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Preparing for the Unknown: Life after COVID-19

7 MINUTE READ | May 14, 2020

Preparing for the Unknown: Life after COVID-19

What can we be doing now to build for success after?

As the UK enters what it hopes are the final stages of lockdown, our definition of the ‘new normal’ must be reconsidered to help boost the economy and assuage people’s current fears. 

Throughout the containment period, our days became blurred and new routines were formed as the country sought inventive ways to keep busy. The only constant was change; every act we took pivoted on, or was conducted in reference to the specific effect of COVID-19 was having on us.

Government rhetoric and a whole new vocabulary around COVID-19 suggested it was the great ‘leveller’ uniting the nation. But this ignored the contrast between those who could keep working and those who couldn’t, causing a disjunct between people’s reality — the situation they had to deal with, and what they were hearing from politicians and opinion formers.

Business has carried on through an array of bespoke, adaptive setups for those able to work from home; parents are learning to balance work with childcare and homeschooling, while others are navigating the new normal alongside housemates, partners, and other family. This new focus on working shines a light on how our economy may work post-pandemic. For some businesses, this presents an opportunity to remodel its operations creatively to capitalise on recent learnings, whilst for others this could mean the end of the road.

There are those who have faced unemployment because their work wasn’t deemed ‘essential’. Others, who have been furloughed (a key word of the new vocabulary) may be questioning their company’s futures. And then there are the employees that may be safe in terms of their employment status, but at the highest risk of their safety— healthcare workers, shop assistants, bus drivers, etc. Despite COVID-19, these brave individuals are at the frontlines of this battle, treating the sick or meeting the needs of things that must go on. While they may have retained their income for now, the future is uncertain.

Businesses are fast-learning that scale doesn’t necessarily protect their viability during such emergencies. Smaller companies have often been fleeter of foot about adapting to retain customers, exploiting digital marketing, and developing new partnerships. But in the end, no one is automatically safe. Entrepreneurs who have worked hard to build businesses now question whether these can withstand months of uncertainty and reduced amounts of customers. Worse still, there are whole industries whose future looks very different compared to only three months ago. Whatever the scale and specialty, the business world is sharing a sense of shock and unpreparedness which even HMRC financial support can’t reassure.

Of the unlikely successes, the Health and Fitness industry has experienced a boom in interest from people using exercise as a respite from restricted home lives and increased stress. The challenge for gyms offering free workouts on social media is how to convert this heightened demand into practical steps that will see people coming back through the door, happy to pay again. What has been offered for free during lockdown might easily become the ‘given’ in the minds of cash-strapped consumers; these businesses will have to be very clear how a reversion to their previous model can offer added value. 

Now more than ever, people are looking to old fashioned leadership for answers, with the BBC’s daily 5 pm ministerial broadcasts becoming as important as its radio equivalents were during WW2. Yet there’s a contradiction between what we feel we need and hearing factually that this crisis isn’t getting better; we are no longer a nation that trusts our leaders in the same way that we once did. 

The broadcasts are also a point of constant comparison between the UK and other countries. What is our response to social distancing, to lockdown, to maintaining calm, to lifting measures, to ensuring the nation’s safety while the economy is suffering? Why are more people dying here? And what will the long-term impact of COVID-19 be for everyone?

Whilst there are hundreds, if not thousands, of hours’ worth of reading on the subject, ultimately this global pandemic is unlike anything we have ever encountered. Therefore, there is no definitive answer (or reassurance) for what will happen next. We can look to other disruptions for some idea of what to expect and the steps that may need to be taken to recover, but there are still many open-ended questions to be answered.

The IMF has predicted the impact of COVID-19 will be “the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis”. But really, it will only be when countries begin to lift lockdown measures that the true impact on the economy will be revealed. The impact of a recession will be felt differently from one industry to the next, and from the scale of each business to the next. It’s likely given a gradual approach to lockdown in the UK, that some of these will have a head start on others. 

Aside from adhering to government policies on social distancing, companies will need to think differently about how they reach out to their customers.

A principal point of reference is the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which was one of the most significant banking challenges faced, where the impact could be seen on a global scale. The effect on the UK economy was substantial, with multiple banks requiring the government’s rescue. As thousands of businesses closed and millions lost their jobs, a recession was inevitable and at the final count, The Bank of England cited the cost to the UK at £7trillion in lost output, a sum of money that is incomprehensible. 

The impact of this crisis went beyond the financial as thousands of people lost their life savings and pensions; the crash was also a catalyst to a lack of trust in the banking sector. Consequences of this included stricter regulations and new standards to ensure greater protection for all. The Financial Stability Board (FSB) was established in 2009 (since re-established as the FSCA) as a response to the crisis. The FSB now works with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide transparency, stability, and support to countries in and out of a crisis.

In the current climate, this is something much needed by all. But now, we are different in how we think and work. How relevant is this to today? What can we utilise from what happened over a decade ago to try to exit positively from this COVID-19 crisis? 

It takes an average of 66 days to form a habit, which means there will be plenty of new behaviours that arise as we maintain lockdown. Corporations that have reaped the benefit of staff working from home will need to understand what aspects of this flexibility can be taken forward into a new model of working. It is not enough to simply return to what was, at one point — default; instead, balancing previous successes with new opportunities will be crucial.

Consumers whose financial situations have changed face new priorities and, more than ever, will be looking for value and authenticity in their buying decisions. Companies that communicate regularly and ensure their customers are looked after, will be remembered and have loyalty retained.

Businesses more likely to thrive will go beyond simply adapting old working and marketing models. They will make bold decisions about how they work, where they work, and who they collaborate with to create new strategies.

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Just as there has been no single solution to dealing with COVID-19 in the present, there will be no fixed formula for dealing with life in the future, post-pandemic. One thing’s for certain, though — everyone from local businesses through to multinationals must be ready to adapt long-term to the new ‘new normal’.

Posted by: Alice Rapley

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