The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to think differently. While lockdown measures designed to stop the spread of Covid-19 were frustrating – even if necessary – they did also offer opportunities to try out new ways of trading, and even paved the way for entirely new markets to be created.
Technology, of course, is at the core of both of these trends. Many companies have enhanced their online offerings. Indeed, the internet has allowed businesses to reach wider audiences when previously they may have been limited to localised footfall. A user-friendly app or website and an active social media presence have quickly escalated from being nice to have to being essential components of any modern business. This was the consensus reached at a recent online round-table event sponsored by NatWest and hosted by the New Statesman, which brought together several industry experts and policymakers.
Going forward, as the UK comes out of lockdown measures, many businesses are likely to keep their pandemic-induced changes in place. The most successful companies will be those that can be flexible and responsive. As Bally Bhogal, the managing director and principal instructor of BBX Fitness, noted at the round-table event: “We have to think on our feet.” There is now a growing expectation among consumers for more products and services to be available online, for more to be deliverable, for more to be customisable, and for all of them to meet new, higher standards of hygiene.
BBX, a company that runs workout programmes involving Bhangra music and dance moves, has thrived in lockdown. Bhogal said the pandemic had offered “some positives, as well as challenges”. The context of a public health crisis, she added, created a “renewed sense of urgency” around the fitness market. “People suddenly became more aware [about the importance of managing their health].” While BBX’s online offering grew, naturally, within the circumstances of lockdown, Bhogal pointed out that people had started to take “their weight and their general well-being more seriously”. Bhogal explained that her company’s next goal will be to upscale, something that might have been “unthinkable earlier on [at the start of lockdown]”.
Mark Hart, professor of small business and entrepreneurship at Aston University Business School and lead author on the NatWest-sponsored Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report regarding small business growth, said Covid-19 was as much a skills issue as a public health issue. He called for “our nascent and newly established companies to lead the way” in offering staff up-to-date training, and helping society to adjust to the new normal more quickly. “In many ways,” Hart added, “retaining is as important as recruitment. Existing staff need to be comfortable with the new technologies in the workplace.” Hart also suggested that entrepreneurship be “embedded” into school curriculums at an earlier stage.
The pandemic, according to Hart, has also offered companies the chance to “re-evaluate” their customer bases and explore new opportunities in how they took payments, “perhaps, for example, in the form of subscriptions”. Hart said he was “optimistic” about the UK’s post-pandemic recovery and nodded to the GEM report’s findings that the country ranked in the top third of the 43 economies surveyed – at 14th, two places behind the US – and ranked at the same standard as Germany.
Also in attendance at the round-table event was Paul Scully, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for small businesses, consumers and labour markets. Scully called for more collaboration between government, business and academia. Whether small businesses sank or swam, he said, relied on “steady access to reliable advice, access to finance [support], and infrastructure [such as good transport links and digital connectivity]”. Scully said he wanted to see a growth in “peer-to-peer networks and mentoring”, so that businesses that had already set a precedent during the pandemic could potentially help others to adapt and share their expertise. “That doesn’t mean that you need Richard Branson on the other end of the line,” he joked. “It could even just be talking to someone who is a year or 18 months ahead.”
The UK’s post-Covid recovery, ultimately, will require a resilience similar to that demonstrated after the 2008 global financial crash. Just as entrepreneurial spirit was required then to bounce back better and to try out new, novel ideas that later became mainstream, it will be needed again in 2021. Small to medium-sized enterprises – that is to say firms with fewer than 250 staff – represent 99 per cent of all UK business. It is vital that these companies are suitably supported with finance, leant at competitive yet affordable rates, and advised properly at every step of their journey. Banks have a role to play in facilitating conversations between policymakers, policy influencers, and between businesses themselves. It is a role that NatWest is relishing, and out of this crisis we are confident of delivering a more productive and prosperous future.