COVID-19 and its impact on business
A year on, we are still grappling with what COVID-19 means for the future of business.
Our COVID-19 Business Impact Dashboard collects expert insights and fresh thinking on how COVID-19 might impact the economy, businesses, industries, governments and society.
Click on a topic to skip straight to the insights.
Business leaders are grappling with the realities of having the premises shut, relocating staff to their homes, experimenting with new ways of working, and the new realities of having to lay off vast numbers of staff. How can businesses keep afloat and how will it change the business landscape post crisis? Important questions emerge:
Will emerging digital work practices last beyond the short-term crisis? Will businesses learn from this pandemic and be more resilient for future crises? What will the role of open-plan offices in a world that has experienced extreme social distancing? What is the role of HR in a virtualised organisation where workers are isolated in their homes?
Australians who think employees should be able to work from home
Source: The Guardian
Australians who have an agreement with their employer for flexible work hours
Higher net income for firms who were prepared for remote work before COVID-19
The average share of partial/fully digital products is accelerating
Strategy in a pandemic crisis: how agile is your approach to strategy?
We have observed that companies operating their strategic engine with a portfolio approach, were able to handle the disturbing ripple effects of the pandemic with astonishing effectiveness.
Their strategic resource allocation and decision-making processes must have elements of what we define as “portfolio-driven approach” to strategy.
Here are three things that such agile champions do differently.
- Top management’s alignment on the few strategic initiatives that are paramount to the company’s prosperity increases decision making speed and helps with communication and acceptance of decisions throughout the organisation.
- Support effective resource deployment for strategic long-term initiatives, while operative short-term activities can be stopped as a consequence of the unfavourable top-line development.
- Management teams are skilled in delegating decision-making to the initiative teams. This act of empowerment increases the decision-making speed and effectiveness in dealing with uncertainty.
At the same time, we observed companies that did not have the same level of clarity on strategic priorities and did not have an agile management process in place were not able to adapt and fell into a reactive mode of rigid resource management, questioning every project, initiative and expenditure beyond a predetermined cash amount.
Companies operating with one strategic plan are severely set back by such disruptive events, as they require more time and effort to reorient themselves.
Companies that embrace uncertainty with a portfolio-driven strategy approach can avoid such crippling crisis-paralysis. They might even gain traction as they can identify and seize rising opportunities faster, giving them a competitive advantage over their more rigid competitors.
Will there be a shake-up in global supply chains after COVID-19?
COVID-19 has disrupted many aspects of business: it stands to reason governance and accounting arrangements will also need to change to be fit for purpose in our new economic operating environment.
And not just the way firms manage, and account for, their operations – also requiring deep revision are the neoliberal globalisation policies that underpin accounting-based rhetorics and technologies that saw the transfer of manufacturing production from the Global North to the Global South.
Neoliberal acolytes have reduced tariff protection and subsidies, rolled back social security, and promoted large-scale foreign direct investment. Their promise to consumers in the Global North was to supply ever-cheaper imported goods. At the same time, Southern workers were offered economic security through inclusion into the world market.
When the pandemic struck one of its most profound early impacts was the disruption in global supply chains and consequently the international supply of goods.
In truth global neoliberalism was already under heavy attack from growing nationalist populism. According to Palley (2019), neoliberal globalisation now confronts severe challenges from “above” and “below”. From below, it is being confronted by the anger and resentment of working-class voters in developed economies, and from above by increasing hostility between the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States.
There are three possible ways this may playout: (1) the resumption of the pre-COVID-19 status quo; (2) the shortening of supply chains resulting in greater regionalisation and (3) the re-emergence of onshoring in the Global North whereby supply chains either in part or in toto are taken back within national borders.
Decades of optimisation have enabled businesses to whittle down unit costs across the supply chain. The pandemic is likely to fuel a growing shift towards national manufacturing sovereignty. Assumptions about supply chain management and appropriate supply chain accounting have been shifted by the pandemic. More thorough-going risk management techniques, great supply chain transparency and more advanced measures of supply chain resilience will be important enduring outcomes of the pandemic.
COVID-induced cancelling of marketing budgets is the most unmindful cut of all.
If you notice some companies lashing out on advertising during these difficult days – that is the point – you noticed. Businesses that maintain a marketing budget during the Covid-19 crisis are investing in a stronger future.
Most studies show that advertising and promotion expenditures in recessions produce ROI, contributing most to earnings in the year of expenditure, but also up to three years following for consumer goods, two years for industrial products, and much less for services. Advertisers that boost spending levels in a recession can gain 1.6 percentage points in market share in the first two years of a recovery.
But the message has not landed, with most organisations putting a six month freeze on ad spending and only 7% of brands seizing the opportunity to invest during COVID-19.
Rather than muting their corporate profile, firms should engage in counter cyclical promotion as this boosts consumer confidence, helps overcome inertia and sends reassuring signals to concerned consumers, it reinforces the reasons for brand choices in uncertain economic times and helps justify premium prices, it attracts the increased numbers of ‘brand switchers’ who are less loyal and more opportunistic in a recession.
There is also evidence about the type of firms that manage to increase marketing spend and do proactive marketing during a recession. Such companies have a strategic emphasis on marketing, an entrepreneurial culture, slack resources above the minimum to survive and strategic flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
So, keep calm and carry on advertising…
Predictions about the impact of the crisis on the global economy vary wildly, but they all agree that the end result will not be positive. We are asking questions about the impact in its broadest sense:
How deep will the economic impact go? How will growth be affected locally and globally? Will we see heightened global disparity in countries’ economic performance of the coming years, depending on which pandemic response strategy they chose? Will social distancing put an end to the cash economy and spur digital alternatives? How will global supply chains be reshaped as a result of the crisis? What are the implications for capitalism itself?
Foreign investment during a pandemic – friend or foe?
Uncertain times breed suspicion of outsiders – and foreign investors are a special external class who can be seen as opportunistic or even threatening to national interests during COVID-19.
Already we have seen governments restricting foreign investment in the interests of sovereign interests – in some instances overnight.
In March Australia announced a new threshold level of AUD $0 for scrutiny of foreign investment, applicable immediately.
The Japanese government banned foreign investment in medicine for the duration of the pandemic. Japanese firms will also receive government assistance to bring overseas production back onshore.
But it is also the case that all investors are likely to see more businesses and assets for sale in the wake of the pandemic. While some firms sitting on abundant cash enjoy access to more deals, they may face increasing competition from sovereign wealth funds and private equities.
Foreign investors increase their chances of a friendly reception if they are able to offer at least one of the following: critical lifeline funds, enabling firms to keep key assets and talents: solutions for transformation and employee development: or if they can create supply chain synergies, consolidating and diversifying production lines and consumer markets
I have identified five triggers for host countries to treat foreign investors as unwelcome foes: opportunistic buyers preying on firms with liquidity issues and undervalued stocks, or a buyer pushing for better bargains against distressed firms through attrition: investors aiming to increase market power by purchasing and integrating erstwhile competitors: offers with no long-term business solutions for the targeted firm: if the proposal came with a high integration cost of making existing employees redundant. And finally, those considered by the host government to be a threat to key local players in domestic industry.
Economic crisis and gender equality in Asia
Economic crises exacerbate pre-existing inequalities: COVID-19 will damage women’s employment and economic security more than men’s.
Women’s participation in formal employment, political representation, health outcomes and educational achievement declines during and after periods of economic crisis creating a long-term negative impact on women’s human capital formation and economic security.
The social distancing requirements of this pandemic have seen highly feminised sectors, including retail trade, accommodation, food services, tourism and export-oriented manufacturing hit hardest. Hundreds of millions of women employed in these sectors were laid off in the first month of the crisis and more will follow.
The Asian Development Bank estimates small and medium-sized enterprises account for 96 per cent of all businesses in Asia. A recent economic analysis suggests poverty could increase in Asia for the first time since 1990.
But an alternative outcome is possible. Prior to COVID-19, a global consensus for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment was gaining significant momentum. Women’s participation in the economy has been framed as a key to global growth by leading international agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF.
The business case for gender equality remains as robust as ever and, if handled appropriately, the pandemic presents a number of opportunities to ‘build back better’ and improve women’s equality in the workplace.
Gender equality post-COVID-19 will require government and business to include women as leaders and participants in recovery planning. Governments must also fund social care and employers must support workplace practices that do not discriminate against workers with care responsibilities. The IMF expects global growth will rebound once the crisis is contained, but will women share equally the benefits of the recovery?
China helped Australia’s GFC recovery and it will again, but for different reasons
China’s economy is poised for a quick rebound. In March, factories reopened and in April, schools started reopening in China’s biggest cities. Daily coal consumption has returned to 90 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels.
The Australia–China economic partnership was crucial for Australia’s GFC recovery. China became Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in 2007, accounting for 13 per cent (AU$58 billion) of total trade.
Ten years later, in 2018–19, two-way trade with China surged past AU$230 billion, well over double the volume of trade with Australia’s second-ranked trading partner, Japan (AU$88.5 billion). Nearly 40 per cent of Australian exports now go to China and one fifth of imports are from China.
The China trade effect that was concentrated on the resources industry after the GFC is now spread much more widely across Australia’s rural and urban industries.
Compared to 10 years ago, trade with China is more diversified and linked with a larger number of small and medium businesses in Australia. During the GFC, China was Australia’s top market for minerals, fuels and agricultural produce — products in high demand in China’s state-owned sector. Today, China’s middle-class consumers have become Australia’s top market for high-quality consumer products such as food, beauty and health products, as well as services like healthcare, tourism and education.
Australian small and medium exporters are targeting China’s expanding middle class. According to Alibaba, during the 24-hour Singles’ Day sale on 11 November 2019 Australia was the fourth-ranked country selling into China — behind Japan, the United States and South Korea but ahead of Germany.
Australia is facing a bigger crisis now than it did post-GFC, and it is also more closely interconnected with China. This makes the Australia–China economic partnership even more important than it was post-GFC.
With businesses in many sectors struggling and closing their doors as a result of the COVID-19 response and other industries seeing surges in demand and their services expand, we ask questions about the lasting future implications across industries:
As the travel industry is one of the earliest and hardest hit, will tourism and business travel undergo lasting transformations? Will large technology companies (big tech) benefit from the crisis and emerge stronger than before? With the growth in online streaming, what are the implications for the film and movie sectors? What is the impact on sports, worldwide and locally; will Australia be able to sustain its indigenous sports codes?
Virtual work experience – a positive pandemic outcome
While COVID-19 has reshaped Australian higher education with online course delivery, Zoom consultations and AI exams, it hasn’t changed the critical role of higher education in preparing students for the job market.
Work-integrated Learning (WIL) programs such as placements, study tours, industry practicums and industry and community-based projects are considered instrumental for equipping graduates with the required employability skills to function effectively in the working environment. However, travel bans and social distancing rules during this pandemic period have made it impossible for students to engage with industry partners and mentors in person. Most WIL programs have been cancelled.
However virtual WIL programs are becoming the ‘new norm’. We partner with Make a Difference Travel in the Philippines to consider their online WIL program focusing on social entrepreneurship and sustainability. Prior to COVID-19 the program was delivered in the field: the team has promptly developed e-learning resources and online mentorship in response to the global crisis. The experiential online learning includes authentic video content that introduces social enterprise, sustainability and design thinking in the Philippines. It allows students to interact with entrepreneurs and to explore solutions to business challenges. The guided online learning aims to provoke students to inquire, reflect and pursue further study in the area.
While its effectiveness is yet to be studied, the experience inspires us to reconsider WIL curriculums in higher education. Perhaps virtual international WIL is an alternative program, offering employability skills development that is at a lower running cost, easier for risk management, and with fewer restriction on the number of participants, geographical locations and time?
The future of education is co-opetition
University education is in crisis. While COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the delivery of online lessons, in doing so it has raised questions about the primacy of campus-based learning.
Both deliveries have to justify the extraordinary amount of money that students are paying. Scott Galloway, amongst others, has brilliantly led discussions on what the future of education looks like in terms of universities and teaching faculties.
Let me nail my colours to the mast and declare that campuses are here to stay – but they will be altered institutions.
Fundamentally there are three types of courses, and the teaching method should be determined by the type of course:
Firstly there are courses that can be taught 100 percent online: where the teacher is imparting enduring skills that don’t change over time. What my teacher in Math 101 was teaching 10 years ago is pretty much what he is teaching now. Ditto for microeconomics. Insendi has some brilliant courses in these and other subjects.
The second course category are those requiring constant interaction between students and teachers, and among students themselves. 100 percent offline is required. Knowledge is co-created through discussion and collaboration. For example, it’s difficult to teach culture and leadership fully online: leadership is more than theory, it’s observing amazing people and appreciating nuances in how they think and behave.
Thirdly there is the blended classroom: Courses such as Strategy, Supply Chain Management and International Business are examples of courses that can accommodate both online and in-person teaching methods. Such courses are composed of different sorts of knowledge that require a mixed teaching pedagogy.
Universities need to focus on those subjects that can mix online and off-line while leveraging some great online resources created by top notch scholars. I see a future of collaboration across universities for the creation of some fundamental, shareable material combined with competition around the individual strengths of particular scholars.
As public transport operators fight for survival, changes are needed to withstand future shocks
The public transport sector is hurting. After a summer of bushfires, travel bans and now COVID-19, the commercial/charter market has seen its revenue streams vanish. Many operators have stood down workers and deregistered their buses.
Contracted operators have incurred greater costs and those with large patronage incentives are looking to invoke ‘force majeure’ clauses as passenger numbers plummet. Around the world, services are being cut and governments have stepped in to underwrite services—as has occurred in the aviation sector.
Transport operators are fighting for survival as COVID-19 measures have brought enormous cost and revenue pressures. The result could be market consolidation and less competition in the industry.
The strategic and financial consequences of these external shocks call for urgent reform in the procurement and funding model of public transport to ensure its continued financial viability. New governance models should shift operators away from mere compliance with incentives for innovation and value creation.
Future contract design should ensure that transport services and assets will be more resilient in responding to other ‘black swan’ events. In the area of sanitation technologies, the swift deployment of fogging, ultraviolet-C and robotics coupled with AI powered video analytics for crowd management should be under consideration now.
The return to work period will also necessitate the restructuring of services to better meet a changing demand landscape with biosecurity concerns at the forefront of service delivery.
The future of the film industry: With cinemas dark, all eyes are on streaming
The COVID-19 crises is set to have an enormous impact on the future of the film production and distribution sector, with the future of the night out at the movies in serious doubt. Billions of dollars are bound up in blockbuster film productions that have been completed but cannot now be released, as cinemas had to go dark due to COVID-19 lock downs globally.
For example, movies such as Top Gun: Maverick, Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel’s Black Widow, or Disney’s Mulan are all awaiting their first screenings. In the pre-Corona world movies would always see the light of day at the cinema first, with a well-spaced release window before they make their way to DVD or the TV screen. But these are not normal times. Streaming services all have seen between 20-30% jumps in viewership during the first few weeks of the crisis.
Thus, the pressure for film studios to unlock the millions or even billions of production capital tied up in already filmed but unreleased movies is now mounting. Yet, if studios were to decide to collapse the release window and put these blockbusters straight to the small screen, such as through their own streaming services, this might have lasting effects for the future of film distribution and the survival of the cinema experience.
Social distancing presents an unwanted and unprecedented societal experiment which might have long-lasting effects on how we organise public lives, what freedoms citizens will enjoy and how we will interact with each other in the future. We ask:
How will our collective life-styles adjust after months of social distancing? Will we experience a wave of loneliness and mental health problems or re-connect with each other in new and meaningful digital ways? Will COVID-19 lead to a greater acceptance of state surveillance and individual tracking, to effectively isolate infection cases? What are the implications for our global climate response as COVID-19 grabs public attention? Will we find new ways to curb misinformation as a result of the COVID-19 experience?
Air pollution returning to pre-COVID levels
Source: European Space Agency
People in the world who were pushed into extreme poverty in 2020
Source: UN SDGs 2020 report
Year-on-year increase in global energy-related CO2 emissions in December 2020
Americans with symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder (11% in June 2019)
Source: CDC via Statista
It’s time for a gender-focused recovery
The COVID-19 public health crisis and related economic impacts have widened the gap between men and women in both paid and unpaid work. Women vastly outnumber men on the frontline services in healthcare and education and also in basic needs such as supermarket workers and delivery.
Women have been doing more unpaid work at home during the crisis than men, including child care, home schooling, and aged and disability care, making it difficult for them to maintain stable connections to the labour market.
A post-pandemic future of work presents challenges as well as possibilities for gender equality.
Scholarly and public policy discussions about the future of work have been primarily concerned with issues of technology and how it interacts with work, without examining how these changes might impact women and men differently. This gender-blind perspective obscures the fact that women and men are differentially positioned in the labour market and are therefore exposed to vastly different risks and opportunities in this changing world of work.
For example, sexual harassment, women’s limited career progression, and organisational gender bias are still critical issues requiring urgent attention. As we see inequalities amplified by the pandemic, a gendered lens is integral to addressing the compounded effects of discrepancy on women’s wellbeing as well as our thinking about the future of work.
The clashing of work and care still needs to be addressed. Making visible the gendered realities of care work is one step forward. Providing high quality childcare and support for carers is another. We also know flexible work practices can contribute to more sharing of care and domestic work, further supporting women’s increased labour force participation.
What we need to do now is to regulate flexibility in employment, connecting it to gender equality.
A gender-focused recovery is essential to ensure an equitable future of work and a healthy national economy. Consult women on the national response to the pandemic. The work now of governments and other stakeholders is to construct recovery strategies that are gender-aware, putting women at the centre.
Sustainable Development Goals more urgent than ever in a post-COVID world
COVID continues to create challenges for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (hunger, decent work, inequalities). With the UN World Food Program predicting a quarter of a billion people could be plunged into acute hunger by December, it is more important than ever to dig in around the SDGs to help set the path for a stronger and better recovery.
A focus on the SDGs requires multi-sectoral partnerships, as no one sector, government, NFP or business, can do it alone due to the breadth and depth of the problems. Businesses will play a key role within these multi-sectoral partnerships to provide a roadmap for a post-COVID world, due to their role in innovation, access to resources and as a source of employment.
Embracing the ‘never waste a crisis’ mantra the current calamity can be a catalyst for urgent SDG implementation.
Three key interrelated aspects require attention as the underlying driving forces for business to engage with the SDG agenda.
- Rethinking the role of business; the global pandemic has exposed the structural weaknesses of capitalism. The post-Covid world will require businesses to rethink their business model and offer sustainable solutions. Universities have a critically important role role in shifting the business mindset towards sustainability.
- Technological readiness; the key technology trends accelerated during the COVID pandemic (online and distance learning, digital payments, remote working, tele-health, online entertainment, and resilient supply chain) relate to all the SDGs. In a post COVID world, businesses need to reimagine their approach to realise the unlimited potential of technology as an underlying force for all the SDGs.
- Social innovations: in a post-COVID resource constrained world, frugal innovations are critical not only for developing better and cheaper solutions at a rapid pace with limited resources, but also in keeping many businesses thriving.
Prior to COVID-19 there were concerns about achieving the SDGs by 2030. Their implementation is even more important in the world we are entering.
The pandemic, poverty and business
Developing countries now account for three quarters of new COVID-19 cases: the next phase in this pandemic is unfolding in the context of poverty.
Recent evidence from UNU-Wider suggests over a billion people are living in poverty and that the global poor could be losing $500 million per day due to the impact of the pandemic. While countries such as Australia, have been successful in suppressing the virus, in other countries poverty is a barrier to containing the outbreak. It is in everyone’s benefit to deal with structural issues such as poverty, arising from the pandemic.
Countries including Australia are looking at a business-led economic recovery. Coming out of the pandemic the initial reaction of companies will be to focus exclusively on the bottom-line. However in order for businesses to effectively lead this recovery and to differentiate themselves from others, they have to deal with the inherent issues arising from the pandemic, including poverty, job losses and other social issues such as gender inequality and hunger.
In 2019 The Business Round Table of CEOs redefined the purpose of business to stakeholder value rather than shareholder value.
Increasingly consumers, governments and civil society expect businesses to broaden their purpose.
Companies that proactively take on social issues such as poverty alleviation (at a profit) are more likely in the long run to both economically lead countries out of the pandemic, and to gain long-term advantages that have commercial benefits.
While governments everywhere scramble to organise the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are curious about what future changes our collective experiences with the response will bring to government systems and institutions:
What are the lasting impacts for employment and social security systems? Will there be renewed appetite for a serious consideration of Universal Basic Income? How will the pandemic shape public health systems? Will we see a surge in universal health? Will the experiences the global search for a vaccine lead to lasting changes in the status and funding of scientific research? How should policy responses be organised to govern a world that has learned from the COVID-19 crisis?
Principles for a policy response to COVID-19
In addition to the pressing public health crisis, Australia, like so much of the world, currently faces an unprecedented public policy challenge. Few of the specifics of the response to that challenge are yet clear and it would be foolhardy of anyone to pretend otherwise.
It is vital to engender clear-minded public debate as to what those principles should be and for us all to play a part in assisting decision-makers in these moments of deep stress.
Here we outline our own five core principles.
We put them forward both in the hope that they can guide policymakers now and that they can stimulate widespread discussion about the best way in which to take Australia forward.
- Fair and equal access to healthcare
- Shared economic sacrifice
- Enhancing social relationships
- Protecting democracy, rights and liberties
- Building a sustainable future
None of the principles above are designed to generate specific, individual policy responses. They are intended instead to act as a set of criteria by which such proposals for such responses can be judged and debate initiated.
Who is the government’s COVID-19 rent relief package really helping?
The Federal and State Governments’ rent moratorium for tenants is a compassionate gesture that appears to take the moral high ground but will leave landlords languishing in a quagmire when the COVID-19 crisis is over.
In reality the ‘rent relief packages’ are highly problematic, impractical and ignores the underlying ‘domino effect’: the various complex contractual arrangements landlords have with many other parties (such as banks, real-estate agents, insurance, other service providers and creditors). For example, the landlords who outright own their investment property and rely on rental income as the only source of income stream (e.g., self-managed superfund retirees) will be disadvantaged by the PM’s ‘sympathetic’ gesture.
There are also landlords who are physically incapable of working or who solely rely on rental income to feed their family. Further, many landlords finance their rental expenditure from their rental income. If this rental income is hijacked by the government’s inapt and unclear rules that are at best, open to the vaguest of interpretation – then it will come as no surprise that landlords (irrespective of commercial or residential) will be the losers juggling legally enforceable contractual agreements with the banks/insurance/creditors to meet financial obligations and forceful rent sacrifice.
To add insult to injury, landlords’ mortgage obligations have been seemingly watered down with creative terms and buzz-words such as “rent holiday”, “rent relief” or “rent freeze” – all of which assume zero penalties or costs when a landlord is forced to negotiate with a bank or insurer in a rent default situation.
This ‘solution’ has created a mess for landlords and their tenants to sort out. Governments should refrain from making further responses which are ambiguous and unilaterally favour tenants to the detriment of landlords, without any reasonable and commensurate compensation scheme for landlords.
The government’s desperate measure to save tenants from financial distress appears to be a Robin Hood style attempt to steal from Landlord Peter to feed Tenant Paul.
Our corporate regulator’s response
Recent events surrounding the impact of COVID-19, and the resulting effects on business, have been creating great uncertainty, with an appreciable effect on global securities markets. In response, the Australian corporate regulator, the Australian Investments and Securities Commission (ASIC) has announced its COVID-19 regulatory priorities.
ASIC has a very wide set of responsibilities and says it will focus on those areas where there is “risk of significant consumer harm, serious breaches of the law, risks to market integrity, and time-critical matters”. Furthermore, ASIC will suspend or defer non time-critical matters including industry consultation, regulatory reports and reviews.
ASIC is to be congratulated for its pragmatic approach in these difficult times, which will allow businesses to focus on their own responses to the many challenges now confronting them. While criminal activity and misconduct must never be tolerated, now is the time to appropriately enable business to address the issues which affect their key stakeholders, including not only their shareholders, but also their customers, clients and employees, as well as the wider community.
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As COVID-19 sets out to change the world forever, join us in thinking about what’s to come
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