Creative business responses to the pandemic are causing some companies to reexamine the way they operate. Strategic and tactical changes they made to stay profitable are likely to have long-lasting impacts even after the pandemic is over.
Under pressure to keep their companies viable, business leaders are asking tough questions: How do we cut expenses in the wake of an economy slowed by the pandemic? How do we strengthen our safety and sanitation processes at work to protect personnel and customers? How can we keep workers and managers connected when they live in cities and states where offices were ordered shut?
The challenges led some companies to introduce changes that turned out so successful that “temporary” solutions became part of long-term strategies. Many of those new business practices were uncovered by and supported with location intelligence—a deep analysis made possible by geographic information systems (GIS).
Even a large real estate company—a major player in an industry long thought to be founded upon face-to-face interactions and in-person tours of properties—was forced to steer a new path. Cushman & Wakefield developed methods to conduct business via remote access and user-friendly apps that harness the power of location intelligence.
1. Virtual Workspaces Strengthen Client-Broker Relationships
Cushman & Wakefield, one of the world’s largest commercial real estate firms, had to rethink methods of sales and eventually create virtual streets – one step short of selling in virtual reality.
The firm’s brokers have provided market insight and local knowledge to clients and other possible buyers and sellers. Like many other companies, the pandemic left Cushman & Wakefield facing restrictions about opening many of their 400 offices, slowing down physical tours of properties.
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Fortunately, leadership at Cushman & Wakefield realized that if they digitalized their vast databases, they did not have to physically tour properties. Instead, a new app the firm developed allowed brokers to bring the sales properties and surrounding neighborhoods to the clients.
With an app to tap into their vast storehouses of sales and demographic data, brokers could recreate in 3D nearly any geographic market. Using smart maps with scalable views, brokers and customers could click points on the smart maps or on individual buildings to find information on sales trends, tax districts, and descriptions of individual properties.
Cushman & Wakefield can guide clients virtually around 3D structures, zoom out to look at city blocks in overview, or zoom in for detailed perspectives. Clients and brokers can even “walk” through buildings together to see actual layouts and amenities.
During the pandemic, Cushman & Wakefield focused on a digital transformation that empowered the firm to become even more savvy market advisor and gave customers a contactless way to do business. Leadership has said the app, powered by GIS engines, is not only maintaining clients, it is bringing new business to the firm.
2. Reconfigured Workspaces Improve Health and the Bottom Line
As the coronavirus spread through the US and around the world, many businesses tried to carry on with partial workforces and safe-distancing rules.
It made some offices awkward places to try to conduct businesses, as managers experimented with different processes and human resources rearranged workspaces to meet standards of social distancing.
Once again, digitalizing business information such as the layout of workspaces led to solutions. By mapping the inside workspace of buildings, information specialists were able to use location intelligence to analyze workspaces to find best arrangement of desks and cubicles that balances health safety with necessary cooperative efforts.
Location technology also can keep track of foot traffic in the office and in the more public spaces of the building and then suggest ways to lower operating costs through automated systems that turn off lights and ease back on heating and AC in areas of low usage.
Companies can take digitized maps of a building’s interior and add a system of sensors that detect foot traffic and maintenance needs. IT teams make it possible for automated systems to turn on lights and AC a little ahead of meetings to make sure attendees are comfortable without wasting energy.
If sensors detect water leaks or other problems, the system can alert facilities managers and even request preapproved service providers. Giving service and repair personnel access to at least part of the internal mapping system also minimizes time lost when a provider can’t find the way to the area or equipment in question.
Those same smart maps can guide visitors to their destinations, as well.
3. Manufacturing Companies Adapt to Safety Protocols
Location intelligence supports manufacturing companies with social distancing and tracking the health status of employees. It helps managers understand how to add flexibility to manufacturing processes.
Smart maps of manufacturing facilities can show the best possible arrangement of workers in offices and conference rooms to keep everyone at a safe distance without leaving some people in complete social isolation. For those on the manufacturing line, there may be less room for flexibility as many pieces of equipment and machinery is fixed in place.
However, for example, if portions of the assembly or the packaging operations are moveable, then location intelligence can help find open rooms and areas where it may be possible to work with proper social distance and/or put up temporary walls or plexiglass boundaries to protect workers.
Location intelligence also can keep track of workers health status in real time and monitor data streams that show how COVID is affecting areas near the manufacturing plant or in neighborhoods where employees live. With advance warning, personnel managers may be able to block or limit the spread among coworkers.
4. Balancing the Need for Corporate Offices with Home-based Workers Who are Happy and Efficient
What started as an adjustment to the workflow during the pandemic can wind up as an investment in corporate social responsibility, supported by location intelligence and managers alert to a new normal.
Take for example, the people prompted to work from home during lockdowns who find less time spent in commutes and fewer dollars going to daycare. In other words, some employees have become more efficient and happier with the new way of working.
Of course, smart companies also realize that national headquarters and regional and local offices have fueled corporate success for reasons that still apply to today’s markets. Those offices form centers of concentrated talent where great ideas can emerge among colleagues working in the same space. Then, too, many customers feel a sense of comfort and security knowing they are doing business with a place they can visit – an office where they can see a vibrant business in motion.
At the same time, new studies reveal that people working at home are between 15% and 45% more productive than when in the office. That raises the question of how many people are needed at the office because rent and facilities management are typically large expenses, second only to personnel. The smaller the floor plan, the lower the cost.
To accommodate fewer workers or those who only come into the office occasionally, companies are creating shared desks that employees can reserve online for the days when they must come in. One current idea is to allow employees to spend less time in the office but to plan more office events that strengthen personal bonds and keep employees in touch with the corporate culture.
5. Supply Lines Move with New Resiliency
The pandemic created immediate stress on many supply chains, as illness and lockdowns hindered production and shipping.
Businesses learned quickly that it was no longer enough to simply have a tightly maintained ordering schedule and expected delivery dates. That might make sense during normal times, but once a link in the chain breaks, the whole operation was at risk of failing.
Instead, businesses learned to search for backup sources of raw materials and products to create resiliency as well as learn to manage and monitor it through GIS. Building that new resiliency makes it necessary to create more complex tracking systems that not only note locations of shipments, but also show availability of raw materials and manufactured parts from other sources and alternative routes.
That led again to digitalizing more information and connecting data to GIS dashboards that show how fast supplies are being depleted and replenished at their sources and how fast they are moving off retail shelves. An easy-to-use dashboard can send alerts when materials or transport slips below a certain rate.
6. Innovation Thrives to Keep Business Alive
One lesson learned by business this summer is that innovation may not cure the next crisis, but it can help ease the pain, so expect work processes to change. Responses to COVID-19 have taken many forms from GIS-powered dashboards that track incidence of disease and where it spreads to an app that let business spark to life again in the midst of widespread summertime lockdowns.
The app, known as Open Restaurants, is powered by GIS and managed by New York City. It was made available to interested diners in June after the city allowed restaurants to have outdoor seating. The app, which now includes nearly 10,500 restaurants, allows users to search by zip code and whether the establishment serves alcohol. The app also has a link to forms that a restaurant can fill out to register to be included in the program.
The idea behind the open restaurants initiative was to allow bistros and cafes to provide outdoors dining, which is considered a safer alternative than eating inside a restaurant during the pandemic. At the same time, the easing of lockdown restrictions helped stimulate badly needed business.
By late September, the city estimated that the open restaurant program, aided by the popularity of the app, had drawn enough business to save 90,000 jobs in the city. And it was working so well that the city decided to make the program permanent and year-round.
Cities and counties across the US employed the same GIS technology to survey local businesses and present online dashboards guiding residents to resources and helping keep restaurant and grocery stores afloat.
Location intelligence does not claim to be a cure-all, but its vast capacity, analytic power and endless variety of uses mean that it, no doubt, will be relied upon throughout recovery and should new economic crises arise.
For more on location intelligence, visit esri.com/location-intelligence.
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