22 May 2020 | News/Stories

Innovation, reinvention and inclusion: Businesses responding to COVID-19

The global economy is in a continuous state of disruption. Lockdown and containment measures to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 virus have led to the suspension of business operations and the closure of establishments. The economic fallout is estimated to reduce global GDP by 2.0% per month, or 24% annually, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In this climate, business leaders are pressured to make crucial decisions in order to maintain resilience and prepare for recovery in the wake of COVID-19.

On 27 April, the Philippine Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (PBCWE)—a partner of Investing in Women—and the Philippine Women’s Economic Network (PhilWEN) presented #WEEconomy: Perspectives on Leading and Learning Through the COVID-19 Crisis, a live webinar that explored various approaches for business leaders to address the challenges during and after the pandemic. Three respected figures in the fields of business and economics were invited to the panel: Jonathan Ravelas, First Vice President and Chief Marketing Strategist of BDO Unibank, Inc.; Gina Romero, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Connected Women; and Dr. Jose Ramon Albert, Senior Research Fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. The session was moderated by PhilWEN Chair and PBCWE Co-Chair Ma. Aurora “Boots” Geotina-Garcia.

“This pandemic has affected the global and domestic economies and has disrupted the way we live, work, and conduct business. Of course, businesses do not want to find themselves unable to restart because they lack the sufficient workforce and products, therefore setting them back further. We are now in the ‘new normal,’ and we must accept it. The crisis has also revealed the vulnerabilities of industries, several of which can be quite alarming given that many industries still rely on traditional means of doing business,” said Geotina-Garcia.

Innovating for the a new normal

Ravelas highlighted some of the problems businesses are facing during the pandemic: contraction of the economy, volatile financial markets, new normal business landscapes and world recession.  A chief marketing strategist for one of the biggest banks in the Philippines, he also proposed the following approaches to dealing with such problems: fiscal and monetary stimulus, adapting to the new normal business landscape and retrofitting the business.

Ravelas pointed out how even small companies have been seeking ways to survive and pivot to the new normal, part of which is reinvention and modifying the business according to the needs and demands of customers and clients in the COVID-19 context.

“To be able to do new things, we need to learn and re-learn things. In the wake of this pandemic, companies are bound to either innovate or evaporate,” he said.

Empowering women through technology

As the CEO of a social impact tech start-up, Romero harnesses technology to provide women with opportunities to work from home and to drive the success of women entrepreneurs. She believes in the power of technology to connect people and leads a remote team with members across the Philippines.

Romero noted that one of the downsides to the crisis is that many people are now currently unemployed, including women in no-work-no-pay jobs, women (whose husbands are not working) who are breadwinners in their families or women who are primary caregivers, and single mothers. Connected Women has had a surge in job seekers—outnumbering employers—during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, for Romero, technology is a gamechanger for those who have limited access to liveable wages or formal education, but who also want to gain employment. “By providing access to technology skills, technology tools, and of course connectivity, we can actually level the playing field a little bit,” she said. Romero also highlighted how technology and connectivity, over the years, have enabled her to help women entrepreneurs innovate their business practice.

“Empowering women entrepreneurs with tech gives them that ability to build and scale their businesses even from home,” Romero added.

According to Romero, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated her organisation’s advocacy. Lockdown and quarantine measures have forced companies to realise that plenty of tasks previously done at the office can actually be accomplished remotely, while online and in the safety of one’s home.

The future of work has accelerated into the present,” she said.

Romero also discussed the advantages of hiring women who work remotely.  For one, remote companies are found to have three times more women in leadership roles than traditional companies. Also, location-independent work is a way to empower women economically and to keep them in the economy. Businesses that provide remote and flexible work opportunities to women have access to a bigger talent pool, are able to retain talent and are instrumental to keeping the workforce more gender equal.

Romero hopes that the new normal for work —telecommuting or remote work—will encourage more businesses (with the exception of business operations that cannot be managed online) to embrace technology to create a remote and flexible workforce.

“The pandemic has been a harsh lesson— it has also given us an opportunity to shift the way that we do things and a way to think about where we should put our priorities,” said Romero.

Gender data and gender inclusive policies

Dr. Albert highlighted a critical gap in the Philippine government’s responses to COVID-19, noting that while policies are in place, such policies are not gender-responsive.

A senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, he said that social protection support is not differentiated to account for gender issues. More gender-responsive support measures are needed, particularly for workers in the healthcare sector and in formal employment, as well as for those engaging in informal, part-time and seasonal work.

Dr. Albert also pointed out that while telecommuting has allowed employees to continue earning income throughout the economic crisis, it also poses multiple risks to women working from home.

“When we implemented the ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine), we may have put some people in harm’s way, particularly those who are victims of domestic violence. Of course, this is unintended. We can also expect more [unplanned] pregnancies. We implemented telecommuting arrangements but may have [also] put more responsibilities on women who may have to carry the burden of unpaid care work in the home [in addition to remote work],” he explained.

“In this new normal, we are seeing inequality highlighted even more,” said Dr. Albert. “The question is, how can the government and the private sector act together to make sure that we are going to have a better sense of the care economy and better work arrangements? We know that flexible work will continue and will probably be part of the new normal, but have we leveraged technology enough to make sure that technology will work equally for both men and women?”

According to Dr. Albert, policies are not particularly gender-responsive because there are fewer women in leadership who shape policies and interventions; and because of the lack of relevant, updated and readily available gender and sex disaggregated data. Such data, when analysed, can help shape policies to be more gender responsive.

Dr. Albert believes that the Philippine government needs to invest more in research and development, gender disaggregated data collection, innovation and capacity building programs to support lifelong learning. Rapid responses should be followed by monitoring and evaluation to measure the reach and efficacy of aid programs. Data mining will lead to the acquisition of valuable information that can inform the creation of effective solutions to new problems.

“People will only change if paradigms change, and paradigms will only change if we give incentives to people to learn and understand how things should be,” said Dr. Albert.

The webinar was live streamed through PBCWE’s official Facebook page. PBCWE, a partner of Investing in Women.  works with influential businesses in the Philippines on shifting workplace cultures, practices, and policy barriers to achieve workplace gender equality.

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