Professional Services, Public and Private Sector Associations

January 31st, 2019

By Employers’ Consultative Association of Trinidad and Tobago

This unexpected health crisis, mushroomed into one of the biggest socio-economic crises in the last decade, if not the century, forcing our “Future of Work” to arrive much sooner than anticipated.

COVID-19 forced many workplaces to quickly adapt to severe unexpected challenges, fundamentally changing how we work, manage our people and deliver products and services. This “business un-usual”, may very well be the “future of work”.

Prior to January 2020, the professional world was rife with discussions about the “future of work”. It was said that a new revolution was upon us, referred to by the World Economic Forum as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR, defined by the convergence of biology and the physical world with the digital world, was expected to disrupt our way of life and fundamentally shift how we produce, consume and relate, much like revolutions of the past.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be just as disruptive, if not more so. This unexpected health crisis, whose body count is approximately 3.5% of total infections, also mushroomed into one of the biggest socioeconomic crises in the last decade, if not the century, forcing our “future of work” to arrive much sooner than anticipated.

Pre-COVID-19 Challenges

Certainly, the sector has had to contend with numerous challenges prior to COVID-19, some of which have been amplified due to the impact of the pandemic while others have become almost inconsequential as businesses had to contend with survival and recovery.

•  Emerging Issues

     In January 2020, the Employers’ Consultative Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ECA) opened the year with a symposium on the implications of the decriminalisation of marijuana for the workplace as a number of organisations signalled concern about the amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act. While many believed that the use of marijuana in the workplace would be the major issue for employers in 2020, this topic was quickly overshadowed by the virus outbreak turned pandemic.

•  Ease of Doing Business

     With a 2020 rank of 105 out of 190 countries, the ease of doing business in T&T has been a long-standing issue. While the situation is exponentially more direr now, many fundamental issues have only been exacerbated as a direct result of COVID-19, especially in respect of small businesses.

     Access to finance is a major issue in this regard and were it not for the eventual direct intervention of the Government, many small businesses would be languishing in the aftermath of necessary restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus. Even before COVID-19, countless administrative barriers and legislative hurdles continued to affect the ease of doing business, which still requires urgent and decisive action.

•  Labour Legislation

     Modernisation of labour legislation is of paramount importance to any country hoping to succeed at sustainable development. However, a major area of concern for many employers and businesses continue to be what is being perceived as a lack of urgency in moving the legislative agenda forward, despite commendable efforts at stakeholder consultation forums.

     This continued deficiency, coupled with our challenging economic conditions, have resulted in concerns being expressed by both employers and workers as they yearn to maintain the “usual” level of existence in “unusual” economic conditions. The result has been extremely challenging as employers continue to endure genuine struggles for business survivability in the face of declining revenues. In the absence of a strong business climate with fair and balanced legislative reforms and tangible incentives for business stimulation, employers may, and have begun out of necessity, to reduce  their risks and costs.

•  Other Issues

     Other pre-COVID-19 issues are still prevalent and problematic, some of which may be linked to the state of the socioeconomic landscape. These include crime, our ageing workforce, the skills gap and the need to redesign our education system. Some useful insight can be derived from a 2018 survey of the World Economic Forum, which outlined some of the skills that are likely to emerge and others that are becoming redundant.

Embracing the Unusual

According to a recent employer survey conducted by the ECA, COVID-19 has significantly affected the lives of individuals and the operations of businesses. During the period of lockdown, only 19% of businesses were able to continue fully operating on site, while 68% were able to continue some form of operation partially on site or remotely and 17% would have stopped operating completely.
An encouraging 73% of respondents indicated that they did not dismiss, nor did they plan to dismiss workers due to the impact of COVID-19. However, as restrictive measures continue in some sectors, it can be expected that this situation will change. In terms of the financial impact of COVID-19 on revenue or sales, 56% of enterprises reported high impact and 26% of enterprises reported medium impact. Financial impact was particularly high among small businesses and large enterprises in retails/sales, real estate, and the food and beverage sectors.

The survey also revealed some telling data on the resilience of the business sector, with 91% of enterprises indicating a change in their business operations or service delivery to protect their enterprise and workers against COVID-19, and embrace the new normal. This new normal is now characterised by reduced physical face-to-face interactions, a heightened sense of safety and personal hygiene, the adoption of new technologies, remote work capabilities and leaner organisational structures.

In all of this, we must consider the psychological impact of the continuing difficult realities of many individuals and ensure that even as organisational restructuring is taking place, emphasis is also placed on support for impacted workers, through access to social support, employee assistance programmes (EAP) and mental health awareness initiatives.

Our reality is one where challenges abound, but where businesses, including those in professional services, are required to adapt and overcome in order to survive…and overcome we shall. Who knows? We may even see the continued emergence of new and innovative services, driven by current challenges and even designed to be “pandemic proof” in the new normal!