Hubbub brought together sixty progressive businesses in two virtual workshops as part of the Hubbub Explores series, asking what they had learned from the COVID-19 crisis and how it would impact their future strategy.  The businesses were self-selecting and not representative of the whole sector, but included some of the UK’s largest employers and most progressive companies.

The workshops shared the latest consumer insight research from Britain Thinks, a case study from Innocent Drinks and corporate insight by Headland Consultancy.  Despite the wide diversity of businesses, three predominant themes emerged.

A new focus on resilience

COVID-19 has brutally exposed those companies that have complex and exploitative supply chains, often with significant impact on supplier companies, their local communities and corporate reputation.

Participants highlighted the need to build more collaborative relationships with suppliers, involving greater transparency, simpler supply chains and possibly more localisation.

“It has completely blown my mind the kind of shifts that a business like ours has had to make during this time.  It shines a light on the fragilities of the centralised system.  A partnership approach is really important to making sure we protect livelihoods and keep Britain fed.” – Major UK retailer

How this resilience is defined will be crucial for long-term strategy. The most progressive companies will take into account future risks such as run-away climate change, new pandemics and supply chain shocks in their resilience planning.  This might be a more costly, time-consuming and complex route, but it will have long-term benefits.

“We have been looking at resilience at three levels.  The first is the physical and mental health of our employees, the second is how we can collaborate better with clients and suppliers and the third is planetary resilience.” – Corporate Consultancy

Other companies acknowledged that this longer-term thinking will be difficult when the immediate financial impact is so severe and the need to rebuild is imperative.  This will focus resilience thinking on the short-term, increasing the likelihood of excessive cost-cutting and relying on proven processes to generate short-term financial gain.

Responding to Changing Cultural Values

Consumer research indicates that new sets of values are emerging.  Essential services such as the provision of food, energy and water have become more important, while frivolous expenditure is decreasing.

At a fundamental level people are seeking more digital skills and connectivity. People are already building stronger connections with their local community which has seen a growth in the use of corner shops and specialist retailers such as butchers.  More people are valuing the space that nature has been given during the lockdown with increased quiet, more bird song and cleaner air.

The home environment has become crucially important with people requiring comfortable and safe places from which they can work and home-educate children.  There has been a significant growth in traditional skills such as cooking, gardening and craft work as people seek new ways to save money, enjoy time at home and create a more pleasant environment.

Every business noted that the impact of COVID-19 had reinforced the need to put the well-being of employees, people and communities at the heart of corporate strategy.

“The crisis has made us realise that people and communities are at the heart of everything.  It made us consider how we could collaborate to support the most vulnerable and how we can get essential products to frontline workers.  It has been a challenge but really heartening to see everybody come together.” -  Global FMCG company

Ensuring employees could work safely, that they were properly supported through transformative change and that personal well-being systems were in place were highlighted as being essential.

“Our first priority was people and keeping everybody safe.  Making sure our colleagues were safe first and foremost.  Investing to make sure our customers were safe and ensuring food was available to buy in whatever format.  Providing food to the most vulnerable through the NHS.” – Major retailer

The workshops heard numerous examples of how companies have made significant financial investments to support essential services, vulnerable households, suppliers, employees and local communities.  These investments have placed the needs of essential stakeholders ahead of the financial returns of shareholders.  A common theme was, what is the point of having all this wealth if we can’t protect the most vulnerable?

The recovery from COVID-19 is going to be slow and will severely hit sections of the community harder, including the vulnerable, the young and those not in secure employment.  The most progressive companies will continue to place the needs of these stakeholders to the fore, reducing shareholder dividends.

Acceleration of existing trends

All companies noted the eye-watering speed of change, illustrating what could be achieved when necessity demands.  For some this change involved significant shifts in technology, working practices and the way services were delivered. 

“We’ve increased the capacity of our online shopping dramatically in a short period of time.  We talk about it being like Christmas everyday.” – Major food retailer

Having a strong sense of social purpose seemed to make rapid transition easier.  Innocent Drinks highlighted that the preparation that led to becoming a B-Corp enabled them to rapidly respond to changing demand and this was reflected by other participants.

“Companies that have a strong sense of purpose managed to shift their business model quicker.  Brands that have a clear sense of purpose about who they are find it easier to be agile.” - Major global consultancy

The most notable shift to an existing trend has been the mass uptake of online meetings, events and training.  All companies believed that this would have a lasting and transformative impact with widespread implications. 

"We have seen what we’re capable of in terms of home working. We’d like a different way of working going forwards and see a bigger shift in this positive direction." – Facilities service company

Many felt it would significantly impact carbon emissions from travel both in the daily commute and external business meetings.  Consultancy companies wondered whether this would change working relationships with clients many of whom had previously requested face-to-face meetings, increasing the need for air and business travel.

Several organisations were already thinking about the implications for large central offices.  Would these no longer be required, or would extra space still be needed to allow for social distancing?

“We’ve realised how much can be done from home and completely altered what work looks like in a really positive way.” - Fashion House

Join the conversation

Hubbub is running four more workshops exploring how COVID-19 will change our high streets, food systems, travel and corporate communications.  These workshops will build growing insight which we will use to create a ‘Greenprint’ for a fairer more sustainable UK during the COVID-19 rebuild. Want to attend? Find more information and the schedule for future workshops below. 

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