With little warning, Covid-19 has meant many New Zealand businesses can no longer operate in the way they previously knew. Charles Anderson spoke to some of these businesses about rapidly adapting to a new normal.
Recently on a Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood in a room full of socially distanced journalists and name-dropped two men.
“Greg and Sam” were freight workers who had, over the course of the past several weeks, adjusted their schedules to transport vast amounts of frozen vegetables and chips up and down the country. Level four lockdown had forced Cook Strait ferries to operate on vastly different and constantly shifting schedules. To adapt to this, Greg and Sam stepped up. They changed their driving routes, their work hours, and their body clocks to ensure people throughout Aotearoa got their carrots and chippies. They were unlikely heroes.
The freight network throughout Aotearoa required innovation to keep it humming through levels four and three. Using a bit of ingenuity, Greg and Sam became pioneers of how the trucking industry had to adapt. By changing their trucking route and meeting at various points throughout the South Island to swap trailers before one of them carried on over the Cook Strait up the North Island, they helped keep supermarkets stocked through the lockdown.
“Necessity breeds innovation,” Ardern said. “And with social distancing and good hygiene likely to be with us for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised that we see innovation throughout our alert levels.”
She thanked Greg and Sam.
Greg Thomas and Sam Grainger are truck drivers for Talley’s. Their talents for adapting to the situation were singled out by their boss Hayden Reed.
“They’re pretty humble sort of guys. They’d say this was just their job. It’s what they do,” says Reed. “It’s a new way of life for our drivers. They had to adapt.”
The company also had to figure out a way to communicate to all its drivers the different truck stops they could still visit along their routes and where the toilets and smoko rooms were. This was to ensure that there weren’t dozens of drivers arriving at the same place at the same time and jeopardising social distancing rules. So to stay in touch with truck drivers on the road, Talley’s used Health and Safety software, created logging incidents, to communicate across their entire fleet where they could go, something which Reed says they business will likely keep.
The tale of “Greg and Sam” is just a small example of how New Zealand’s businesses adapted during lockdown. It’s also an example of how some of what Covid-19 wrought on local companies will be kept in a future that looks very different from the one they’d imagined just a few months ago.
Somewhere in suburban Auckland, Vodafone New Zealand business director Lindsay Zwart is on the line. For the past several weeks, like thousands of others throughout the country, video conference calls have been the primary means of communication.
For Zwart, adapting to this hasn’t been so foreign. She used to head up a division of Microsoft in Seattle before being lured home. Her teams were spread across the vastness of the United States. Video conferencing was a way of life.
“I think we’ve been fortunate in New Zealand,” she says. “It’s easy to get around. Larger countries, with more challenges geographically, have figured it out already.”
Basically, she says not all New Zealand businesses, including some of her customers, were ready for lockdown. There were thousands of enterprises who all of a sudden had to figure out if they could work from home.
Zwart, who started at Vodafone NZ in September last year, had seen it coming. During February and March, Vodafone Italy was reporting from the front lines of Covid-19. As that country descended into crisis, it offered insight into how to keep a business moving. It was clear from that experience that to stop the rampant spread of the virus through a workforce, people needed to be distanced.
So in early March, Vodafone NZ told all staff to work from home. It was a test to see if their internet connections were strong enough, if they had the right headsets, and if their speakers functioned. Then they separated their teams so if one was unable to work, another could still push on.
Then lockdown happened. When Ardern made her announcement, the company experienced a 70% increase in call volume. Data usage grew rapidly. People used messaging apps more. It put huge pressure on the network. They started working on fortifying its 4G infrastructure in dense suburbs in anticipation of huge spikes of use.
“It’s like the Auckland Harbour Bridge,” Zwart says. “If you put 70% more cars on it you are going to need to reinforce it.”
Even though there was huge demand for its products, Vodafone was also in the same boat as thousands of local businesses. In the space of two days, its 67 retail stores were shuttered. Within a week, Vodafone had redeployed and retrained all retail workers in New Zealand into becoming chat agents through its website.
“It’s interesting what happens in times of crisis… What people didn’t think was possible, people are able to do. The new world will be quite different to the old world,” she says. “We have the power to reimagine not the new normal, but the next normal.”
And that, Zwart says, will have hangovers from lockdown. She believes contactless commerce will continue, consumer behaviour will change, and businesses will look at how productive they were when they didn’t have any office space. Then they’ll start asking questions.
But productivity is only one part of the equation. Zwart and her team also spent time looking at the morale of workers and making sure they didn’t feel socially isolated. After all, you don’t miss the water cooler talk until you can’t have it anymore.
Zwart says she’s never had to do so many video calls in her life. In order to try and have some space from that, Vodafone instituted a no meeting policy between 12-1pm.
“You just need a minute to catch your breath and have lunch and say hi to your kids. Sitting in a dark room in a series of conference calls and you start to go a little stir crazy.”
She says it’s just another piece of the puzzle for thinking about future ways of working and reimagining organisations, so everyone is productive no matter where they are.
Adapting to Covid-19 restrictions forced Mark Denvir and his 12 person team to cram three months of work into one week. As Auckland Council’s director of ICT, he was responsible for figuring out how 7,000 people could work from home. Needless to say, there’s now a new appreciation for the organisation’s IT guys.
As the council closed its facilities and buildings down to fight the spread of Covid-19, its contact centre still needed to provide essential council services as well as gear up to support the new government food distribution programme. Vodafone helped set it up, making sure the centre had the right processes and technology to meet the needs of the programme. Denvir is understated when describing the task: “It was interesting doing all of that at the same time.”
The organisation is filled with people that provide all sorts of services: consenting, licensing, the management of rates, the management of healthy waters, monitoring stormwater activities, animal control, noise control, and management of the city libraries’ digital content. Each works with different systems, different software and different security measures. All of them had to be able to access those safely from their homes.
“A typical deployment of what we did in that space usually takes two or three months of planning, implementing software and allowing access to each device,” says Denvir. “That’s a very long process, [but] we effectively did that in the first week.”
He says it comes down to a conversation around risk and the organisation’s appetite for it. “Governance had an acceptance that we would be doing stuff on the fly. We were lucky we had that trust.”
They’d already had a test run. Earlier in the year, when the Sky City fire forced the evacuation of thousands of Auckland CBD workers, the council redeployed 3,500 people from the central city. The majority of these workers went home while the rest went to other regional offices.
“We were pretty happy with how that went. Then with lockdown, it was just a scale game,” he says. “If things went wrong, we could roll back.”
There may have been challenges but the council continued to operate. Denvir believes it’s likely it will carry on what it’s learned into the future.
“The way [we] work will change. We still have a good chunk of our business that are still wedded to a desk and paperbound processes. They’ve pleasantly surprised themselves.” Denvir says those employees have shown they can work from anywhere, proving how flexible the organisation can be.
The other benefit was seeing how the council could continue to improve in the digital workspace allowing Denvir to communicate more than ever with his teams. “The flexibility we now have, there’s no doubt that IT will be asked to up its game generally,” he says. “You become more connected I think.”
Nick Turner, managing director and co-founder of Sal’s Pizza, had a similar experience. It was a shock when Ardern told New Zealand that all non-essential businesses had to close – he saw 10 years of momentum built on the back of a pizza chain come to a stall. He liked to think that pizza was an essential service, despite falling outside the government definition.
“All of a sudden it grinds to a halt,” he says. “It’s different to having a bad couple of weeks. I was a little bit emotional.”
At first, he was calm. For the first time in 12 years there were two days where he had a chance to almost stop. Then, by the weekend, it was clear they had to move.
“We knew we were going to have to work through the realities and the cashflows and support for our franchisees. The cold hard reality hit.” So he started reaching out to suppliers and franchisees up and down the country, as well as communicating with other people in the industry. In a previous life, they might’ve been competitors. But now they were a support structure.
“We were asking ‘where do we go from here?’ It made a big difference to me, just to be able to see people and work through some of the shared issues.”
Those days were filled with phone calls, with video conferences and figuring out the new lay of the land. By working together, they hoped to make sense of a chaotic time.
“The best outcome is that everyone comes out successful,” Turner says. “These are people’s lives and households, kids and families are all affected.”
Turner says the lockdown has forced some plans on hold with stores due to be opened in the next few months and deals that were on the cusp of being signed likely being delayed.
“We have to regroup. It’s given us some time to think about new ideas,” he says.
They’ve even harkened back to some older ideas. Sal’s used to deliver its pizza via Segway around CBD locations. Then it faded away. But with the streets being quieter, Turner brought them back into action in May, so it’s not just about thinking ahead to what new things can be implemented.
“The break allowed time for a little nostalgia to creep in, which encouraged us to think about bringing back about what we’ve done in the past too,” Turner says.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Jacinda Ardern stood in a room filled with socially distanced journalists and addressed the future of work. Only a few days later, cabinet decided to move the country back to level two. Retailers and public spaces would be opened back up.
She said it was likely that many people could be allowed back into their brick and mortar offices. But Ardern said whether they had to was another matter.
“Many businesses may have experienced the productivity gains of staggered start times, less congestion and working from home. There is no reason that we should lose what we have learned.”