Reflecting on the year gone by, he said the coronavirus pandemic has brought devastation and asked people and companies not to “ignore the comorbidities — whether in life or business”, while asking them to build reserves of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and goodwill to emerge stronger from crisis.
He also presented a contrarian view to the notion that work from home will be the ‘mega trend’ of the decade saying office is not just a place where people come to work but is a melting pot-of people, ideas, and conversations.
Terming volatility as a ‘froth’, Birla said it along with uncertainty have been an underlying phenomenon for almost two decades now and financial variables have become even more volatile in these unusual times.
Stating that after the outbreak there were prophets of doom predicting irreversible shifts in consumer demand and the evisceration of sectors but there has been recovery across sectors.
In India too, he said the the initial prognosis and narrative of experts proved to be excessively pessimistic but the country has witnessed strong recovery across manufacturing sectors, cement to paints, and automotive to aluminium.
Several indicators for India, including GST collections, electricity demand, railway freight movement, and passenger vehicle sales have reverted to positive growth numbers in recent months.
“However, how much froth there is in the euphoric financial markets is still an open question. Perhaps, we still need another quarter or so to confirm that this booming trajectory is here to last. The economists, I am told, are now searching for alphabets that will adequately describe this trend of cautious optimism,” he said.
Correlating the challenges brought by the pandemic to both individuals and companies, Birla said,”Don’t ignore the comorbidities- whether in life or business.”
The pandemic struck and brought devastation. While some hold the belief that it is just another kind of flu, hundreds of thousands have unfortunately been struck down by it, Birla said.
“Quite notably, COVID-19 was more crippling for people with comorbidities. These were measurable and identifiable – diabetes, hypertension, blood pressure or obesity. The analogy can partly be extended to businesses. Partly applicable, since comorbidities make businesses less able to withstand shocks like the financial crisis of 2008,” he added.
However, businesses are also bit different in that unlike human conditions which often are beyond control, there is no genetic predisposition towards comorbidities for businesses.
Stressing that the comorbidities are self-inflicted for businesses, Birla said, “The excessive financial leverage that provides sugar highs while weakening fundamentals in the long term, lax processes that lead to inventory build-ups clogging supply chain arteries like some pernicious cholesterol, or most devastating, a lack of focus on building consumer and human relationships.”
These are comorbidities that can prove fatal when pandemic-type shocks rock the system. These dangers lurk beneath the surface during good times, and so it is imperative for corporates to be ever mindful of the first principles of good management practices, he asserted.
Giving a prescription to emerge stronger from crisis, Birla stressed on the need to build ‘reserves’.
“Perhaps most importantly, the last year has forced an inward look. The people, companies, and nations who have emerged stronger have been the ones who had accumulated reserves of strength and not necessarily the ones who were sprinting the fastest,” he said.
Birla further said, “In each of our professional contexts, we will often be called upon to be innovative, disruptive, and resilient. But I have learnt that these outcomes do not necessarily stem from moments of individual brilliance, but from the patient building of reserves. Continuously upskilling to build reserves of knowledge, openness to the world to build a reserve of ideas, and collaboration and teaming to build reserves of goodwill.”
Sharing his views on work from home (WFH), a trend brought about by the pandemic, he said, “There has been a lot of focus on new models of working in the wake of the pandemic. I have to confess I was amazed by the overnight switch to WFH across Corporate India. And as we now witness a calibrated return to the workplace, we are confronted with the larger question on the future of work.”
Many have opined that WFH is going to be a mega-trend of this decade, he said adding, “I have a slightly contrarian view. The ‘Office’, after all, isn’t just a place where we come to work. It is a melting pot-of people, ideas, and conversations. The coming together of people with diverse skills and experiences is what makes an office more than just a place of work. This is what defines culture. This is what creates magic.”