The COVID-19 pandemic has been creating massive hardships for everyone - both individuals and businesses for over a year now.
Nevertheless, many companies have managed to survive and thrive. Employers chalked out "Work from Home" policies, Businesses had to renegotiate with their vendors and customers, and neighborhood vegetable sellers started accepting online orders.
Retail businesses (like movie theatres, restaurants, and shops) had to make new deals with mall owners and landlords to stay afloat. Residential societies framed new rules for their residents and vendors.
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While countless lessons can be learned from the pandemic, let's focus on the often-overlooked principles of "Negotiations" that helped ease the pain and aided the transition to new ways of conducting business. During this period, some negotiation techniques have become more salient.
- Know yourself: Boundaries around home and work have blurred over the last year, and the feeling of working 24/7 is neither good for your family nor your productivity. Without precise office timings, it has become hard to figure out a work-life balance. For example, if one spent a few hours during the day doing household chores, how much should one compensate for it, at night? Should we be working on weekends because there is a lockdown? Not having clear cut schedules and boundaries has created more conflicts for everyone. Therefore, it's important to understand your obligations and needs clearly.
- Know others: At the same time, try to understand other people's needs and work out a common plan with all those who are involved - spouse, kids, roommates, boss, etc. as to when they should expect you to be at work, and when they should not. Remember to think about what you are trying to achieve (targets) and the minimum you would be willing to accept (a walkaway point).
- Listen to others: We can no longer remain immune to others' sufferings and ignore others' problems. When employers demanded that employees "Work from Home," many of them lacked the required infrastructure at home. Soon, every major organisation was buying laptops, mobile phones, and internet broadband plans to enable working from home. Educational institutes offered financial aid and flexible schedules to help their students cope with online classes.
- Offer what others need: Offering existing infrastructure (physical and digital) to your counterpart can help reduce the overall costs for all parties. Some organisations realised that offering their often-empty guest houses can bring down the travel overheads for their vendors. And many industries repurposed industrial oxygen supplies for liquid medical oxygen that helped save many lives.
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- It's not a "zero-sum" game: A huge problem in negotiations is to treat every opportunity as an imaginary conflict to wear down opponents. We have to let go of the "win-lose" mentality and move towards more "win-win" outcomes. During the lockdown, many retail shops were shut down and were forced to renegotiate with their owners (e.g., shopping malls). At the same time, the shopping malls had their own set of fixed costs to handle, including security, water, and electricity. If shopping malls (and other real estate owners) end up losing their major customers during this time, it would affect reputation and footfalls when things get back to normal. It was evident that a competitive negotiation would help no one and most businesses figured out a way to move beyond the fixed-pie mentality. In addition, finding compatible goals has led parties to understand each other's needs and create value instead of conflict.
- Don't fall in love: Lockdowns and changing government protocols forced us to be nimble in a rapidly changing world. Despite this, we are often fixated on a particular employee, customer, or vendor. Falling "in love" with one specific option (a favourite car, a house, a job) in a negotiation can be extremely disadvantageous. What will you do if your negotiation does not work out with your "favourite" option?
- Know your Best Alternatives: When movie theatres were shut down, many film producers had to quickly figure out a way to reach out to their audience. Many Bollywood blockbusters were released over OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+Hotstar, and Zee5. While streaming platforms have been around for a few years, the pandemic has speeded up their acceptability as a viable distribution platform for movie makers. Our power in a negotiation depends upon how many viable alternatives one has. The present COVID-19 situation is a wake-up call to create more options.
- Be Willing to Walk Away: When a small family business faced unexpected demands from its sole customer, they reached out to other prospective customers and forced their regular supplier to be more reasonable. When faced with unreasonable demands that threaten to undermine one's business, we should be prepared to walk away.
Negotiations are a crucial skill set that can help resolve conflict at home, in the workplace, and in society. We all can apply these principles in our own lives to help us tide over the pandemic.
(The author is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at IIM Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal and in no way should be interpreted as opinion of the Institute.)