27 April 2020

Australia’s businesses aren’t strangers to significant disruption, from digital innovation to regulatory change. But few were prepared for the rapid changes required as a result of the global effort to contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).


Almost overnight, business leaders and their teams have adjusted to working remotely, unable to physically connect with clients and each other. And with uncertainty over the duration of self-isolation measures, it’s vital to re-think how your business model will remain sustainable, and also re-work cash flow to ensure business continuity.

So how do you handle this crisis? And how do you strengthen your position to be ready for what comes next? According to John Sullivan, Head of Client Development with Macquarie’s Virtual Adviser Network (VAN), the answer may depend on the strength of your business continuity planning.

“External factors may feel out of your control – but you can control what happens within your business and how you respond,” he says.

This is the key to business resilience – your organisation’s ability to swiftly adapt and react to internal or external disruptions while maintaining operations and workflows. It goes beyond disaster recovery to proactively looking for ways to minimise the impact on your business – and your people.

“It’s about getting your business into shape so it can weather the current storm – and be ready for the opportunities that come next,” says Ian Marshall, Macquarie’s Business Banking National Head of Business Development.

In an ideal world, a business continuity plan gives you the chance to test your resilience and adaptability. But while typical continuity plans may account for natural disasters or cyberattacks, a global pandemic of this scale presents a very different scenario.

With this in mind, here are five things you can do to protect your business through the current crisis.

1. Assess for vulnerabilities

Whether you have a business continuity plan in place or not, the first consideration is risk: where are you most exposed? “Identify your biggest suppliers and clients, and make sure you have contingency plans to manage them if they become vulnerable,” says Sullivan.

For example, some accountants have told him they’ve never been busier – in part because they’ve pulled back on offshore outsourcing arrangements.

“These offshore centres will struggle to work remotely, because they can no longer guarantee compliance with Australia’s data protocols,” Sullivan notes.

Cash is king during a crisis, so make sure you also take steps to protect your cash flow – such as assessing client payment risks and reviewing your current work-in-progress. If you can better understand incoming cash flows, you can plan accordingly. New cyber vulnerabilities can also arise with everyone working remotely, so check you have the right technology in place to manage this.

External factors may feel out of your control – but you can control what happens within your business and how you respond.

- John Sullivan, Head of Client Development, Macquarie Bank Virtual Adviser Network (VAN)

2. Reassure clients

No matter what business you’re in, you will need to find new ways to address client needs. Marshall says reassuring clients comes down to two things: empathy and confidence.

“There’s a very human aspect to this situation,” he says. “Get on the phone and talk to clients. Give them confidence in your business continuity plan – that your levels of service, privacy and security remain the same. But also check in on how they’re managing, and look for ways to extend your support.” 

Many service-based businesses are built on the strength of their client relationships. With everyone facing the same scenario, there appears to be a general level of acceptance and understanding across all sectors.

“It’s quite amazing to watch how quickly people have adapted to a new way of working and communicating,” Marshall notes. “The rhythm may have changed – instead of a two-hour meeting with your accountant, lawyer or financial services provider every quarter, for example, we’re seeing weekly half-hour check-ins. That deepens the connections.”

3. Adapt to a new way of working

Flexible working has long been recognised as a positive for business, with productivity, performance and retention benefits1. According to WGEA, 70% of Australian businesses had adopted a flexible working policy or strategy by 20192.

However, we have never had to enforce ‘working from home’ for such a large number of people, nor for such an extended period of time.

“Most businesses have told us their staff have a great attitude,” says Sullivan. “But many people have never worked from home before, and they need upskilling as well as technology to support them.”

Resilience has a very human side as well. As time goes on, it will also be increasingly important to make sure staff feel mentally resilient. There’s a growing appreciation for the need for business leaders to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the mental health issues that are likely to emerge, and develop the skills to help their teams cope.

4. Get the support you need

“It’s really important to get an external perspective from someone who might see blind spots in your business,” says Sullivan. This could be advice from a risk consultant, guidance from your bank – or discussions within your business network.

Some business owners Sullivan works with are getting together on regular informal Zoom catch ups after hours – to share practical ideas on how to respond to this crisis.

And while you may be able to access government assistance and mortgage relief, Sullivan suggests waiting to see how things play out if possible. “First, work on the levers you can control,” he says.

5. Diversify revenue streams

“The greater the diversification within a business, the better state it is in right now,” observes Sullivan.

If you specialise in an industry that’s completely shut down, your revenue options are limited. But if you have a broader pool to tap into, it will be easier to ‘bounce forward’ – not just bounce back. By pulling different levers you could also pivot to solve new problems for clients.

This in turn will also protect your business for when the next event emerges – whether it be another pandemic, cyberattack or natural disaster.

Now is the time to re-set business assumptions, reshape business strategy – and plan for recovery. Marshall believes this can be a positive exercise that will lift the bar across every business.

“Understand your cost levers and revenue mechanics, work out how you can be more resourceful, and encourage your staff to lean in and adapt. That is what allows businesses to springboard out of a situation – with more robust structures, and a deeper knowledge of their weak spots and strengths.”

Additional information

1

Why Working from Home Is a “Future-Looking Technology”, Stanford Graduate School of Business, June 2017

2

Flex for success, WGEA – May 22 2019