Everything around us has changed before our very eyes, and as we look out of the window, it seems rather unfamiliar. Localities, where the youth used to hang out are eerily quiet. Though it is hard to believe, we have adapted to this new lifestyle quickly. We are going through an extraordinary time. What was beyond our imagination a few days ago has become very normal now. However, when the outbreak is over, and things get back to normal, new ways of living will be the reality for many of us. Returning to the old habits may not be convenient or worthwhile. ‘New Normal’, the term we use quite frequently, means adapting to the numerous changes in our life after coronavirus.
On 10 February 2020, I was in Copenhagen for a meeting with the senior officials of Telenor Group. Nine CEOs from different countries and high officials of the Telenor Group were present at the meeting. We discussed about the Mobile World Congress that was scheduled to take place from 20-23 February in Barcelona, Spain. All of us at the meeting were supposed to attend the event, but there was some uneasiness among everyone due to the looming pandemic. A few days later, I came to know that the Mobile Congress is no longer taking place this year due to coronavirus outbreak. Mobile World Congress is the biggest event on mobile and technology, which takes place every year. Although the coronavirus has made it impossible to arrange the event, technological innovation was not halted, nor will it be in the future.
I went to Oslo again on 2 March 2020, to represent the Asia market of Telenor Group at Capital Market Day and discussed the progressive stories of Asia. Then over the next two months everything started to change. But change did not mean anything should stop. The continuous growth of the mobile sector plays a significant role in people’s socio-economic development. If we put a halt on technological innovation, everything will come to a standstill. Hence, acceptance of the new reality and keeping up our forward momentum is crucial.
Meanwhile, a significant organisational change was implemented across the Telenor Group through online discussions and meeting – we did not abstain from taking substantial decisions.
On the afternoon of 15 March, something triggered my thoughts, and I told three members of our management team to return to their respective countries. Initially, they were not willing to go considering the office timing and uncertainty. But that evening they started towards homelands – Norway, Germany, and Montenegro. Now, Grameenphone is being efficiently operated from four countries. In Bangladesh, every day, we start working from 8 am, but global employees start working from 4 am (local time). Telecommunication plays a significant role in this turbulent time. Hence, telecommunication services must be operational for everything else to be functional.
During March, Grameenphone stated to conduct work-from-home. This decision sparked curiosity, and other big companies questioned us about the implementation. The news was all over the media about Grameenphone asking its employees to work-from-home. It became national news. We adapted to the new ways of doing work, and today this has become normal for us. Even the media houses are doing home office and are continuously providing us with the latest news.
Bangladesh is moving forward with technology, innovation, collaboration together with the telecom sector. Things are changing and accepting change is the new trend. We may never go back to our old habits. Why should we, if the newly developed ones can help us progress better?
Recently, my wife has dedicated all her time to online learning. Along with her, I am also learning about the history of the world. She is doing all necessary shopping online. However, to properly facilitate these services of newly growing popularity, we need a lot of more delivery personnel. Children are continuing their education online. Even a home tutor who used to have a feature phone has learned to conduct online classes and have transformed herself. It’s becoming the new norm. My mother-in-law, 75-year-old Leena Kabir, is also adapting to the new normal. This Sunbeams School teacher is now learning how the Zoom app works from her grandson Zadid Azman because she has to take classes now online.
I attended an online conference a few days back. The organisers were Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, A2i; Mustafa Jabbar, Minister of Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology; Brigadier General Ziaul Ahsan, Director, National Telecommunication Monitoring Center (NTMC); Md. Jahurul Haque, Chairman, BTRC, DG Brigadier General Mostafa Kamal, DG Brigadier General Mahfuzul Karim Majumder, along with CEOs of four operators' and high officials. The online meeting was arranged through phone calls and exchanges of text messages with Anir Chowdhury.
The aim was to make the minister aware of how well private-public initiatives were ongoing without any hindrances. Our discussion was about tackling coronavirus through data analytics.
Everyone unanimously agreed on something and we have achieved progress in 6 weeks that was probably never possible even in two years in our old days and our previous way of work. More importantly, it was beyond imagination that all these important persons would be able to manage to participate in such a discussion on the digital platform altogether. The needs have brought us together - teaching us how to collaborate in time of crisis.
Within two weeks a digital platform was built with a capacity to hold 20,000 shareholders at a go. Grameenphone virtual Annual General Meeting (AGM) was held on 21 April 2020. Similar changes can be seen globally, as numerous companies have shifted the same to digital platforms.
Bangladesh is moving forward with technology, innovation, collaboration together with the telecom sector. Things are changing and accepting change is the new trend. We may never go back to our old habits. Why should we, if the newly developed ones can help us progress better? But in this new form of normalcy no one should be left behind individually or institutionally.
Things will never be the same anymore. Some of us maybe a little bit more prepared than the others. However, it's time we start to accept reality and prepare for the future. But for those who are beyond this new reality, we have to work together to support them to also cope with the situation and help them to find the way, otherwise this new normalcy will not be sustainable and effective.
A paradox is Inherent in the fact that the new normalcy is not at all adaptable for all levels of the society. While we are working from home, it is unacceptable for a rickshaw-puller to starve. Even though schools are conducting classes online, it is not normal for the many people who works intertwined in the supporting ecosystem of a school and college. There are hundreds of other examples as well. The coronavirus has hit our socio-economics hard, and it will leave behind numerous impacts on the nation. The government of Bangladesh had to come forward with numerous economic stimulus to help the people. No one has been prepared for the pandemic. The government will provide food for millions of people for free.
Numerous individuals and organisations are also coming forward to provide help. Grameenphone, along with BRAC, has initiated a platform called ‘Dakche Amar Desh’ to encourage everyone to help the vulnerable population. BRAC had started the project by providing with two weeks of food assistance for 100,000 families. Grameenphone has also provided two weeks’ worth of emergency food support to 100,000 families. Numerous organisations are stepping forward and joining the campaign of ‘Dakche Amar Desh’. Together, we will find a way to get through this difficult time.
Coronavirus pandemic will not only affect the vulnerable population, but it will also affect several industries, including airlines, hotels, tourism, fuel, housing, garments, entertainment, and many more. Innovation capability and new ways of thinking will be needed. Skills that are essential for today’s workforce will change and people have to learn new skills. We will have to prepare ourselves in a new way. Schools in urban areas are conducting classes online, although, this is not yet reality for all the educational institutes across the country. However, the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education is trying to find new ways to conduct online classes for everyone. Today, what is in practice in the developed countries will also become the normal in our own Digital Bangladesh. We have to think positive.
Things will never be the same anymore. Many of us are thinking about how to progress forward with this new normal. In this reality, some of us maybe a little bit more prepared than the others. However, it's time we start to accept reality and prepare for the future. But for those who are beyond this new reality, we have to work together to support them to also cope with the situation and help them to find the way, otherwise this new normalcy will not be sustainable and effective.
The new normal must be accepted collectively, it should be inclusive of all. We need to prove ourselves sustainable together with the support of mobile technology, innovation, governance, and private public partnership. Our uprising youth with their creative minds and power of Innovation must play a critical role here. Accepting this new normalcy will be beneficial to us to progress forward. Without a doubt, yes, it is possible!
*Yasir Azman is CEO, Grameenphone