6 Months Since Circuit Breaker: How COVID-19 Has Changed The Way We Work

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Posted on 7 October 2020

On 7 April 2020, Circuit Breaker (CB) was implemented in Singapore in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All non-essential workplaces were closed - close-contact service providers such as hair salons had to be shut down too. Schools transitioned to home-based learning. All food establishments were only allowed to offer take-away, drive-thru and delivery of food services. Wearing of masks was made compulsory.

On 19 May 2020, three phases of planned reopening were announced - “Safe Reopening" (Phase 1), "Safe Transition" (Phase 2) and finally, "Safe Nation" (Phase 3).

Phase 1 started on 2 June 2020, while Phase 2 started on 19 June 2020 and remains in force as of September 2020.

6 months now since Circuit Breaker, and with news that Singapore is heading towards Phase 3, let’s reflect on how COVID-19 has forced businesses to change the way they work, to innovate, and to adapt to new normals.

From Offices to Work-from-home and Zoom meetings

During the circuit breaker period, homes became workplaces. And from face-to-face meetings, we switched to Zoom meetings and webinars.

Elisha Yap, Co-founder of cloud accounting provider EBOS SG Pte Ltd says, “Our regular training sessions were moved to virtual training using Zoom and Google to adjust with the circuit breaker measures.”

And though we are nearing Phase 3, it looks like work-from-home is here to stay for now. Jack Dorsey of Twitter for instance, has given the go-ahead for its employees to continue working from home “forever”.

Data collected in July 2020 by human resources tech firm EngageRocket from more than 2,600 respondents found that 72 per cent of workers in Singapore are keen to continue working from home at least 50 per cent of the time.

Does this mean that the future of work in our homes?

While remote working is a strategy that can protect livelihoods and ensures business continuity from unexpected changes in the environment, for small business owners, work-from-home may not be a long term solution.

Cushman and Wakefield CEO, Brett White, shared that many clients in Asia are reporting falling productivity from their work-from-home employees after two months. This may be attributed to a lack of face-to-face interaction.

A study of respondents from Singapore, China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the U.K. and the U.S. by Cigna, a U.S. health services company, found that working from home has brought about an ‘always on’ culture in many markets.

People are working increasingly outside of normal hours, and feel unable to switch off from work, even during vacation time.

With more people being allowed in workplaces, it remains to be seen if remote or hybrid work arrangements become the norm.

How F&B businesses Adapted: Virtual menu, Cashless payment, Online delivery

The big blow to the F&B industry during the circuit breaker period was that no dine-in was allowed. Outlets were only allowed to offer take-away, drive-thru and delivery of food.

What’s more, to control the infection rate, standalone F&B outlets that sold only beverages, packaged snacks, confectionery or desserts had to close.

Thus overnight, the F&B industry had to transform their way of working. On top of that, safe distancing measures between workers, delivery riders and customers needed to be implemented stringently. The frequency of cleaning and disinfection also had to be increased.

Many F&B outlets switched to cashless payment in order to minimise contact between customers and servers. Some outlets recommended that customers order in advance before heading to the store.

The challenges were many. People stayed away from restaurants fearing infection. Sales took a massive dip. Outlets struggled to pay rent.

Meanwhile, demand for food delivery services increased by about 20 to 30 per cent. The Food Delivery Booster Package was launched to support F&B businesses make the transition from offline to online sales, and to reduce the business costs of selling on three key food delivery platforms – Deliveroo, foodpanda and GrabFood.

Still, many found this transition to online delivery challenging. Anthony Lee of ATAS Food Pte Ltd, (which operates The Original Boat Noodles in several shopping malls) reveals, “Our food is not meant for delivery. Our revenue dropped by nearly 90% during CB.”

With Phase 2, dine-in resumed with safe distancing measures in place, but with restrictions such as not having more than five diners per table. Still. With a big part of the working population continuing to work from home, F&B outlets are having to re-strategise or face huge losses.

“Our main customers are office workers, since work-from-home has been implemented, our revenue dropped to only 25% pre-COVID,” says Mar Ng of Local Coffee People Pte Ltd, which runs various cafes, all located within the CBD.

Take the case of Spanish restaurant Don Quijote. After 10 years at Dempsey Hill, owner Ken Lim has decided not to renew the lease. Instead, he moved to a cloud kitchen in Upper Bukit Timah in August.

Offering island wide delivery during the circuit breaker had paid well for the restaurant, and Mr Lim realised that with the online option, he could cater to customers from all over Singapore.

Meanwhile, some fine-dining restaurants have gone virtual, without compromising on the dining experience.

Chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant of two Michelin-starred Saint Pierre has launched Virtual Saint Pierre.

A member of the Saint Pierre team in black tie personally delivers a specially curated omakase meal to the diner's home in a premium bento box. Diners will then enter a virtual room on a video conferencing app, using a link provided. Stroobant himself appears in the virtual room, and interacts with the diners and introduces them to the menu’s selection.

What’s next for the F&B businesses in the long run?

Digitalisation: Businesses going online

The retail sector has been one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic - retail sales plunged by a record 52.1 per cent year-on-year in May 2020.

A survey has revealed that nearly 75% of Singapore firms are accelerating digitalisation due to the crisis - more and more brick-and-mortar retailers are going online. Interestingly, online sales in June jumped 151.2 per cent year-on-year.

Flin Lee of VF Gems & Co. which specializes in gemstones and bespoke jewellery, reveals how the company adopted a digital strategy to stay afloat.

“We adapted and adopted Virtual Digital Marketing techniques to enhance our reach and customers acquisition via Facebook Live/ Shop, Online Auction, Website Sales etc and plan to list on online platforms such as Lazada, Amazon etc.

“We explored all options including digital accounting platforms such as SAP and Xero. We also established our logistics department which includes services such as door-to-door personalized delivery, customized setting for gemstones purchased and virtual 'live' consultation and viewing of gemstones through Cloud Video Conferencing i.e. Zoom, Google Meet etc.”

During the circuit breaker, even Tekka market stalls turned to live-streaming to sell fresh produce.

Fashion store Topshop, which has been in Singapore for two decades, closed its last physical outlet at VivoCity on 17 September 2020, but customers can continue to shop their collection on the webstore.

The iconic, friendly neighbourhood local bookstore, BooksActually, is also closing its physical store in Tiong Bahru, and moving its business online.

Fitness centres and gyms are also transitioning into the virtual space to keep their business afloat. Evolve MMA has incorporated virtual classes consisting of Muay Thai, boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu workouts.

“Better not to have a physical shop,” says Leong Lai Tiin of La Vella, a boutique selling evening gowns and casual wear.

The pandemic has brought about a drastic change in customer habits. That, together with recessionary conditions will continue to shape the way consumers shop, what they shop for, and where.

Hybridisation of Events

The events industry, which contributes to nearly one per cent of Singapore’s GDP, was one of the most hard-hit sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 34,000 jobs at stake.

With physical events either getting cancelled or postponed until further notice, how did Singapore’s MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) sector adapt to COVID-19?

They changed their business model and went digital. Live streaming and virtual audiences became the norm.

And now, as Singapore gears up for MICE events with up to 250 attendees, the country is transitioning to a hybrid event model - a mix of both face-to-face and virtual interactions.

For instance, In 2019, the Singapore International Energy Week welcomed more than 13,000 delegates from more than 80 countries to its event in Singapore. This year’s conference, to be held from Oct 26 to Oct 30, 2020, will see only 250 people at most on site at Marina Bay Sands, but many more participants are expected to take part virtually.

What makes this hybridisation of events interesting is that those logging in virtually can interact with physical participants in real time. For example, a panel discussion can now be done with speakers who are physically present, as well as those who sign in remotely.

Considering that we are still a long way from discovering a cure for COVID-19, and there will be border restrictions in place for many countries for a while at least, this amalgamation of real and virtual will be vital for revenue and ensure that infection rates are kept low.

Rise of the Robots

COVID-19 has made us realise that by making use of technology, IOT and artificial intelligence, we can improve productivity and efficiency, while ensuring safety. And so, we have seen robots rise in Singapore like never before.

At the peak of the pandemic in Singapore, robots were deployed by the National Parks Board and national water agency PUB to help with safe distancing efforts.

Apart from broadcasting safe distancing reminders to the public, they were also equipped to record video footage, which reduced the manpower required for park patrols. This helped in minimising physical contact among staff, volunteer safe distancing ambassadors and park visitors.

Meanwhile, more firms are employing robots to reduce contact points with customers. YOTEL Singapore’s new contactless buffet will see both eggs and noodles being cooked by robots, in preparation for when buffet dining is allowed again. The use of robots isn’t new for the hotel though - it has been utilising robots to deliver amenities such as towels to customers, since 2017.

Another area where robots have proven themselves useful, is in cleaning, especially in public-dense places such as cinema halls, shopping malls and hospitals. The efficiency and speed with which these gadgets can clean high touch areas make them an ideal and safe alternative to manpower.

And now, robots are all set to carry out COVID-19 nasal swab tests.

It makes sense - after all, robots can’t get COVID-19.

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