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#LockdownLessons: DigsConnect evolves during lockdown

#LockdownLessons explores the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on businesses, how they prepared for lockdown and its impacts on operations and employees, as well as lessons learned that we can take into the post-Covid-19 era.
DigsConnect, the Airbnb of student accommodation, reportedly has over 50,000 beds listed across 11 cities around South Africa. The purpose of the platform is to connect students with property owners looking to rent out beds, rooms or entire properties.

Alexandria Procter, CEO of DigsConnect, shares how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the business...
Alexandria Procter, CEO of DigsConnect
Alexandria Procter, CEO of DigsConnect

BizcommunityHow has Covid-19 impacted your business?

DigsConnect is a seasonal business, with our busy period being between September and February. Things always quieten down for us after that as students are generally settled for the year, so Covid-19 actually hit at a time when we weren’t expecting much movement anyway.

We usually use this time to upgrade our product, and our team has been doing just that. We’re rolling out a bunch of exciting new features and upgrades (you can read about this on our latest company blog post) and for the most part, we’re on track with our plans.

We’re a tech-based company, so our team is able to work remotely very easily, and as more and more South Africans are transacting and interacting online, a trend that we thought would take years to happen has happened in a matter of weeks! It’s an interesting time for the future of commerce and e-commerce in Africa, and I think we’ve been forced to leapfrog old technology and suddenly run into the future, quite simply as a matter of survival.
The most important task for us right now is to think about our users and adapt to serve their needs, now and in the future.
The landlords who list on our platform have faced varying degrees of difficulty. Some aren’t affected at all, as some students choose to stay in their digs to do their online learning there as opposed to their parents’ homes where they would face more distractions. Some landlords with bigger res-type properties have been more affected as most of their tenants have opted to return home.

We’re in the process of conducting a survey with our landlords to understand the scope of what they’re going through, and the results thus far are hectic. We’ll be publishing the results of this survey early in May.

Students are facing the situation with varying responses, but the vast majority of South African students do not have home situations which constitute an academic environment.

BizcommunityHow did you prepare for the lockdown?

I advised the team a week prior to the lockdown that we would be going remote for the safety of our employees, as well as for the well being of everyone around us. We made some super quick calls, and I sent out an email to the team on the night social distancing was first announced by the president.

I explained how remote work would work for our company, and what steps the company was taking to ensure everyone was able to work (i.e. providing uncapped data sim cards to team members that didn’t have home wi-fi) and setting up online productivity and communication tools.

We have our meetings constantly, ensuring that our dev sprints, new tech features and deadlines are met. There has been a teething phase as expected, especially since we are rolling out new features onto the DigsConnect platform. We managed the initial adjustment to remote really well though, and the team’s output has even increased now that there are fewer distractions!

Keeping busy during this surreal time is the best thing to do, especially when we’re locked in doors; so we’ve been working at full steam on our platform upgrades. Our goal is to come out of this lockdown with a fully upgraded platform, and we’re so excited to show the world what we’ve been working on.
We’ve also made a big effort to keep our company culture alive, doing frequent check-in calls, creating banter chat channels, and sharing jokes like we usually would.
BizcommunityWhat's the biggest challenge you are facing during this pandemic?

The biggest challenge was overcoming the shock of how quickly it all happened. The world was operating by a certain set of rules, and while we are used to (what we previously thought was quick) transitions in an industry due to a disruption, this happened very fast and required quick thinking and quick actions.

After taking the immediate steps (moving the team to remote work), we then had to think about the company itself and reassess our business model and relevance in the world. Would DigsConnect still be necessary in this post-pandemic world? The answer we came to after serious thought was yes - DigsConnect would be more relevant than ever before.

BizcommunityWhat sort of assistance will you need going forward?

Like everyone in the country right now, we are somewhat at the whim of the government. The assistance we need is for the government to make sound, rational decisions based on data, facts and science, and communicate those updates clearly and frequently. The more information everyone has, the better we can prepare. The private sector can generate solutions to problems super fast, so keeping the private sector informed means that we can pick up the slack where necessary.
This time has shown us how powerful digital solutions can be, and we’d ask everyone to keep embracing that, to see Africa’s future as tech-driven and embrace innovation fast and without regrets.
Other than that, we are not necessarily focused on the assistance we need, but more focused on the assistance we can provide, by coming up with innovative solutions for struggling South African homeowners that need to leverage their existing assets to bring in cash flow to their households, and help students that are not in the living environments necessary for academic success. We have a couple of ideas we’re working on.

BizcommunityIf you are able to operate, what steps are you taking to continue operating?

Other than the shift to remote work and the necessary adjustments needed there, we haven’t changed our operations that much. Our plan for this period of the year is implementing product upgrades and a few operational shifts with our users, and we’re doing just that!

The only additional undertaking for DigsConnect was the speedy development of a report on how this sector will change with these new global circumstances, which I mentioned earlier.

BizcommunityWhat measures have you put in place for your employees?

I’ve been following up with every employee on a weekly/bi-weekly basis to address any concerns or questions in a more informal check-in conversation, to just chat about honestly how everyone’s holding up.
Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are natural right now, so we just want to be there for each other. We take mental health and wellbeing seriously at DigsConnect.
We are maintaining a constant stream of communication, brainstorming on ideas, problems and solutions. At DigsConnect, we are completely transparent with the team, everyone is a pioneer in their department and provides valuable feedback in every aspect of the business. When a decision is made, it is made by the entire team - we really love collaboration - so we problem-solve together if anyone is facing an issue.

Other than ensuring that everything is transparent and constructive, we have gone against the grain of keeping the team on a tight leash and micromanaging. We do our stand-ups and sprints regularly, check in with every department, and make sure all the cogs are turning in order for us to thrive, however we know we have some of the best minds in this team. Everyone runs their ship, and so far we are beyond ecstatic with the output.

When we first made the call to go remote, I made contact with each team member to understand their home working environment and see what tools needed to be supplemented in order for work to continue happening, and then those were quickly supplied. If anything, I’d say we’ve been speeding up during this process!

BizcommunityAre you communicating with your customers? If so, how?

We’re big fans of communication at DigsConnect, and generally take any opportunity that we can get to get on social media, share content with our users, start a conversation and just engage. Our communications have in fact increased!

The best way to reach our students is through social media, and we engage with them there. For our landlords, we’ve been calling them to offer support and chat through options, sending out emails, offering advice and services to anyone who needs it. We also sent out a survey to our landlords to help us make an informed decision on where they needed our assistance the most.
Finally, we’re working on a really exciting new landlord support page with some content and tips to help them get set up!

BizcommunityWhat do you predict the next 6 months will be like?

Wow, that’s a big question. Look, the world has changed. No doubt about that. It’s changed in so many ways - the political, social, economic ramifications are going to be huge. How people live their lives and conduct their business is going to be different. I’m cautiously excited about the wave of innovation that could occur here.
A tale of two crises
A tale of two crises

Issued by Digs Connect 29 Apr 2020

From a DigsConnect perspective, we’ve actually taken a deep dive into how this will affect higher education and the property market, which is all in our report on how the coronavirus will affect the student housing sector, and our recommendations to government and the private sector on this. We will be releasing this soon.

BizcommunityNow is the time to innovate and experiment. What is DigsConnect doing?

We’ve gone fully remote, and it’s working super well. We’ve changed the way our team works from tracking hours to tracking outcomes. We’ve also shifted from individual work to team-based work so that people don’t feel isolated and lonely during this work from home time.

We are using this time to revamp our entire website, product, and model, introducing new processes, optimizing and personalizing our interactions with our users, making the experience as smooth and helpful as possible. No one has the luxury of waste anymore, so we’re hyperfocused on our core businesses, making necessary adjustments to account for how the world might shift post-pandemic.

We have also created a new vetting process for our landlords and students, to make sure everyone on our platform is active, responsive and has optimized listings/applications giving every user the best result possible from using our platform. Safety is our priority.

BizcommunityWhat has been your biggest lesson from all this?

Things can change very, very fast, and you have to keep your eyes open and your feet moving to make sure that you’re up to date with market shifts. Opportunities are opening and closing fast, and we’re pretty much watching a new world being forged around us.

The world keeps going, and people will keep transacting in one form or the other to have their needs and wants met. You have to react fast and always embrace change. Never put in your head in the sand when things get tough, but brace yourself and think clearly.
Never underestimate how creative and resilient human beings are. If you give people the space, time and opportunity to create solutions, they will.
Also, on a side note, I’ve learnt that South Africans have more heart than I ever knew before, an extraordinary fighting spirit, a deep power, a superb sense of humour, and a president that we can all be proud of.

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