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How better location intelligence can help businesses cope with COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic will change—and is already changing—the ways in which business is done across the globe. In this blog post, Matthew Lewin discusses the ways that location technology can improve business resiliency and help businesses cope with the uncertainties of this ongoing crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis of unprecedented scale. And while it's first and foremost a public health emergency, the threat to businesses is also very real.

Stores have closed or suspended operations. Workers have been laid off or forced to reduce hours. Customers have been left stranded. Business as usual is not business as usual. It won't be for some time.

Leaders face a pair of existential questions: How do we survive under such turbulent conditions? And how do we recover in a world where social distancing, self-isolation and flattening the curve could be the reality long into the future?

One thing's certain: technology and data will be part of the answer. And that includes location technology. The regional nature of the pandemic means that understanding business conditions in their geographic contexts is critical to informing a response strategy. What you do in one community might not work in another. That's true now and especially in the future.

In this blog post, I provide guidance on ways that location technology can improve business resiliency and help cope with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis.

Short-term tactics

The priority for businesses over the next 90 days is survival. As leaders adapt to the impact of COVID-19, they are rightly focused on protecting the workforce, stabilizing the supply chain, reassuring customers and maintaining financial liquidity. These are essential actions—but they can underwhelm without sufficient geographic awareness.

How location technology can help:

Workforce protection

Employee health and safety is the top priority in times of crisis. Due to the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus, most companies have put in place social distancing measures, such as work-from-home strategies. It's likely you're reading this from a home office of sorts.

For those not in the office, leaders have focused on more procedural methods to prevent the spread—actions like touchless service and physical distancing guidelines. Other workplace protection measures include travel bans, office and facility closures, rotating shift work and centralized communication strategies. Overall, the focus is on employee well-being and open communication while maintaining a semblance of worker productivity.

Location technology can help in several ways. Regional communication hubs stand out as a strong use case in this space. Businesses can stand up online portals, tailored to their region, to share maps, apps and content relevant to staff health and safety. Many examples exist of hubs in action from the public sector. There's no reason businesses can't do the same.

Other opportunities include

  • using location tracking solutions on smart devices (or possibly embedded in wearables) to trace and monitor who comes into contact with who and provide alerts, and
  • using geofencing to define spatial boundaries for field crews and alert a supervisor when another team breaches the boundaries.

Supply-chain stabilization

Businesses are quickly coming to terms with gaps in their supply chains. Most companies are focused on overcoming immediate supply disruptions and gaining certainty on inventory levels. Specific measures include putting purchase limits on certain products, negotiating higher priority status with suppliers and shippers, and accelerating new vendor relationships to secure sourcing alternatives.

Location technology opportunities to support supply chain stabilization include

  • regional risk exposure maps to predict locations of likely supply disruption,
  • routing maps to identify the best locations to pre-book freight capacity, and
  • product rationing strategies informed by local spending habits to limit demand-side stress.

Customer engagement

Businesses must stay connected to their customers during a crisis. In some respects, COVID-19 is an exercise in customer service and communication. The best firms will take a proactive and targeted approach and keep customers informed about the status of their business. The truly progressive are creating new "no-touch" channels for customers to access products and services—especially for brick-and-mortar retailers and service providers.

Opportunities to use location technology to support customer engagement include

  • regional pricing discounts to promote product and service offerings tailored to local preferences, demographics and demand, and
  • delivery tracking and time-to-service updates for service providers like utilities and logistics businesses.

Financial liquidity

The crushing impact of social distancing and supply chain disruptions means businesses need access to working capital to pay the bills and stay afloat. Companies are resorting to a range of actions, including layoffs, delaying payment to suppliers and accessing government financial aid. Any measures that help financial stability are being used.

Ways that location technology can help with financial liquidity actions include

  • identifying high-cost, low-margin assets by region and target for closure, suspension or divestment, and
  • aggressively identifying low price suppliers and developing optimal routing models to lower distribution costs.

Central coordination

A crisis of this magnitude requires a coordinated response from all levels of management. Best practices in business resilience recommend establishing a set of cross-functional response teams. Each team is led by a senior manager and focuses on a priority aspect of the business—specifically those areas impacted by the outbreak. Open information flows and decision-making speed are critical in this model. Data needs to get to the right people and actioned quickly.

Location technology can help in the following ways:

  • Threat and impact dashboards can be built to show where critical risks to the business are occurring, and which teams to use to coordinate a response. Location-specific examples include workforce shortages, shipment delays, stock shortages/surplus and customer complaints.
  • Location technology can enhance businesses’ ability to share and communicate with crisis teams or the general public about key topics using authoritative, data-driven StoryMaps and dashboards.

Long-term strategies

A few months of economic lockdown will be tough, but not insurmountable. Government stimulus and community support will help businesses get back on their feet. It won't be easy, but we'll get there.

The bigger question is, how will businesses continue to function if curve-flattening measures extend for another year or more?

Leaders will find themselves facing a very different business future—where social distancing and spread prevention measures prevail well into the future.

An extensive de-risking exercise is likely to play out.

Leaders will be compelled to explore new business models that minimize their risk footprint. That means minimizing anything that could be impacted by future disruptions, including people, processes and technology.

The innovators will reimagine their businesses to thrive in a low-touch world. Digital technology, including location technology, will be front and centre.

Virtual workplace

For many businesses, the way forward will centre on migrating operations to online platforms. Digital collaboration will be the dominant theme. Video conferencing and shared collaboration tools, like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, are already seeing a surge in demand due to work-from-home mandates.

The next step will be to deploy collaboration to other aspects of the business. Field staff and suppliers are obvious targets. This is where location technology could be invaluable. Planning and work management tools that support routing, daily work planning by geographic area and location-sensitive communications about sensitive populations have great potential.

Business automation

Beyond shifting workplace interactions to the digital realm, there could be a push to eliminate them outright. This has long been the promise of AI and automation. With continued pressure to flatten the curve, businesses pursuing an automation strategy will likely accelerate investment.

The best candidates for automation are routine workflows requiring human intervention. With COVID-19, this especially includes paper-based, person-to-person transactions where cross-contamination is possible. Geoblockchain technology is a compelling use case in this area. Geoblockchain greatly reduces handling across the supply chain. It automates chain-of-custody transactions and keeps track of not only what changes hands but where it happens. This is valuable for those that need to track place of origin and destination, such as the food supply industry, fleet managers and medical equipment suppliers.

Real estate consolidation

The push to virtualization and automation could mean a reduction in commercial real estate requirements, particularly office space. Location analytics is a strong ally here. Businesses can develop predictive models to determine the best and most cost-effective place to open an office based on reduced space requirements, support for remote staff, local workforce suitability, customer demographics and logistics. Location analytics can also be used to plan new uses for commercial real estate that could be repurposed to help design a post-COVID reality with vibrant village spaces and micro residential communities.

Personalized marketing

With livelihoods impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, people will have less money to spend. That's a fact. Businesses will face increasingly stiff competition for customer dollars. Staying relevant will be critical.

Hyper-localization can help greatly with customer relevancy. Personalized and localized offers, deals and discounts can help marketers target potential customers where they live. This is especially important as customers travel less to adhere to social distancing practices. A likely outcome is that "what's-near-me" searches on Google will increase sharply. Businesses that are quick to understand how COVID-19 has changed local spending habits can provide more relevant and accurate offerings to customers.

The COVID-19 crisis is disrupting every sector in every country around the world. The repercussions of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. The length of uncertainty is why leaders must act now to shore up the future of their businesses. Understanding the regional variation in business conditions is key to developing an effective response. Those who leverage location technology and analysis will be well-positioned to support their organizations during the crisis and beyond—however long it lasts.

For more information on how to identify location-based opportunities inside your business, please read about the Geospatial Lens. Learn how to unlock your geospatial potential. Discover our Location Intelligence 360 assessment.

Thanks to Allen Williams, Earl Amankwah and Kelsey Davis for their contributions to the original article posted on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Strategic Advisory Services for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on helping management teams optimize and transform their business through GIS and location-based strategies. As a seasoned consultant, Matthew has provided organizations in the public and private sectors with practical strategies that enable GIS as an enterprise business capability. At the intersection of business and technology is where Matthew’s interests lie, and he thrives on helping organizations bridge the gap to achieve their most challenging GIS ambitions.

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