Nine in ten privately owned businesses across the UK have changed strategy; one in five fundamentally, since the pandemic, according to polls at a series of recent KPMG Private Enterprise and Business Insider ‘Future Proofing’ events.
Earlier this spring we convened hundreds of private business leaders in the UK to join online discussions, led by 20 panellists, about how their businesses have changed since the pandemic and their areas of focus for building back better.
The events shared real-life challenges and opportunities from the last year from speakers who run businesses across the economic spectrum, from retail to healthcare and hospitality to infrastructure.
Three watchwords emerged in terms of what has been achieved and how: Agility, Technology, and People.
The pandemic caused some businesses to accelerate strategic decisions and investments, and we’re seeing success stories as a result of leaders embracing innovation and different ways of doing things. For many this has been bolstered by technology in a variety of ways - for some it’s meant cheaper, easier and faster access to colleagues and clients across the globe, for others it’s a new platform to market their products or services.
Many of our speakers shared the position suggested by the polls’ results - that the actions they have taken in response to COVID-19 have permanently changed the way they operate.
We heard from one business that “plans that might have stagnated in the boardroom or been put in the ‘too hard to do box’ have suddenly been activated,” Another said: “Things we might have introduced in time, once perfect, have been brought forward when they were good enough.”
While they’ve been through a painful process, conceded a speaker, they know their business better; their cost bases, capex and what can or cannot scale up or down.
“We haven’t really changed our strategic plan, we’ve just moved it forward five years”, was one panellist’s conclusion.
Indeed we heard the assertion that every business has moved away from a very set way of working to genuine agility.
This point hardly needs to be laboured!
Our conversations showed that a dramatic increase in technology adoption through necessity has highlighted the potential integrating technology offers for facilitating future growth. We heard about deploying technology to achieve many different aims, from giving investors access to more opportunities, to more efficiently supporting high volume, low value tasks, allowing people to focus on delivering the greatest value.
The scale of acceleration of technology adoption has transformed engagement with both workforces and customers and some of our panellists were clear this has boosted productivity.
Meetings that might have taken three weeks to arrange now take three days because of technologies like Zoom and Teams. The point was made that the dramatically greater comfort in virtual communication is an excellent development for those business leaders with international ambitions, some of whom have made strides overseas already.
Our events saw tributes being paid to workforces for pivoting to working from home, to new recruits for adding value without ever meeting their new colleagues, to teams working hard to meet new demands.
A rise in the importance of staff wellbeing was cited by many panellists, who are alive to drops in morale and have implemented what one called ‘welfare initiatives’ from socials, to yoga and mental health support. Management teams are seeking to adjust behaviours in the face of virtual working, encouraging colleagues to strike a balance between meetings and headspace.
In terms of the future of work, the conversations strongly suggest mass closure of workplaces is not round the corner, rather that business leaders and their colleagues can’t wait to be collaborating in person again. Quite simply it is understood that people miss one another, despite massive communication efforts. Most indicated that working practices won’t return to pre COVID-19, but on-site time is valuable.
One speaker predicted: “It’ll take 12-18 months for things to settle and we need to listen to what our people want and to take the opportunity to engage them.”
The shift towards location-neutrality will make identifying and addressing skills shortages through recruitment easier, suggested one business, and it’s certainly the case that at KPMG we see our plans for hybrid working as an opportunity to be more inclusive to a broader range of people by being less focused on presenteeism in an office.
It’s been a year no one wants to repeat but it seems many businesses will be better positioned for growth now than before. In what arguably defines entrepreneurialism in any circumstance, our events heard that being alive to new opportunities, and flexible enough to seize them, is a defining feature of businesses that have emerged from the pandemic and are looking towards the future with confidence.
I’ll leave the final word with a speaker who told us: “Nothing’s off the table in terms of our future direction – we’re looking at new markets, new tech, and new staff.”