Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19. Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted.

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, over 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set-up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets–Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.

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SmartNews’ U.S. app unveils new features for the elections, COVID-19 and local weather

News discovery app SmartNews' new election features for U.S. users

News discovery app SmartNews’ new election features for U.S. users

At TechCrunch Disrupt today, SmartNews announced the release of major new features for the American version of its news discovery app, designed to make it easier for users to get updates about the elections, COVID-19 and the weather.

Several features focus on the presidential race, and other candidates up for vote this year. SmartNews, which has spent the past two years building its coverage of local news, also added sections devoted to local elections and ballot measures, and information on how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

During his Disrupt session, SmartNews co-founder, chief operating officer and chief engineer Kaisei Hamamato said the goal of the app’s new election features is to make it the “one-stop solution” for voters seeking information.

Another new feature is centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes an expanded case counter that now breaks them down by county; the latest information on local closings, re-opening and other pandemic-related policies; and a vaccine and drug development tracker with a timeline of news articles from different sources.

SmartNews' new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

SmartNews’ new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

The final new feature is a “hyper-localized” weather report. Launched as Americans in many states are coping with wildfires or extreme weather events like hurricanes, the SmartNews’ Weather Radar uses its patented radar map design to show neighborhood-specific forecasts, including the predicted onset and intensity of rainfall.

SmartNews' Weather Radar feature

SmartNews’ Weather Radar feature

Founded in 2012 in Japan, SmartNews launched its American version in 2014, and shows articles from 3,000 publishing partners around the world. While its news discovery is mostly driven by machine learning-based algorithms, the company’s team also includes veteran journalists who help develop new features. In the United States, SmartNews has focused on addressing increasing media polarization with features intended to help break readers out of the kind of information bubbles they encounter on social media apps.

SmartNews' News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

The News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

Last year, SmartNews launched its News From All Sides feature in the U.S., which shows articles on a single topic from publications across the political spectrum that users can toggle through using a slider. Created for readers who want to see other perspectives, but might be overwhelmed by online searches, News From All Sides has been adapted for the 2020 presidential election, displaying articles about Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

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How to Safely Return to the Office During COVID-19

In some areas of the world, lockdown orders are lifting, businesses are reopening, and many are hoping for a return to normalcy. As a leader, it’s a daily balancing act. I need to run a business, but I also need to ensure my employees are protected and have a safe work environment.

The response to the pandemic has been a mixed bag of emotions, and a source of conflict and disagreement for many. As entrepreneurs and company leaders, we have a difficult task at hand. As a company, you must consider what is best for everyone and learn how to manage fear in an empathetic, yet professional manner. It doesn’t matter the product vertical, sales model, or scale of your business.  At the end of the day, everyone in your organization has a role to play.

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With that being said, here are four tips to help your employees handle the stress of returning to the office:


Communication is essential to combat employee anxiety and prevent the spread of misinformation. Share regular updates regarding CDC guidelines, plus your own company policies and procedures.

Employees need to know what is expected of them in terms of social distancing, mask wearing and other practices. There have been many disagreements within these areas, and you need to be prepared for employees who refuse to comply. How will you handle those who continue to openly disagree or those who make others uncomfortable with their behavior?

To ensure that your company culture promotes mental health and wellbeing, make it a priority to establish regular check-ins. Employees should feel safe and comfortable when they return to work. Thus, you will need to follow-up to see how everyone is settling in and ask them what they need from you. By including employees in the discussion, you will help them feel involved and give them a voice during a time when many feel helpless.

Related: 4 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Boost Their Mental Health

Prioritize health and hygiene

It’s your responsibility to ensure that your employees always know what’s expected of them and what they can do to prevent the spread of germs. Companies have implemented various forms of COVID-19 prevention, such as mandatory health screenings, biometrics and proximity sensors.

To help manage employee fears, you will need to consider the following:

  • Daily temperature checks: A process will need to be put in place to ensure this runs smoothly, such as employees arriving to work early, and forming lines that comply with social distancing rules.
  • Sanitizing stations: Make sure that hand sanitizer is readily available throughout the office. Consider setting up a designated area where employees are required to sanitize when coming or going.
  • Maintain six feet: If possible, rearrange desks to ensure six feet of space, and limit the number of employees in the office at a time.
  • Regular office cleanings: Establish a routine and ensure that employees keep clean workspaces.

It will take extra work and planning, but a clean and sanitized office will help prevent the possible spread of the virus as well as reassure employees.

Be flexible

While some employees are eager to return to the office, there are others with extenuating circumstances that need to be considered. If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that many positions not previously considered remote can now be performed from the comfort of home. The prospect of remote work has been normalized at this point. Now, many employers and employees alike view it as a standard practice for the workplace.

You also need to remember that employees are not isolated individuals, and that many of them may be responsible for elderly family members or have children at home. Others may be at higher personal risk. In these cases, make accommodations and allow them the choice to continue working from home.

Adjustments will need to be made on a case-by-case basis. We’ve never dealt with something on this scale before, and because of that, there’s room for the typical rules to bend. The most important thing here is that employees are reassured that their safety always remains your top priority.

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Provide resources

The pandemic has stripped away our sense of control and safety. Many of us are dealing with the fallout of this new normal, which can take a harsh toll on one’s mental health.

One way to combat this negative mindset is to ensure that your employees have an outlet and the ability to seek help if needed. Your HR department needs to be equipped to manage rising fears and should also be empowered to provide access to counseling, wellness programs and health care.

The only way we’re going to get through this is together, so make team building a priority. There are ways to foster team morale and promote company culture through encouragement, empathy, and communication. Take time to check up on your employees and remember that at the end of the day, they’re going to look to you as a leader.

Key takeaways

You can set the tone for your employees returning to the office. While it will take work, you can provide a safe and comfortable environment that allows your team the best chance to prosper and succeed.

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