In the Limelight: May ’20

May 1, 2020

With coronavirus redefining society, and having a similarly revisional effect on industry, Steven Hugill speaks to members of the North East business community about how sectors and organisations are flexing to combat COVID-19, and how their actions will help steer the commercial world to success when the pandemic abates

When the Big Brother house first opened its doors, Britain stepped into a new televisual world.

The show that spawned reality programming had a simple premise: manufactured isolation under the – increasingly loose – guise of scientific experimentation.

A laboratory for human study and petri dish for short-lived minor celebrity careers, Big Brother confined contestants to the same four walls, subjected them to rationed food supplies and voided physical contact with loved ones.

Shut off from the real world, the protagonists’ everyday lives were replaced by a new normal.

Some hated their time on the programme, others spoke of life- changing social and psychological values the show had instilled.

Whatever the experience, lessons were learned.

With Britain – at the time of writing – still under a coronavirus lockdown, the parallels between Big Brother and our present environment are strong.

Admittedly, our shopping lists aren’t dependent on succeeding in tasks, and our access to technology means we can speak to – and see – family and friends.

But, like Big Brother’s vast cast, we are living through a new normal.

An area where this switch is particularly visible is in the business world. Owing to the speed of COVID-19’s spread, organisations have had to act with haste.

Many have altered production methods, with a great number pivoting to support NHS needs.

The vast majority have also introduced home working, with huge swathes of businesses using Microsoft Teams and Zoom technology to maintain communication.

So, what will all this mean for business when the pandemic abates? Do the new ways of working and the resilience born from combatting COVID-19 really mean a new normal?

Mike Odysseas, founder and managing director of Stockton-based Odyssey Systems, thinks so.

His telecommunications business has experienced a spike in demand, particularly around support for home working.

“There will be far greater attention given to the potential of home working,” he says.

“Previously, employers may have said there was no need but now they can see it can help them become more efficient.

“Furthermore, the country’s infrastructure has zero issues with home working.”

Mike says the situation could have positive implications on productivity, with the increase in virtual meetings providing additional scope to mitigate environmental damage.

“For the last 15 to 20 years, there has been no increase in UK productivity,” says Mike, who’s 37-strong team began working from home prior to the coronavirus lockdown.

“This time might help give us an increase that we have been searching for; we can become an efficient nation.

“Also, being able to look out of the window and see a massive reduction in unnecessary traffic and people doing two-hour commutes – the world is a better place for that,” he adds.

If the COVID-19 outbreak represents
a possible watershed moment in the way companies view home working, it will perhaps mark a more permanent reshaping of the UK’s retail sector.

With high street staples such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Oasis, Warehouse and BrightHouse all succumbing to administration, and Cath Kidston embroiled in its own insolvency process, an already difficult trading landscape has been made even harsher by coronavirus.

For Gateshead-based retail expert Graham Soult, the situation paints a worrying picture for the larger players, with the present lockdown a further financial burden on reserves already hit hard by fluctuating consumer spending and rental and tax outgoings.

However, he says the pandemic may ultimately prove positive for independent retailers, with their COVID-19-enforced innovations attracting great appreciation.

“Operators like Debenham’s, Cath Kidston and BrightHouse were already teetering on the brink and coronavirus appears to have pushed them over the edge,” says Graham, who is owner and founder of retail consultancy

“But there are some companies that have done well; supermarkets have spoken to customers in plain English and clearly explained how they can help.

“A lot of independents have also found new ways to serve customers, whether that’s through deliveries, moving online or by using Facebook to communicate.

“It is quite likely some of the measures will stick in the future,” he continues.

“There is a lot of resilience and a lot of determination.”

Graham says Sports Direct’s misjudged attempts to remain open during the pandemic and Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin’s advice that staff should take work at Tesco amid pay delays have also given the public even greater incentive to support smaller operators.

“I sense quite a significant change in dynamic in terms of people wanting businesses to do the right thing,” he adds.

“It might be that such actions could be the prompt that people need to turn ethical shopping into the mainstream.”

If the retail sector has choppy waters to cross, the region’s entrepreneurial community, says Jonathan Lamb, stands ready to ride the storm.

The chief executive of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum says the member organisation’s wealth of experience and spirit to succeed means companies and ventures can withstand any COVID-19 legacy.

“A lot of our members have been through previous crises, whether that be the oil price crash in 2014/2015, the last financial crash or the recession in the early 1990s,” he says.

“Our people can take advantage of this experience and learn how their peers managed things like internal communications and wellness.

To aid members’ progress in the lockdown, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum set up a support hub wherein Zoom video meetings have provided advice on subjects such as cashflow, leadership and social media.

However, while that venture is helping its members of today, Jonathan says the lockdown can also be a trigger for the businesspeople of tomorrow.

Citing the liquidation of Redcar steelmaker SSI UK, which proved the catalyst for numerous start-up companies, Jonathan says the present stymied environment presents an opportunity for people to revise their career paths.

“It’s important at this time that people do not feel that their options are being closed down,” he adds.

“There were hundreds of businesses that started as a result of the closure of SSI UK, many of which have done very well.

“It is important that we don’t take a bleak view of the future; 2020 will be a difficult year, but 2021 can be a brilliant year.

“If you are a great business, a great leader or a great entrepreneur, you will navigate your way through this period.”

North East Times recognises that the COVID-19 situation, responses and impact are ever changing. This information was correct at time of print (April 24).

Odyssey Systems

Canny Insights

Entrepreneurs’ Forum

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