The biggest mistake that businesses and government could make during this pandemic is to be cautious. This is a time to be brave, to settle quickly on an evidence-based view of where the economy and our own businesses are going, and take decisive action on foot of this.
For now, speed over elegance is essential. We must not watch, wait and hope that the future becomes clearer next month, or later this year. At a time of change and unpredictability such as this, standing still provides the biggest threat to businesses.
The importance of acting fast is recognised fully in the programme for government. The proposed “July stimulus” makes clear that recovery measures start now. There will be an SME and State bodies group to co-ordinate the response for small and medium-sized companies, and the identification of sectors with the greatest growth and employment prospects.
There will be legislation for a new €2 billion credit guarantee scheme and measures to help companies in accessing credit and capital to support retention and creation of jobs. Many other business-support mechanisms are mentioned: the key is to make them happen as close to “right now” as possible.
Just as with government, all of us involved in running a business – be it an airline or a coffee shop, a car dealership or a professional services firm – must make big decisions right now, with the imperfect data that is available.
And whoever ends up in government during this extraordinary time must also take quick and decisive action on how to support businesses. This will be a difficult process, but it is one that must be completed to ensure the huge State spending that will be needed to reboot the economy is used effectively.
In our own business when the crisis hit, we made a quick assessment of where things were going and then made our initial decisions. When the first announcement came on March 12th, we introduced rapidly systems to allow our teams work efficiently and effectively from home. As the first weeks passed we saw that what had been expected to be temporary was medium or long term. In a work environment which no longer has much face-to-face contact, precise and clear communication is vital; hence we are strengthening our internal communications capability at every level across the organisation.
We then moved to ensure our talent development activities could take place in a virtual world. As an example, we have already provided an online induction programme for new joiners – connecting with people as they start their careers with us has never been more important in helping them understand our culture and values.
Overall, in our response to these unprecedented times, we have been guided by three core principles: protecting our people; serving our clients; and continuing to have a sustainable and thriving business.
Trends in the market that were already in motion have been significantly accelerated through Covid-19, for example the use of cloud or digital technology. Few clients can operate without wholly-automated processes within their business. The acceleration of these trends requires a sharp focus on transformation within businesses in our economy and we will have to adjust the services we provide to ensure we are fully aligned to this change in demand.
We are also reviewing constantly the future of the workplace. We have 3,000 staff working effectively at home. And at this point none of us knows what our business’s workplace will look like in 12 months, or in two years. But we must decide on the most likely future based on current data and work towards that.
We advise clients all the time on dealing with change, disruption and innovation. Now we are all dealing with it ourselves every day. Our strong advice to business now is to assess the evidence carefully but quickly, form a hypothesis about your future market and business environment and act on that.
Seize new opportunities now. If the facts change, then change with them. As leaders of businesses we must all use this time to ensure that we are preparing our companies to be ready for a post-pandemic world.
The very same principle applies to government. It must be firm in deciding how and to whom to allocate the large amount of financial support it will be putting behind the rebooting of our economy. Ultimately, all of the borrowed money will have to be paid back. The government must be careful how it uses it.
Lobbying for less regulation
As a political task, this should not be underestimated. It will require a new relationship between business and government. Traditional business representative bodies can no longer confine themselves to lobbying for less regulation or taxation. They must become high-quality channels of communication to government on all aspects of their business sector.
Equally, government will have to become more comfortable in how it engages with business and can invest to support the development of Ireland Inc through this crisis. We are an entrepreneurial, inclusive and courageous nation and harnessing those values will be critical to us retaining our role at the centre of the global economy. The SME and state bodies group proposed in the government programme is a welcome step.
For businesses, there is a fundamental need to look carefully at how staff are motivated into the future. Some people have found this period challenging and difficult. Their incomes are down, they are worried about the future and their mental health may be under pressure. Others have been lucky enough to find elements of the lockdown energising. They have re-examined priorities and thought carefully about their attitudes to work.
I believe that as we emerge from this, businesses need more than ever to ensure they can motivate their staff with a sense of real purpose. High-quality staff may now be even less likely to work all day motivated by the company’s wish to maximise revenue and profit. Modern business must have a very clear, credible and sincere statement of purpose that they believe in and work towards, from the top down.
Before this spring I, like many other business leaders, was looking at how we could transform our business to be ready for the future. We were advising our clients on how to do the same thing.
Now, businesses and Government are no longer planning a future transformation – they are making the changes right now, every day, and working with others who are doing the same. As John Lennon told us, "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans".