AUSTRALIA – The lockdown decision in Australia meant that the closure of its international and regional borders spelt the end of thriving businesses – cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms, beauty, hair and massage salons, and retail stores. Only essential services such as hospitals, local butcheries and supermarkets are allowed to open.
Primary and secondary schools became empty buildings without the sound of pitter-patter feet of children running, walking, nor the echoes of laughter in corridors, the constant buzz of chatter and play in the school grounds. Teachers had to go behind the walls to develop online material. In the higher education sector, lectures and face-to-face tutorials were cancelled. Within a two-week period, educators had to upskill, redevelop content for webinars, and tutor online. Headsets, screens, internet devices and laptops became popular commodities. Tertiary and international students have to cope with the new ways of communicating with their robotic cyborg educators at home.
In the midst of this change, some businesses big and small have fallen and closed. Insolvency is a big business for lawyers who have skin in this game. Virgin Air Australia has fallen into the hands of administrators and has sought a A$1.4 billion loan that was refused. We are witnessing a job loss of 16,000 employees with Virgin Air Australia. Administrators of the airline have stopped issuing refunds and flight credits to customers who cancel their trips. This leaves an unpleasant customer experience. The response from Sir Richard Branson is interesting as he posts his philanthropic initiatives and YouTube videos online with several positive and backlash comments from the public.
Country town and regional papers may become extinct as companies, including Australian Community Media (ACM) and News Corp, have suspended their publication due to COVID-19’s impact on advertising revenue. There is fear that the community voice of local news will be lost. Even Bauer Media, the publisher of iconic magazines such as Australian Women’s Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar, discontinues the printing of selected magazines and laying off 140 staff.
Tourism businesses and outback nature tours have ceased to operate. Most are family-owned businesses that rely on tourists to run their operations. Locally owned tourism businesses are wedged in a debt-laden limbo as they continue to pay for expenditures such as vehicle and boat insurances, property rents and living costs while having no income from their business. The government is helping out with tips on how to survive and giving financial assistance to these family-owned businesses.
What does this all mean? Yes, COVID-19, without a doubt, has jolted the world hard with a wake-up call in a Richter Scale of 10 out of 10. However, there are some businesses in Australia that have seized this opportunity to transform their business and communication style to reach their stakeholders.
In April 2020, Integral saw catastrophe looming when COVID-19 measures kicked in. Their business relied on 80 percent face-to-face coaching, learning and training development services; however, by embracing the change and reassessing the situation, managing director Jonah Cacioppe, brought forward their four-year plan to fully digitalise their company in two weeks. Integral had the capacity and competency to do so as the business had been building a digital coaching platform using Able for the past year and a half.
By mid-March 2020, Integral started encouraging their 200 clients to reschedule their coaching and mentoring sessions online with the evolving COVID-19 situation. Some clients were resistant as they explained that nothing would beat face-to-face sessions.
Integral staff who were already savvy to online sessions for the past year, trained other staff to be job-ready in the event that they had to go fully digital. Jonah said that it was an amazing experience as the Integral team had to galvanise and accelerate their skills by learning to manage the digital platform. At the same time, the Integral team reached out to their clients via email and phone calls in relation to Integral online programs, workshops and availability. The team worked 24/7 to reschedule all their coaching sessions online and managed to convince clients to retrain virtually.
With COVID-19, Jonah said: “We have even more contact with our clients than ever before.” The clients describe the online sessions as ‘magical’.
“It is all about knowing how to create an online environment that works, and we have been doing that for some time now with clients from interstate and Asia-Pacific,” he shared.
As it turned out, the lockdown was perfect timing as everyone, including their clients, had to work online from home; it was a win-win situation for Integral and for the clients whom they were committed to. Seizing the moment was a necessary strategic move; being gutsy and doing something to adapt quickly was critical.
Another amazing story is Wooleen Station, 700 kilometres from Perth, and set in an ancient landscape that is 3.6 billion years old. In its geographic layout, Wooleen Station, based in the Murchison region, is no stranger to physical isolation and has continued to reinvent itself throughout the years. Even if its tourists and educational programmes are not running due to coronavirus restrictions, Wooleen Station has an online presence compared to no other: it tells a tale of visionary farmer David Pollock and his wife, Frances, as a hardworking, astute and creative team, who rehabilitated the family’s pastoral land into a sustainable ecotourism family business. David chronicled his experience in The Wooleen Way – Renewing An Australian Resource, a book that marks the controversial decision to rehabilitate the land.
Wooleen Station is a standout and has won several awards for sustainable ecotourism and has been featured in The Australian Story twice. It is Australia’s brand ambassador – the heart and soul of the nation’s outback. While it is not adverse to dramatic and extreme changes, it constantly questions the way of traditional farming and embraces new ways of thinking and living. Wooleen Station has adopted online technology by updating its website, providing video links to its unique history of 100 years on pastoral land. It has recently renovated its heritage homestead and looks forward to reopening once restrictions are fully lifted. Said Frances Pollock: ”With the restrictions easing recently, we have been communicating to our staff to be ready as our online bookings are full and we are so busy right now to get everything done.” As it stands, living the Wooleen Way is paying off.
In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic is a blessing in disguise as it allows us to reflect on what we can do better and realise the limitations of what we cannot do. Take time to reflect on these six simple steps with yourself and your team, and your business and organisation will thrive creatively and positively. The six steps are:
1. It is time for change – Be optimistic and stay positive
2. Embrace the change – Think differently and creatively
3. Reassess the situation – Identify innovative ways to move forward
4. Recreate – Brainstorm, think out of the box, have breakthroughs
5. Reinvent – Develop new initiatives, be original and redesign for the audiences
6. Thrive – Make it count and appreciate what we have
The inspirational stories of the family-owned businesses above have provided a thread of optimism and courage in these thought-provoking times. Carpe Diem!