The cost of the Covid-19 pandemic has been massive – a year of repeated lockdowns and trading restrictions have cost the UK economy £251billion, according to analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
That’s the equivalent of the entire annual output of the south-east of England or nearly twice that of Scotland, according to a report.
Businesses have had to adapt or die, finding new ways to reach customers and taking what they can in term of government support, loans and grants.
Many business leaders say that they have had to absorb 12 years of change in 12 months, shifting their business model overnight and learning as they go.
For some, they have brought in changes that are here to stay. It has forced a clear eyed view on what’s working and what’s not and what the future will look like and what has come on top is the need for sustainable business practice, an appetite for change, co-operation and looking after people.
Here we’ve gathered insights from leading economic and business leaders from across the UK to share their learnings after a year of lockdown.
We found grit and determination
Sacha Lord, night time economy adviser for Greater Manchester
Despite the horrific nature of this pandemic, the past 12 months has shown the grit and determination of the North West.
I’ve watched brilliant businesses go under and I’ve personally spoken to hundreds of operators who are struggling financially and mentally.
As a result, I’ve not been able to sit back and wait for this pass, and along with many others, I’ve felt compelled to help in whichever way I can.
“The court cases defending hospitality and the right for proper justification for its closure is just one area I have focused on while we trundle through this crisis.
“I have no commercial interest in fighting for these decisions. I have no restaurants or bars, and I don’t own a hotel.
“But I do think, both in my role as night time economy adviser and as a general punter that more needs to be done to ensure we have a hospitality sector to return back to in the months and years ahead. I simply cannot stand by and watch them close up for good.
This determination to question decisions is something I have seen time and time again by our leaders in the region.
While I am personally pleased to be working alongside our Mayor, Andy Burnham, in my role, I’m even more grateful as a Greater Manchester resident that we have someone who is willing to stand up for the region in terms of fairness and financial equality, and who is not afraid to question decisions which could potentially put the North at a greater disadvantage to the rest of the UK.
As we move towards the end of this saga, I have no doubt the region will come through it with an even greater loyalty and passion to do ‘what is right’.
There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction
Andrew Ruffler, Chief Executive of Professional Liverpool
I joined Professional Liverpool just a week before lockdown officially began. Our team started working remotely that day, so we’ve worked together and built our relationships almost entirely virtually over the last year.
PL had been known for the delivery of regular physical events. When lockdown hit, we had to quickly migrate all our activity onto digital platforms to ensure we were still engaging with our community.
The lockdown period also gave us the opportunity to reflect on and refresh PL’s vision and values. We’ve developed a new strategic plan and a clear brand presence and position focused on ‘community’.
While my LinkedIn connections have grown and I’ve become accustomed to virtual meetings, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. I am looking forward to deepening personal relationships and having meaningful conversations offline in 2021.
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I’ll be keeping that adaptive mind set
Henrietta Brealey, chief strategy officer at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce
Show me a fully worked-out strategy, complete with budget and timeline, and I’ll be your biggest fan. Unfortunately, a global pandemic, with a side order of Brexit, has no respect for such things. It’s taught us as a team to get a whole lot better at editing as we go along.
To focus in a broader way on the outcomes we’re trying to achieve and impact we want to have, even when the ‘What, how and when?’ might need to constantly adapt and evolve. Purpose over plans.
But editing as we go along only works if everyone stays working on the same script. Constant communication has been key – from daily stand ups to lively WhatsApp groups.
I still love a good plan but I’ll be keeping that adaptive mind set, putting purpose and communication first with me post-pandemic.
We need a long term plan not just political goals
Jonathan Walker, director of policy at the North East England Chamber of Commerce
Before the start of the pandemic we said our region needed extra investment to help us level up with the rest of the country.
Covid has caused serious harm to many of our regional members especially those in retailing, hospitality and tourism.
Instead of levelling up there is a real sense of the North East potentially moving backwards.
The last 12 months have seen political mis-steps and confusion on many important fronts and as a result our companies faced tremendous uncertainty that took away their ability to develop recovery plans.
Recent announcements by Government which have paid great attention to the North are all extremely welcome but we need a long term strategy with social and economic aims not just political goals.
This chaotic year has magnified the importance of people
Geetie Singh Watson MBE, Organic pub owner
We opened The Bull in Totnes in December 2019, had three months of trade and then we closed. This chaotic year has magnified the importance of people across all businesses. Being a decent and fair employer creates the culture and loyalty from team to customer, and impacts the rest of society. Our team have been supportive and patient with each other and the business. It’s made us stronger. Our sense of responsibility to the community has been affirmed. The kindness from strangers and regulars alike in response to our openings and closings. The news coverage of how incredibly tight the margins are in hospitality, how many people we employ, how many suppliers and small businesses depend on us, and how easily we can all go under has been eye opening for many.
We have proved that the impossible is possible, and that we are immensely capable of responding fast to a crisis. The MOST important learning from this year of chaos, from Brexit to Covid, is that we absolutely can tackle the climate crisis. We are capable of pivoting fast and effectively. Every decision we make from here on in has to consider the impact on our eco systems. Our house is on fire. We can fight it. We’ve proved we can do it.
We have a spirit of cooperation
Sara Williams CEO of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce
When I reflect on a year of lockdown, I wonder what I would say if I could meet up with myself as I was in March 2020?
Then I thought that the “fuss” would last a few weeks and that it was all quite exciting as a challenge to us all.
But between then and now there has been nothing short of a revolution in the pattern of day-to-day life, the way we behave and in the way we work.
After the initial ‘rabbit caught in the headlights moment’ we’ve all just got on with it and done what we needed to do. There has been a real spirit of cooperation and the feeling that we are all in this together, and therefore we must all come out of this together.
And something else I would say to myself is that the future is, now more than ever, able to be changed to be sustainable, fairer and more prosperous as we all take the lessons we have learnt and learn to live them in a “new normal”.
Top of the list is clean growth agenda
Carl Ennis, Chief Executive of Siemens UK and Net Zero North West Chairman
We’re understandably a bit tired of talking about the dawn of a ‘new normal’, but with light at the end of the lockdown tunnel I will not lose sight of how virtual engagement has been a hugely positive force for driving regional collaboration on the big issues of the day. At the top of this list for me is the clean growth and industrial decarbonisation agenda.
Through the launch of Net Zero North West and use of virtual forums we have been able to remove the geographic hurdle and bring regional leaders, industry and Whitehall together quicker, focus minds and take bold steps forward on tackling the generation defining net zero challenge. I can’t wait to leave lockdown behind but I want to use this experience to live and work smarter and greener post-COVID.
People get a lot done at home
Paul O’Leary, Director deVOL kitchen design
Things have changed. Working from home works for a lot of things. I definitely think that businesses which were worried their staff wouldn’t get much done have learned that they actually get a lot of work done at home.
And for kitchen design appointments a lot of customers like not having to travel to see us, so we will carry on offering Zoom appointments after lockdown.
I also think it’s nice being able to roll out of bed at 8.30am and be straight at your computer.
But we do of course miss each other and having face-to-face-contact, and with hands-on development projects it can be awkward.
Contingency planning is a priority
Ben Francis, Director Hygrove Homes and Policy Chairman Federation of Small Businesses Wales
Businesses have learned an incredible amount at a very fast pace over the last year, as they have dealt with a set of circumstances that we would have previously considered unimaginable.
At FSB, we have learned that businesses are vulnerable. The concurrent shocks of multiple levels of restrictions throughout the last year, depressed trading opportunities when firms were allowed to open and the impact of the wider economic repercussions have starkly demonstrated the level of tolerance that businesses have. We know that this tolerance will have been sorely tested over the last year, and contingency planning for uncontrollable events that may take place in the future will be a major priority for many firms as they seek to recover.
Moreover, we’ve learned much about the fragility of our supply chains in Wales as they respond to the double challenges of Covid and changes brought about by Brexit.
However, in addition to these negative lessons that we’ve been forced to learn, I’m also proud to say that we’ve learned much about the sheer tenacity and adaptability of Wales’ business community. Many firms have learned to make the best out of a truly terrible situation and in some cases have opened up a new conversation on remote working that we will need to harness in the coming months.
We invest in the value of community
Adam Higgins, co-founder at social impact developer Capital & Centric
The pandemic has refocused minds on what’s important – creating a place where people actually want to live, that’s designed with the buyer or renter in mind.
Take Kampus, our £250m garden neighbourhood created with HBD in central Manchester, which will welcome its first residents in the Spring. All 534 apartments might be for rent but we wanted this to be a real community where you’ll get to know your neighbours and want to stay for years.
The pandemic has really highlighted the need for access to nature, so as well as the canal-side garden, terraces and square, all the apartments having opening windows with, as a minimum, Juliet balconies. All of this makes business sense. If you create a place that people enjoy living – where they have mates, everything they need on the doorstep and that feels like home – they’ll stay longer.
In Rochdale, we’re including a running track and cross-fit stations in our neighbourhood development to meet the demand to exercise from home, with group sessions and classes all part of the mix. It’s not enough just to build it, you need to enable a community to flourish by bringing people together.
People can manage their business differently, sometimes even better
Mark Webb, managing director of E-Factor
We have seen that businesses have learned that they can manage their business differently, sometimes even better if they are willing to diversify, learn from what others are doing, embrace technology and look after their people.
They have learnt that whilst there is a significant amount of cash and financial support around, that alone will not make a sustainable business.
Then there are those who have seen what is in front of them, pivoted, innovated, diversified and discovered new ways that will last them well beyond the pandemic, and there are those who have simply put their heads down and hoped things will go back to ‘normal’.
One of the biggest lessons is to remove the phrase ‘oh, that could never happen’ from the vocabulary. Businesses have learned that taking time to manage your risks, to do ‘what if’ planning more regularly, is vital. Risk registers are being looked at for the first time by many businesses.
Our buddy rota is here to stay
Dawn Coker, Chief Operating Officer at Access2Funding
There’s been a lot of positive learnings to take from this year. The pandemic has reiterated the importance of knowing our audience well and knowing how to reach them. Business lending from banks has been difficult, but by connecting with SMEs that would usually go to banks for funding and assisting them in claiming, we’ve been able to claim back £27m in R&D tax relief for those eligible businesses. This has been a lifeline for many.
When it comes to working as a team, like most we’ve leaned on digital communication tools, but we also launched a buddy rota across the business; this has been a great way to connect the teams throughout the UK and has made our ‘one team’ culture even stronger – this is something that is here to stay. Of course, mental health has been thrust to the forefront of everything we do, and we are working towards official accreditations to continue to learn and improve.
What have been the biggest lessons from this year of Covid-19 for your business? Let us know in the comments section below