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Lockdown learnings for a post-pandemic world

On 18 March last year, all Visa offices around the world moved swiftly to ‘recommended work from home’ status for the first time in our 60-year history. What initially started as a short-term two-week precaution became our new normal, with a majority of my 21,000 global colleagues having not returned to our typical workplace since.

It wasn’t long before the virus quickened its path, and transformed our lives throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa. That today many of us remain working at the same home set-ups – and with the same home distractions – as on the first day we abandoned our usual routines in March last year, belies the deep change that COVID-19 has brought and how much we have learned on the way.

In our industry, the pandemic has been a catalyst that has accelerated years of change in payments and commerce in just a few short months. Digital payments were essential to keeping money moving and businesses selling throughout the upheaval. Tapping to pay in-store eased consumer anxieties on safety and hygiene, and eCommerce provided a lifeline to many businesses to continue selling and simply survive.

We have also experienced similarly profound changes in how we work as individuals, as teams and as organisations. Many of the pre-conceived biases and beliefs that we previously held on where and how we work needed reevaluating as we have evolved and adjusted, finding new ways of connecting and collaborating.

Increasing vaccinations and declining infection rates give some encouragement that we are on the path to a more open world. As we look forward with cautious optimism one year on, here are six learnings that I will take from the disruption and which I think can equally help businesses, societies and economies to emerge stronger and thrive:

1. Partnership drives progress: complex challenges require inventive solutions. Around the world, we have seen the power of partnerships in helping economies and societies keep moving.

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Governments and industry have taken joint action to make it easier for merchants to accept digital payments, such as expanding contactless payments, with more than a dozen Central Banks in CEMEA enabling higher value touchless payments during COVID-19. Public-private sector collaboration will continue to be key to solving the large, complex challenges ahead. We saw that the pandemic had the most severe impact on the unbanked, on small businesses and underserved communities, and inclusion can only be truly addressed together.

2. Communities matter: a tidal wave of support for local businesses grew progressively louder as our world narrowed and we embraced businesses run by family, friends and neighbors.

SMBs represent 90% of businesses and 60% of employment, yet do not possess the same resilience and scale as their larger counterparts. At the start of the pandemic, more than 90% were concerned for survival , and we saw a huge demand for Visa’s SMB masterclasses and practical business skills designed with local businesses in mind. While many have adapted and business is returning, it is vital we, as consumers and partners, continue to help local entrepreneurs to thrive. Economies will not fully rebound until SMBs recover.

3. Change happens fast – the constraints of the pandemic have accelerated innovation at a meteoric pace, as consumers and businesses turned to new approaches. We have seen up to 97% of merchants try new payment methods, and seen rapid growth in fintechs, digital wallets and mobile operators giving immediate access to financial needs. Money has changed, for good, and at a speed that is truly unprecedented.

4. Uncertainty demands agility: horizons drastically shortened as uncertainty reigned. This past year demanded new levels of agility and rapid response to adjust, respond and evolve in real-time. It meant trialing, experimenting, and co-creating solutions that meet immediate needs, using insights and data as tools to cut through uncertainty and set the correct path forward.

5. Flexibility is the new normal: while technology tools have long been in place, only now have we truly embraced them. We have seen that proximity does not equal productivity, and embracing workplace flexibility in schedule and location is crucial. At Visa, we have learned two things with clarity – flexibility must remain a core part of any future working model, and no virtual meeting can truly replace connecting IRL (in real life).

6. Wellbeing is front of mind: while lockdown restrictions brought an initial focus on physical exercise the impact of the pandemic opened valuable conversations on overall wellbeing, including mental health. At Visa, we moved from annual employee surveys to more frequent pulse surveys. These have provided invaluable real-time feedback enabling us to adjust and evolve how we support each other as teams and colleagues. During challenging times, and better times these conversations must continue.

Over the past year, we have experienced entirely new disruptions and challenges that have prompted new outlooks and approaches. We have memories, stories and new experiences that will last with us a lifetime, from lockdown haircuts, pets and children ambushing video calls, to virtual social events. While not all of these experiences have been positive, amidst the hardships we have also seen real progress. We have witnessed revolutions in how people pay, how money moves and how we work, collaborate and partner. While we prepare for a return to normality as society reopens, many of these changes can make us stronger, and will be here to stay.

. Torre is Visa’s regional president for Central & Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa

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