Four conventions for business (turned upside down)

The last year of the last decade was busy, fun and rewarding and I gleefully ushered in the 2020s on a high.

I don’t need to articulate what’s occurred since…

I have been uninspired to share my point of view as everything which could be said about the impact of the pandemic on business has been said.

As we go into our second year with  COVID19, any hope of a quick return the way things were in 2019 is wishful thinking. In fact, some important conventions for businesses are being upended.

1. Stay close to your customer (No, actually keep your distance!)

I tried to chat to a customer service person in my local supermarket last week (both of us all masked up, of course). She couldn’t wait to get away from me. Good marketing starts with a close understanding of your customer / your client and their needs. As we all continue to distance, the opportunities to do this physically are now almost zero.

Instead, doing business from the kitchen is now the norm. Thankfully we have digital technology to support us. Not new, but it will now accelerate as the primary channel to the customer.

Businesses that have embedded digital and automation are ready for this revolution. However, it\’s harder to understand your client, particularly in a professional and business services environment.  In fact, I’ve heard first hand that clients are not mourning the absence of auditors and consultants trolling their offices and are embracing future efficient and (hopefully) effective digital audits.

2. Get through the next 3 months (Really? How about 12 / 18 months?) 

A prominent journalist on Sky News last week said  “..this is the first time a government has had to deal with something like this…”.  Really?  What about the wartime government’s strategies around the Spanish Flu?  A quick glance through the history of epidemics reveals that this is not a new phenomena.  From the black death of 1348, to the sweating sickness of the 1500s to the great plague of London in the 1660s, flu outbreaks have challenged societies in approximately 100 year intervals through history, each breakout lasting multiple years, if not decades.

At the outset of the pandemic we were all thinking it might be a 3 to 6 month setback and then the world would return to normal. Again, a simple look back could have informed us that our time-frames for recovery were wildly inaccurate.

Additional pressure for businesses is stoked by market expectations to report financial health quarterly. This relatively modern and now normalised timescale, also used by lenders and other stakeholders, is putting businesses under acute pressure. Cost reduction, debt restructuring and government aid packages have also been designed around this 3 month to 6 month perspective.

3. Trust the experts  (Ok, who are the experts?)

Individuals are not good at judging risks, whether it\’s from assuming a false sense of control, or herd confirmation bias.  Even business leaders are often well off the mark. I recall we asked CEOs to rate ‘a pandemic’ as part of a long list of ‘risks to businesses’ during my 7 years as programme director for PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey.  Not once in that period did “The risks of a pandemic” ever rise to challenge any of the other least worrying risks for global CEOs (including global warming and climate change).

We are also living through a period where governments, the media and business leaders regularly undermine the experts to protect the status quo.  As epidemiologists and virologists fall in and out of fashion, governments are relying on naive empiricism (including statistics which align with their views) to make policy decisions which affect people’s lives.

We are left blindly planning our lives and business tactics to unknown time-frames and outcomes, not knowing who to trust.

4. Businesses and the economy come first  (Or are people more important?)

Finally, conventional thinking in previous global crises has been to look to saving businesses and the economy first and foremost.  Is the pandemic causing us to review our priorities? Take, for example, the brief couple of days Boris Johnson asked the UK workforce to get back on the train and back to their hot-desks in city offices (to save our sandwich shops?).

The old way of thinking about business now seems irrelevant, even vulgar in polite conversation. Ideas like lean management theory, productivity and performance management all pit jobs against profits, global vs local, the few vs the many. Has the time come to re-evaluate these mindsets?

In discussing these ideas with my daughter, who is involved in an online start-up which sprouted during lock-down, some of the old conventions I have taken for granted could be heading for the dust-bin.  They are being replaced with new codes of conduct she intends to follow as core to her business purpose. These include: local, tech-enabled, community-led, low-waste and low-carbon. Values designed not for big business, but for happy people in difficult times.

I am feeling a little giddy from the turbulence, but one thing that is clear, is that the experience of the pandemic is a catalyst for some irreversible change, hopefully some for the better.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash