With the shocking media headlines, it’s not easy to understand what is happening to the world of business right now. Further, the way that it will impact individual companies and people will depend on multiple factors.
We may all be in this storm together, but we are certainly not in the same boat. How we navigate ourselves to the other side of this crisis will involve understanding our own specific set of circumstances.
Surveys can often shed more light on what is actually happening. During the crisis, I have become quite an expert at interpreting the painstaking research of others. My goal is to try and provide insight from which others can benefit.
With that said, I would like to acknowledge Richmond Events and hopefully, if they see this, they will interpret it as a genuine endorsement of their work.
Let’s start off with a short summary of where the sentiment is focused right now:
Unsurprisingly, the concerns surrounding the economic uncertainties facing our country far outweigh all others. This overall sentiment has grown substantially in the last month.
The most significant changes reported between April to May are:
People generally are now far more worried about the long-term prospects of our economy.
Serious concern around personal financial security has overtaken fears for organisations in the short-term. As more people realise the potential impact the crisis may have on an individual level.
Whereas the results for wellbeing haven’t changed significantly, there is a gentle shift in a positive direction. More people feeling ‘slightly’ rather than ‘very/quite’ concerned for the wellbeing of both themselves and their families.
Overall, people feel that their organisations have responded well in providing adequate technology for home working. They also indicated that they and their colleagues are generally being looked after quite well. The overall perception is that the crisis has encouraged more good human behaviour than bad.
Conversely, external communication to both customers and non-customers has certainly been more difficult during the crisis.
Initial reports in April demonstrated a relatively bullish opinion around the loss of customers. However, this confidence appears to be waning with some companies now experiencing a significant loss of customers. The news of mass redundancies and job losses is increasing fears of how that will affect their own commercial relationships.
Around 40% of UK businesses either have already or plan to make salary reductions in the next 3 months. This reflects a significant shift in sentiment. The impact of Covid-19 is not going to be absorbed solely by a companies financial reports and government aid.
Over 50% of people working full-time said that they were working even harder than they were pre-COVID. The other half estimate that they are working less.
Overall, meaningful economic productivity and output across the UK is significantly down. That’s hardly shocking since the government have effectively turned the economy down to a “simmer”.
CBILS may have been a great government PR exercise initially, but it has been an unmitigated disaster, failing to finance more than 5% of the companies that have applied to it.
The Job Retention (furlough) Scheme remains the key Government assistance measure that most organisations have plugged into. Deferred VAT and Income Tax payments have been welcomed, but along with lost revenues and additional differed rents and supplier payments, there is another financial time bomb being kicked down the road for many companies that will at some point come home to roost. (yes I know I managed to get 3 metaphors into that last sentence 😊)
Subjective opinions on this topic vary dramatically. Some credible economists are predicting significantly worse to come and decades of hardship and austerity. Others are more optimistic. What they all have in common is that they just do not know. Sure this is not the first ever pandemic, nor the deadliest but that’s missing the point here.
The point is that COVID-19 is a global crisis unprecedented in the modern economy. As such, all opinion is based on assumptions and models that are based in hypothesis, not precedent.
Most scientists seem to agree that until there is an effective vaccine, the world cannot return to ‘normal’ and by then the world may have already changed for good.
The biggest challenge when it comes to getting back to normal is that what is perceived as good for the economy, may not be good for public health. This conflict has been the crux of governments policy. As the public order constraints are lifted, this problem gets transferred to the company and individual level. Naturally, this will be a hotbed for confusion and conflict.
What is very clear is that until we are all allowed back to work, the repair and recovery process for the wider economy will be constrained. Most believe that will not happen for another 3-6 months at least, according to this survey.
Every sensible organisation is taking action to protect itself and to prepare for the eventual upturn.
Unsurprisingly, preserving cashflow is of greatest importance. However, many businesses are using this opportunity to diversify their offerings and are increasing their marketing activities.
The results about remote working adaptations aren’t hugely surprising because there has been little choice in this matter. However, it will be interesting to see the longer-term impact that homeworking will have on, amongst other things, employee wellbeing & mental health, commercial property and cybersecurity and of course genuine business productivity.
One important item missing from this part of the survey is the suspension or cancelling of existing commercial commitments. It is one thing to place a project on hold or even cancel it, but when that project had commenced already and stopping it constituted a legal breach, then the impact on the supply chain can be devastating. Companies in this predicament will have potentially made commitments to deliver on that project, in terms of materials and resources, but they themselves are also anticipating the revenues being generated by it, in order to meet their own obligations.
Speaking to business owners myself over the last few weeks it appears that most have experienced being involved in such scenarios, with added complexities of how to respond, because although they need the revenues, they also need to be sensitive to the long term client relationship.
This might be another part of the survey, where employees and employers might have conflicting views. Some employees might feel the personal benefits, while employers will evaluate more against productivity levels.
What it does undoubtedly prove though, is that, for many companies, we can move to a remote working environment if and when we need to and when circumstances demand it, even if we don’t adopt this as a permanent way of working.
One fact we cannot ignore is that people’s homes are not suitably set up to accommodate long term home working. There is neither adequate space or the appropriate infrastructure for the vast majority, not to mention the current set of distractions.
Employees perceptions and desires do not always marry with employers needs and requirements.
If average productivity levels are down when working from home (as they undoubtedly are in most cases), would that be suitably compensated by the reduction in office and rent costs?
Will employees WFH staff demand that the business contributes towards improving work from home conditions? Perhaps the way that people are remunerated would need to change so that it was more reflective of production levels? There are certainly more questions than answers on this one and each person and company will have their own opinions and views.
The lockdown has also highlighted many advantages and benefits of office life too, as much as it has opened up our eyes to the flexibility of home working.
The following results are self-explanatory, although I think that most sensible people agree that the government are always going to be on a hiding to nothing in these situations. How they handle the return to work process over the coming weeks is for me going to be their biggest challenge to date.
I think that we can anticipate sentiment towards opening up businesses to grow significantly over the coming weeks. Especially as employees realise the very genuine risk of long term unemployment for very large numbers of the population and that many years of austerity are the alternative.
Boris might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, according to the opinion polls, most people think that he is doing an OK job in very challenging circumstances. However, getting the UK economy switched back on again surely now has to become the number one priority. In order to avoid an economic catastrophe.
This all needs to be done while maintaining and respecting the amazing work done by the NHS. So that we don’t undo their positive achievements. This must also be done in parallel with a sensible and cautious approach that considers and respects the Covid-19 related guidelines and protocols.
There is always a limit to what can be deduced from general surveys, but measuring the changes in these opinions over the weeks and months is an interesting barometer of sentiments in the broader business community.
Any sense that this was an unexpected holiday has been superseded with boredom and frustration. Any novelty has worn off and people want to get back to the business of growing their bottom line vs their waistline.
There is still a long way to go for this story to play itself out. We are probably in the eye of the storm right now with the true damage still to be revealed.
On a positive note, there is a lot of good and kindness coming out of people during this crisis. We are learning new ways of operating during this massive work-from-home social experiment.
Cheering those that have risen to the challenge has extended way beyond the NHS. It is truly inspiring to see the power of companies who have turned their production capabilities towards philanthropic endeavours. When the government turns the heat back up on the economy, these will be the ones to watch.
All storms eventually pass and in the wake of their destruction, painful lessons are learned and many things – not least our hands – are washed clean.
The majority of the data and graphs used in this article were sourced from a report initially produced by Richmond Events