How have other, less well-reported-on industries coped with the changes brought on by this global pandemic? Insiders say that digital transformation and flexibility are crucial.
This year as the economic impact of coronavirus rippled around the world, the hardship of some industries was more conspicuous than at others. Images of ghostly streets in Milan and New York underscored the pandemic’s impact on many aspects of the public-facing economy – bars, restaurants, and shopping centers. Fleets of grounded aircraft became an evocative symbol of the plight of airlines and the tourism sector.
However, these symbolic images belie a much more complex economic picture. Of course, no facet of the global economy has been unaffected by the pandemic, but for companies in Taiwan with both domestic and international operations, the new environment has brought its own challenges and opportunities. In particular, the experience of conference organizers, workspace providers, and public relations firms during this unstable period demonstrates the accelerating importance of digital transformation and flexibility in operations.
How the GIS Group, a meeting solution provider, has handled the situation is instructive. The group’s founder and CEO, Jason Yeh, says the work of the company has three main components, each with varying degrees of susceptibility to the pandemic. The first is putting on events as a “professional conference organizer” (PCO), the second is translation and interpretation services for meetings, and the third is operating a network of small and medium-sized conference centers.
As a significant proportion of clientele for the conference centers comes from within Taiwan, the third of these business units has been largely insulated from the impact of the pandemic. Once the government relaxed restrictions on larger gatherings in public places, business bounced back within a few months.
The other two units have seen greater challenges, however. With border restrictions still in place, short-term conferences of a few days – which often rely on foreigners being able to fly in and out of Taiwan conveniently – have become impossible to organize.
“It was supposed to be the best year we’ve had in our thirty-year history,” Yeh says of the company’s PCO operations. Prior to the pandemic, the group had scheduled an event for 1,800 people – one of the largest in its history – to be held in the first quarter of this year. Initially rescheduled for the third quarter, the event was eventually postponed indefinitely. “It doesn’t even look promising for next year,” Yeh notes.
Most events of this kind are now taking place online, but the revenue opportunities for organizers are considerably less when client companies no longer require air travel, hotel rooms, or banquets. GIS had to redirect resources to accommodate the trend toward digital transformation. “Very quickly we needed to adapt ourselves and train our staff with another skill set for coordinating those hybrid meetings,” Yeh says.
Employees were trained intensively in the use of technologies to facilitate online conferences.
That such technology already existed but often went unused illustrates that – at least in certain sectors – the pandemic hastened changes that were already underway.
A newer challenge for meeting providers was how to confront the unique, more human, test of conducting entire conferences online.
“We need to have ideas for how to keep people engaged,” Yeh says. “It’s very easy for people to lose their concentration.” Conducting frequent polls that necessitate engagement was one method the group employed to combat listless online meeting participants.
Now, with a significant proportion of his business impacted by limited inbound business travel, Yeh is further concerned that his company’s industry will be negatively impacted by the dilemma facing the Taiwanese government: the strict early response to the pandemic increases pressure to relax border restrictions but opening the border more widely could risk spreading the virus. Although the difficulty facing airlines and hotels has been well-publicized, Yeh says he worries that “the government might not put much focus on the business event sector” when it devises policies to provide industry relief.
Rethinking the nature of work
With the pandemic forcing many nations into lengthy lockdowns, an important by-product has been reflection on the nature of work and company-employee relationships. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum published a report outlining the ways the pandemic will directly impact workforces globally. Among these were the need to promote the rapid reskilling of labor and the facilitation of more agile work.
The Executive Centre, a premium office and co-working space provider, exemplifies that need for greater adaptability. It operates a network of offices, coworking spaces, and meeting rooms across the Asia-Pacific region, including six centers in Taipei – two in Taipei 101, two in Nanshan Plaza, and one each in Shangri-la’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel and the Neihu New Century Building.
Shifts in companies’ workspace requirements have been keenly felt by The Executive Centre, whose client composition has undergone a noticeable change during the past year. Before the onset of the pandemic, the company’s primary clientele consisted of SMEs, often looking to test the water in Taiwan before committing to longer-term office space.
“Now, larger companies think flexibility is much more important than before,” says Carrie Chuang, City Head of The Executive Centre, Taipei.
Chuang believes this uptick in interest from larger companies stems from a desire to move away from traditionally long – five- to ten-year – leasing terms for office space, since the pandemic has shown the risk in such an arrangement. By offering possibilities for shorter leases (one year, for example) and other types of increased flexibility, the company has been able to attract larger companies looking to downsize due to layoffs or to decentralize employees to accommodate social distancing policies.
Soon after the onset of the pandemic, the Center began to sense this shift in the needs of both existing and potential clients and concluded “that flexibility would be key,” Chuang says. Unlike Yeh, she downplays the impact that continued border restrictions could have on the company’s operations, as she still sees much potential to be tapped in the domestic market.
In fact, The Executive Centre is currently looking to open new locations in the coming year. In this sense, the changes catalyzed by the pandemic have benefited the company. “The pandemic has brought different opportunities we didn’t think of,” says Chuang. “The more uncertainty, the more opportunities we have because we can offer flexibility.”
Monet Chiang, Taiwan Country Head for Regus, part of the larger International Workplace Group (IWG), outlined similar trends from his clients. “Customers in Taiwan worry about the uncertainty of the future economy, so they’re more budget-conscious and conservative,” he says. As Regus works with companies of varying sizes, Chiang explains that the company’s response has required agility. Bigger companies are expressing greater interest in serviced offices, whereas smaller ones are requiring greater flexibility in terms of leasing due to uncertainty within the economy.
In response, Regus made its contract periods, pricing, and leases more flexible, allowing customers to pay contracts as they go, cushioning them from risks incurred during the pandemic. Globally, Regus has also rolled out a new Home-to-Work brand. Responding to the increased demand for solutions to working from home, the new service – which is offered on a membership basis – provides furniture, office supplies, technology, as well as personal wellbeing products. However, as offices in Taiwan have largely remained open, Home-to-Work has not yet been rolled out domestically.
It is not just workplace providers that have been impacted by the economic uncertainty and acceleration of the digital transformation trend. Hsiang Wei, Managing Director of Era Ogilvy Public Relations, stresses that ongoing uncertainty overseas means international partners continue to exercise financial caution. “It’s like people have pressed the pause button,” says Hsiang. “When they release it depends on when the pandemic goes away.”
Era Ogilvy’s clients – including AstraZeneca, Eva Air, and FedEx – span a range of sectors, meaning the firm has had to remain sensitive to the varying fortunes of industries during the pandemic. Logistics and pharmaceuticals have seen upticks, whereas tourism and hospitality, naturally, have seen declines. However, despite these oscillations, Hsiang reports renewed interest from clients in the fourth quarter, after caution in the middle of last year. “Clients have tried to keep their flexibility and agility,” she explains. “But they also see an opportunity given the stability in Taiwan.”
Nevertheless, Hsiang cites two central areas of concern regarding the coming months: the continued deterioration of the pandemic overseas and increased protectionism in other markets. Against this potentially volatile background, Hsiang says her organization’s central response has been a renewed commitment to technological transformation. “Work from home has become work from Zoom,” she says. “We need to make sure that technology can help people – or industries, corporations, and our clients – to leverage the power of technology to transform during this pandemic.”
Through their engagement with firms across a range of economic sectors, the companies approached for this report offer a unique insight into how the pandemic has not only accelerated trends toward digital transformation, but also how it has impacted the very nature of work.
For Jason Yeh of GIS Group, this means a fundamental reassessment of what constitutes regularity in business. “We need to think that change is normal,” he says. In this light, he remains concerned that the stable pandemic situation domestically could insulate Taiwan from the tempo of digital transformation internationally. Dealing with that predicament will require both foresight and courage, he says. “Nobody knows what the correct answer will be, but we need to have the courage to step outside of our comfort zones.”