attract and keep the talent we need to bring our strategies to life, we need to engage our people emotionally and connect them to a shared dream, belief or purpose.

At MTN we have a shared belief. It is that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern connected life. Of course, we also have our vision, strategy and values. Undoubtedly, the shared belief has been the most powerful uniting force. At a deep level, our people believe our technologies are forces for good, that nobody should be left behind and that they are playing their part in this dream of inclusion and shared value. We don’t speak about “4G population coverage grew by 15%” any more; we speak of “another 100-million people across our markets can access the power of the internet on MTN’s networks”. Society is not rational, people are not machines: dreams, beliefs and how they are expressed have more power than ever.

I have spent the past three months managing a group of 21 countries and 260-million customers from my dining room in Johannesburg. It would not have been possible without my supersonic home fibre, MTN 4G, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. The technology has liberated me from the office and allowed my children to continue with their university education and schooling. Many of our citizens are not so fortunate. But behind every MTN screen, from Douala to Kampala to Kabul, our MTN patriots have been making miracles happen because they care.

We are relearning that after Covid — even in technology companies — nothing will be achieved without committed people with a shared purpose. In the words of TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

• Shuter is MTN group president and CEO.

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