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Progress: Covid — what have companies learnt?

MORE than six months into the Covid-19 pandemic many of Britain’s businesses are settling in for a long and difficult winter. A survey from the Institute of Directors (IoD) last week found that business leaders’ confidence plateaued in September, with IoD chief economist Tej Parikh describing the country’s economy as being ‘stuck in the doldrums’.

He explains: ‘The current restrictions put a lid on demand for a number of sectors, but local lockdowns and the prospect of stricter measures down the road are putting even more businesses in a bind.

‘It’s crucial that the test and trace system can start firing on all cylinders to ease some fears. Ongoing support for firms’ cashflow will also be crucial.’

The businesses that successfully survive the winter will be those that apply the findings from the first lockdown to their planning and day-to-day trading. Here, we ask some top business people what they’ve learned from working through the Covid pandemic so far, and how it has changed their outlook and practices.

Adapting and surviving

Business leaders from all sectors are clear on one thing: the speed at which they have had to adapt has been staggering, giving them a major lesson in how to pivot.

‘Consumer behaviour shifted rapidly during the pandemic. As the physical and digital worlds continue to blend, we’ve seen years of adoption happen in just six months,’ says Shane Happach, head of global ecommerce at payment solution group Worldpay.

Jason Margrave executive director for development at property developers Quintain, which has been regenerating an 85acre site at Wembley Park, says that the pace of change is ‘exhausting’.

‘Everything has been turned on its head,’ he says. ‘It’s an extremely dynamic market and you have to keep adapting.’

This has included organising virtual viewings, changing furniture configurations in flats to allow homeworking and renegotiating leases and contracts.

The same has been true in other industries. John Tiner runs Salcombe Brewery, which had to rethink the way it delivers its product to customers when the pubs shut.

‘During the lockdown we furloughed most staff and those who remained turned their hands to everything,’ he says. ‘We already had an online shop and sales in that area grew rapidly. We also looked for new avenues to compensate for our losses due to the closure of our hospitality customers. We also wanted to do our bit for the local community and set up local doorstep deliveries to keep them supplied with beer and groceries.’

With the advent of the 10pm curfew and the possibility of further pain ahead for pubs, John says the company is investing heavily in take-home products in bottles and cans.

‘It looks set to be very tough for our hospitality customers this winter and beyond, with trade bodies estimating that 25 per cent of pubs won’t reopen. In spite of this, our business has strengthened through our adaptations and we feel better placed to take on the challenges ahead.’

A world of isolation

As well as adapting products and services, business leaders have had to learn new ways of working, with staff dispersed and working from home.

‘Despite today’s technology, it’s tough to keep team spirit and a business vision alive while working remotely,’ says Jitesh Patel, CEO of office fit-out and design specialists, Peldon Rose.

He says communication has been key, and must be ‘deliberate and transparent’. Companies implement this in many ways, but many insist remote working involves ensuring more communication, not less.

‘We’ve learnt how to be together, apart,’ says Cheryl Calverley, chief executive of mattress group Eve Sleep. She says that trust in her team has been very important, allowing them to ‘seamlessly shift to working from home without missing a beat’.

Jason at Quintain says he believes that daily Teams meetings between staff members have enabled his team to be closer than ever, even though they’ve not been in a physical office.

‘It’s really easy to just go in, grab a coffee and get on with it,’ he says. ‘We’ll be continuing with the morning catch-ups when we’re back together, I think, at least several times a week. My team members say they feel they’ve had more of my time since we’ve been at home than they did before, so I guess that says it all.’

Charlie Bryant, head of property search company Zoopla, agrees that connection has been important. ‘Zoopla has always been a close-knit community and Covid brought the importance of this to the fore. After lockdown, we quickly implemented twice-weekly all-company calls and encouraged staff to ask really difficult questions.

‘By being open and honest with our answers ,we’ve helped maintain incredible levels of energy, passion and commitment — even though we are now seven months into working from home.’

Joe Gallard, CEO of accountancy firm Reducer, says he believes interactions have become more personal, even though we’ve been apart. ‘I think lockdown has taught a lot of us that it’s not always necessary to build a concrete wall between our personal lives and our work lives.

‘At the beginning of this working from home experience, some of us would have been mortified at a toddler storming into a video call. Following this collective experience, people are less conscious about these things and are in fact opening up to colleagues about more personal aspects of their lives. We have accepted that our lives can be a little chaotic, and the rapport between colleagues has improved as a result.’

A big learning from lockdown was the importance of maintaining an office culture.

‘The benefits of being forced to work fully remotely are that it has prompted our and many other businesses to get creative,’ says Andy Foote, director at SevenCapital, a property developer with offices in five countries.

‘However, I do foresee a near full time return to the office when it becomes safe to do so because there is nothing like face-to-face interaction and collaboration to maintain morale and do business.’

Connecting with customers

Many business leaders feel that the last few months have allowed them to become more integrated into their local communities and to connect with their customers.

‘I’ve learnt that customers really value small business and want to support their local communities — but also will reward the corporates who have been open and honest,’ says Charlotte Sheridan, director of The Small Biz Expert.

‘I’ve learned a lot more about people’s personal lives — met their kids on Zoom meetings, heard their dogs barking, and seen a peek of their homes. When everyone is in the same storm, valuing every customer as an individual has become even more important than ever.’

Heck sausages co-founder Jamie Keeble says that the company learned to keep up a connection with the community and support it by advertising in local newspapers. ‘We were aiming to cheer people up with the fun ‘staycation’ creative but also supporting their local papers that were struggling,’ he says.

Bringing it home: Jamie Keeble says Heck has stayed connected with their local community

What happens next?

With companies having had to pivot to sell into the ‘new normal’, many businesses say they will change their practices in future, putting into place the lessons from lockdown.

Nathan McGivern, from drinks company Kingsland, says that his business has had to re-frame and move fast. ‘We are always trying to work quickly to mirror the madness of our times. By doing this, you can stay on the front foot and ensure the products that are in high demand are available in the shops.’

The firm has analysed new trends, and is focusing on canned drinks that people can keep in their fridges.

‘Convenience at home is a whole new world for drinkers,’ says Nathan. ‘For food and drink businesses finding their way through the new normal, my advice would be to keep listening to what people want and learn to roll with the punches.’

For Toks Arutore, who runs luxury nursery business The Baby Cot Shop in Chelsea, there have been practical lessons about how she runs the business moving forward.

She’s been working to ensure she has more samples of her most popular items in stock in case of closures or supply chain issues, and adds that she’s also overhauled her business systems.

‘Make sure your business systems are dependable. This lesson became necessary as I transitioned to working from home.

‘We are creatures of habit, and I struggled initially to work in an environment that didn’t have all my files and folders within reach. It took a minute to adjust mentally. Having a system allows you to transition seamlessly and improves productivity.’

For companies that rely heavily on logistics, systems changes have been an obvious lesson. Graham O’Neill, chief executive of ACIS Ltd, a national distribution network to the automotive refinishing sector, says he has developed remote ordering systems to reduce the need to call on customers.

‘In addition to the practical changes, we are looking at the vulnerabilities of our business and putting together strategies to reduce our exposure to them,’ he says. ‘This may include diversifying away from our current business model and market.’

Emerging stronger

While lockdown has been a huge pressure for many companies, there’s also a positivity about the lessons learned and the changes accomplished.

Victoria Usher, owner of marketing agency GingerMay, says that the period has allowed her to take back some of the excitement she had when she founded the business ten years ago.

‘The impact of Covid made me learn how to be an entrepreneur again. With all businesses — including ours — hit by the effects of the virus, I was forced to use skills that I haven’t accessed for years. I had to make nimble and focused decisions while we pivoted our business, which filled me with a sense of real purpose, ambition and dynamic energy,’ she says.

John at Salcombe Brewery believes that the future could be bright, but only for those who take the lessons of lockdown on board.

‘I think it is critical to remain positive, stay close to customers and support them,’ he says. ‘Innovation and creativity are also key. The landscape for many businesses is changing rapidly and the pandemic has accelerated this change.

‘The old adage that you need to adapt to survive has never been more true.’

Tips from the top

WE asked chief executives and business experts for advice on how to get through the next few months. Here’s what they said…

Make every day a Covid day

‘Treat every day as if the pandemic is still here,’ says Graham O’Neill (above), chief executive of ACIS. ‘Look at how you do things, what you can change, where your vulnerabilities are, and how your strategy fits. Sadly, it is only at times such as now, or during a recession, that many businesses take a good look at themselves.’

Really get to know your customers

‘This pandemic has caused a seismic shift in shopping behaviour and the needs of customers now coming online,’ says Cheryl Calverley (above), chief executive of mattress group Eve Sleep. ‘So brands should make sure their products, tech and customer experience are absolutely right for the customers of the future, not the past.’

Embrace change

‘Change is always difficult, however when forced upon you, those who embrace change or are agile in their approach will succeed,’ says Dr Tom Quirke (above), managing director of legal due diligence firm SearchFlow. ‘A challenging market drives experimentation and change, with the desire to find new ways of doing things.’

Be kind

‘I think Covid, and the events of 2020, is giving us all the chance to re-evaluate our core values,’ says Roann Ghosh (above), founder of social good consultancy Epiphany Ideas. ‘I feel that leaders are prioritising kindness and finally recognising there is a new, more diverse, inclusive way to interact with their team. When we’re all in the same boat of working from home, we’re humanised — you can’t help but see me more for who I really am when our Zoom call is interrupted by my two-year-old, marching in wearing a tutu!’

Connect with your clients

‘The pandemic is a time when you can almost guess what people are going through, and we were able to reassure them,’ says Toks Aruotore (above), from the Baby Cot Shop. ‘Our clients are either expectant parents or parents of young children; both stages of life come with a level of concern, and the pandemic heightened that. We were able to stay connected and speak to any fears they held.’