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《经济学人》新冠疫情正催生一些有益的商业变化

2020 年 03 月 10 日 • 经济学人,商业

本期经济学人杂志【商业】板块下熊彼特专栏的这篇题为《Covid-19 is foisting changes on business that could be beneficial》的文章认为新冠肺炎疫情暴露出全球公司旅行预算过高、办公空间使用效率不高以及供应链易受冲击等问题,但也为它们提供了一个好的契机来试验新的做事方法。

The Economist, March 7th-13th 2020.

出于对新冠肺炎可能演化为全球大流行病(注一)的担忧,过去两周内全球股市已抹去上市公司 70 万亿市值。

接下来几个月内,全球公司可以试验现有新技术是否允许大规模远程办公,加速改造办公模式。英美公司平均每年花在每个员工身上的租金高达 5,000 美元,其中只有 40-50% 的办公桌在工作时间被实际使用。如果现在经理们发现员工在家办公的生产力确实上升了,或者至少没有下降,那今后远程办公会被更多公司采用。

远程办公外,新冠肺炎疫情下公司也需要重新思考和配置它们的供应链。自 20 世纪 80 年代以来,制造供应链变得越来越全球化和复杂,大公司甚至依赖数千家供应商,许多公司储备的生产物资较少。

不同于水灾、地震和贸易战,这些情形下公司有经验和计划应对,新冠肺炎疫情可能同时影响一个公司以及与它实际和潜在有关联的分包商。在此情形下,公司需要储备更多物资和转而寻求国内供应商。

文章最后认为,新冠肺炎疫情不会使商业旅行和全球供应链消失,但危机为全球公司提供了一个契机去试验新的办事方法,CEO 们应当利用好这个机会。

注一:2020 年 3 月 11 日,世界卫生组织认为 2019 冠状病毒疫情已构成全球大流行。

Covid-19 is foisting changes on business that could be beneficial

Schumpeter
Covid-19 is foisting changes on business that could be beneficial

CEOs should be aware of the potential opportunities
Business
Mar 5th 2020 edition
Mar 5th 2020

IN FEBRUARY 2014 a strike on the London Underground offered management theorists a lesson in resilience and adaptation. Because the shutdown closed some but not all Tube lines, frustrated Londoners were forced to rethink their commutes to and from work. Researchers at Oxford and Cambridge universities subsequently found that around 5% of passengers stuck to their new itineraries even after normal service resumed. The long-term economic gains of one in 20 travellers adopting new and improved ways to get to work turned out to be greater than the short-term costs of the disruption.

The global covid-19 outbreak presents a far greater challenge to the corporate world than striking transport workers. Profit warnings are spreading nearly as fast as the disease. Analysts at Goldman Sachs, a bank, estimate that earnings growth for firms in the S&P 500 index could grind to a halt. Gauges of business activity, such as purchasing managers’ indices, have cratered in Asia and are expected to weaken elsewhere as the coronavirus crosses more borders. Consumers are spending money on little except sanitary wipes, face masks and tins of Campbell’s Soup. Fears of a pandemic have wiped $7trn off the market value of listed firms worldwide in the past fortnight (see article).

Some companies will, like most of London’s commuters, revert to autopilot once the threat recedes. But for others the interruption will have a lasting effect, accelerating trends in business organisation that were already under way. Two are particularly important. The next few months are set to be a giant experiment in whether new technologies can allow successful mass remote working for employees, speeding up the reinvention of the office. And for firms already worried about rickety supply chains amid a trade war, the virus gives another reason to reconfigure them.

Take employees first. Companies have had to ask themselves whether to let employees travel, attend conferences or even come into the office. In all three cases the answer is increasingly “no”. Many big firms, including Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, have banned all non-essential excursions. Airlines and hotels are reporting steep falls in bookings. Corporate Travel Management, a listed Australian firm that organises business jaunts, has warned the impact could last up to six months. It has slashed its earnings forecast for the year by up to 16.5%. A survey by the Global Business Travel Association, an industry body, found that business travel, which costs companies over $1trn a year (and emits roughly as much carbon as Ukraine in flights alone), could fall by over a third while the epidemic rages.

Large corporate events are being called off. The oil industry’s biggest annual jamboree in Houston and the Geneva motor show will not take place this month. Google and Facebook have given the term “teleconferencing” a whole new meaning by moving a few of their big shindigs partly or wholly online. With Milan and Paris fashion weeks curtailed, Armani streamed its autumn/winter show from behind closed doors. This is bad news for events firms such as Informa, whose share price is down by a fifth since the start of February, especially at a time when many high-profile industry powwows are already losing their lustre.

At the same time more companies are learning to love telecommuting. On March 3rd JPMorgan Chase told thousands of its bankers in America to work from home as it tests its contingency plans. Twitter has asked its 5,000 employees to do likewise. Sony went so far as to shut some of its European offices altogether, just in case. The affected workers are nonetheless expected to toil remotely.

As well as highlighting how bloated some travel budgets are, virus contingency plans may also reveal how inefficiently office space is used. Big British and American firms pay on average $5,000 per employee in annual rental costs. Just 40-50% of desks are actually used during working hours—often not very well. Last year two in five respondents to a survey of 600,000 desk-jockeys by Leesman, a data provider, said their office prevented them from working productively. If their managers now find that productivity does indeed rise—or at least doesn’t dip—as staff self-isolate at home, the case for teleworking may look irresistible. Investors are betting it will. In the past month the share prices of Slack, a corporate-messaging platform, and Zoom, which makes videoconferencing software, have shot up by 18% and 35%, respectively.

The second way in which companies are rethinking their business has to do with supply chains. Since the 1980s these have become more complex and global, with large firms now dependent on thousands of suppliers. The embrace of lean manufacturing and just-in-time delivery of components, pioneered by Toyota in the 1970s, has made production more efficient but more vulnerable to disruption, as companies stockpile fewer and fewer necessary materials. The median firm in the S&P 500 carries only 66 days of inventory, and some have far smaller buffers than even that—Apple has just nine days, according to data from Bloomberg.

When natural disasters strike big companies usually get by, shifting production temporarily from afflicted areas to those that are not. But unlike a flood, an earthquake or even the Sino-American trade war, all of which companies have some experience in planning for, covid-19 could affect all of a firm’s actual and potential subcontractors simultaneously. In such a scenario carrying bigger inventories and having suppliers at home may no longer look wasteful. It may come to be seen as necessary.
Immune response

The coronavirus will not make business travel or lean global supply chains disappear. Chinese factories are cranking up again and high-flyers will, in all likelihood, be back in airport lounges soon enough. But the crisis offers a chance to experiment with new ways of doing things—and to question the wisdom of old habits. Chief executives should not be immune to the opportunity.■

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline "Plan V"

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