Smartworks had thought of itself as a disruptor so it was caught unawares, much like the rest of the world, by the large-scale disruption the Covid-19 outbreak introduced. The provider of coworking spaces had expanded operations to nine cities since it was established in 2016. It was also getting a boost from the startup and gig working culture that was catching up across the country.But when the tide turned in March, the workspace creator’s
Smartworks had thought of itself as a disruptor so it was caught unawares, much like the rest of the world, by the large-scale disruption the Covid-19 outbreak introduced. The provider of coworking spaces had expanded operations to nine cities since it was established in 2016. It was also getting a boost from the startup and gig working culture that was catching up across the country.But when the tide turned in March, the workspace creator’s occupancy plummeted from 90 per cent to below 10 per cent (in April-May) as India Inc shifted from offices to homes. After a few brainstorming sessions, founder Neetish Sarda and his team decided they had to get people to come together while keeping social distancing and other safety aspects in mind. So they launched an app that enabled touchless entry into their premises using facial recognition, helped employees check seats available and book slots and limited the number of people in its café to 50 per cent of the capacity, among other things.Even the cafe had a touchless coffee dispenser. “We are at 35-40 per cent occupancy now and growing,” says Sarda. We are trying to create contactless options wherever possible.” Smartworks’ formula is pretty much the new standard for companies trying to find their feet after the Covid sucker punch. Apart from being innovative, businesses have to become more technology savvy to reach customers easily and to ensure employees can work remotely and, if they have to come to the office, safely. The answer seems to be apps. Businesses have either developed new apps or have redesigned older ones to regenerate customer interests. Even offline players are suddenly taking recourse to apps to ensure business continues.“Apps will become a way of life in offices,” says Prashant Garg, partner-business consulting, EY India. Earlier, apps were mostly used to order a cab or food or for messaging. But now it would be used to, say, get a coffee from the canteen or to spot people not wearing masks. Basically, applications will help to digitise pre-Covid experiences such as face-to-face interactions.Manjunath Bhat, senior research director, Gartner, says, “App developers have focussed on a few specific categories, but all of them have a common theme — how to convert physical interactions into its digital equivalents.” Apps got another push when mobile data and analytics platform App Annie said the average daily hours spent on smartphones in India has increased 37 per cent in Q2 of 2020 against Q1.Hotels have become a fervent adapter of apps. They need customers to come in, to stay or eat, to keep their doors open. But traffic has been almost zero since March end.That was when IHCL, which runs Taj Hotels, thought an app would be the best way to take their restaurants to people’s doorsteps. A 15-member team from IHCL and Tata Digital helped develop the 9.8 MB app, Qmin. “We are not on any third-party food ordering apps as we wanted to control the end-to-end experience, including logistics,” says Akshay Tripathi, GM, IHCL.The hotel delivers orders for lunch or dinner to any address that can be reached in 30-45 minutes or is within 15 km. The app is live in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru and will soon be available in 11 cities.Such digitising is helping companies convince people that they have adopted Covid-19 protocols, which is becoming an important part of a sales pitch.Take the case of OYO, which has tweaked its app to include information on Covid-19 safety precautions and links to pathology labs and pharmacies. Its occupancy has now reached 30 per cent of its pre-Covid levels.Traffic was significantly up during the long weekend around Gandhi Jayanti. About 46 per cent of users have checked out travel regulations and 80 per cent have checked out properties tagged as “sanitised stays”, which follow enhanced hygiene procedures. Anil Goel, chief technology & product officer of the budget hotel aggregator, says, “We started introducing these changes in May. Our conversion has doubled since then.”For some companies, the pandemic was an opportunity to expand business. AI-powered security startup Staqu found a window to enter the non-government sector. It tweaked its app, Jarvis, in March to do visual analytics of CCTV camera feed. The analytics helps to create a heat map if there is overcrowding in an area. It even spots people not wearing masks. “We do visual auditing using cameras as the third eye,” Atul Rai, cofounder of Staqu, says. In case there is a variation from accepted practices, an alert is sent, via an app, to the person who is responsible for maintaining Covid protocols.The startup’s customers include food tech, manufacturing and real estate firms. It has added 25 new customers since March, including Piramal Group and Marico. While Staqu’s app focuses on keeping people apart, some apps are built to keep them close, virtually.Tech Mahindra, for one, launched an inhouse platform called Each One, House One so that its 125,000 employees can reach out to colleagues for help during a lockdown or emergency. “It was like matchmaking,” says Harshvendra Soin, the global chief people officer & head of marketing at the tech company.“People who did not want to be alone could connect with others. Employees knew there were tools that were aimed at keeping them safe. We have created such solutions for clients also.”Jubilant Foods and Mahindra Resorts, among others, use the tech services major’s mHealthy — a mobile platform that generates a Covid risk score based on multiple parameters. Some companies saw the business challenges being posed by Covid-19 as an opportunity to scale up their digital presence.School fee financing platform Financepeer has expanded its clientele from 1,200 schools in March to 2,000 schools in September. Around that time, it launched an app to make life easier for customers.The NBFC pays students’ fees upfront for the whole year and collects the money from the respective parents in instalments. It charges schools 3-5 per cent as commission for helping the institutions get funds upfront. It has also tied up with learning platform Toppr to connect students with online courses. Sunit Gajbhiye, cofounder & chief business officer of Financepeer, says, “We are combining finance and technology to solve problems in the post-Covid era.” While many solutions and apps have focussed on digitising the physical experience of the pre-Covid era, myJen.ai is trying to improve digital experiences. Its product, uSpeek, helps users improve their presence during video calls. The startup, founded by former GE executives Jenny Sarang and Shammi Pant, analyses a user’s videos and generates a detailed report on 25 parameters such as word power, voice and body language.Sarang says, “After Covid 19, everyone is online. We believe work from home will be a long-term option. Our tool helps improve communication as 80 per cent of your success depends on your ability to communicate.”In the post-Covid 19 world, says Bhat of Gartner, a unique combination of technologies will come to the fore. These include biometric authentication, voice-enabled interactions, natural language technologies and digital payments. “When you combine these ingredients, it not only reduces physical contact but also enables a frictionless user experience,” adds Bhat.App developers are collaborating with cross-functional teams to find solutions, while also keeping the regulatory requirements in mind. So if wearing a mask becomes mandatory while driving, similar to wearing a seat belt, passengers can expect beeps to go off inside the vehicle to alert them to put on a mask.Technology is already in use to keep tabs on employees. NTT India, which helps build apps and solutions, is taking it a step further. The subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate is working with pharma, manufacturing and other industries to do remote auditing via wearable devices. Factory workers would wear head-mounted devices with high-resolution cameras and micro displays.These would relay live video to auditors or quality experts in remote locations to get help for, say, operating or repairing a machine. Bluetooth tags attached to identity cards would be used to ensure social distancing by providing real-time visual and audio alerts.If Covid-19 has changed the meaning of normal, it has also accelerated innovation to create a new normal. “Of course,” says Garg, “everyone having an app to do business may not help. App fatigue will set in. A food app is no good if the quality of food delivered is bad.”As companies rush to mitigate risks with new tech solutions, they must continue to have a laser-like focus on quality and deliverables. An unhappy customer can delete an app in a jiffy.
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