As is the tradition, new years are a time to reflect on the past 12 months and how they might impact the next year. It really helps bring the events of the previous year into focus. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20. So here goes…

One, mobility is essential. This is a very fundamental realization, indeed. In the worst of times or the best of times – and everything in between – people need to move. During the peak of hard lockdowns, it was very obvious that the curtailment of transportation resulted in added strains on the ability of government and the private sector to deal with the pandemic. As the country moves towards recovery, it is also evident that transporting people to work and consumers to commercial centers is a necessary predicate to the reopening of business.

As we move forward, we need to construct a mobility framework under a new normal. Given the requirements for social distancing, this will likely impact on capacity assessments for mass transport and considerations for last-mile connections. It might be a good time to rationalize the entire transport ecosystem to include new personal mobility devices such as bicycles and scooters. The focus of road management should be more on moving people than moving vehicles. As well, the push for more roads and infrastructure should be pursued with much vigor.

Two, work from home (WFH) works. The pandemic demonstrated that employees can be depended on to deliver even if they are not physically reporting to their usual workplace. There are many arguments for – and against – WFH but I think, at the very least, we learned that it offers significant opportunities to improve productivity and efficiency. Pre-pandemic, the potential upsides of WFH pretty much remained in the hypothetical realm. COVID, however, brought these conjectures to the real world. It was clearly demonstrated that WFH carries benefits – if properly managed and with the appropriate enablers put in place.

Prior to the pandemic, some employees would spend at least two hours – even up to four hours, in the extreme – commuting to and from work. People who had to run around town to get their business done – like sales people, for example – would easily invest an hour or two on the road. That would be about four hours downtime that, in turn, undermined productivity and efficiency. It might be worth rethinking the concept of paying employees for their time (e.g. an eight hour work day) and placing more value on their deliverables. This would put the focus on output rather than merely consuming time. Of course, this applies only to jobs that can get done off-site – accounting, marketing, planning – and not the likes of manufacturing, construction or retailing.

Also, enablers like stable WIFI connection, mobile tools, digital up-skilling, robust office systems and the sort are needed to maximize WFH. As well, an appropriate supervision and employee accountability environment must be created to ensure that deliverables are, indeed, produced on time.

Three, digital commerce is a viable way forward. The pandemic gave birth to a new crop of micro-small-medium- enterprises (MSME) – digitally savvy retailers that traded in almost anything and everything you could imagine. Mega retailers like Lazada and Shopee also flourished. And, the ancillary logistics business became a more significant part of the gig-economy. Drivers of Angkas and even jeeps – who were sidelined when the brakes were put on mobility – were able to pivot to Grab or Lalamove or Panda deliveries. Given the proficiency of Filipinos with social media, it was a rather seamless migration of small business from brick-and-mortar to digital.

Competition, of course, was steep. It was amazing to see, though, the creativity and persistence of online warriors surface. Slogans such as “buy local” or “buy small” filled the digital sphere – and were heeded. In a flash, the reach of businesses multiplied far beyond the confines of their physical stores to which they were previously confined to. The downside, though, was the spread of scams and abusive practices. The scale and suddenness of the growth in e-commerce was too much for ill-intenders to ignore.

What this phenomenon highlights is the need for government and private sector to work together to develop a more robust ecosystem that will enable MSME’s to flourish in the digital world. It offers cost advantages and scalability that physical stores do not. Equally important, though, is the need to institute consumer protection measures to assure that buyers and sellers are safe from those who would exploit.

Those are my three significant reflections that, in turn, also become my wish list for 2022. I would like to think that 2021 taught us much but that 2022 is the year that we get to use what we’ve learned. Here’s to a better year ahead.

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