The Snapshot: Coronavirus – What have we learned so far?

  • Big Thinking

We asked business leaders including Sir Tim Smit, James Timpson and Ben Page as well as our international correspondents Thandi Dyani and Ekaterina Khaletskaya what they’ve learned so far from this crisis, and what they hope might come next.

“We need to shop, we need to live and we need to be part of a community.”

James Timpson OBE | Chief Exec of Timpson | Locked down in Cheshire

The crisis has had a dramatic impact on our business. On March 14 I was running a business that was very confident, had a very strong culture, and a very strong future. Now I see a business on its knees.

I know that one day it will stand on its own two feet again. I have 5,500 colleagues who are currently sitting at home, spending time with their families, and looking forward to getting back to work. We are a family business and that extends to cover every one of my colleagues, so during a crisis like this I need to make sure they’re cared for. I’m concerned for their mental health so we’ve been communicating a lot with everyone to keep them supported and we’re doing social activities like karaoke competitions and bake-offs too. Before the furlough scheme was announced we had already decided to keep everyone on full pay through this crisis – we don’t want our people to worry about their finances.

I know that the world will return to normal. My kids will go back to university. They will go to bars, kebab shops and maybe even the library. Customers will come in to our shops; maybe fewer for the next year or two, but we need to shop, we need to live and we need to be part of a community.

It’s hard to take positives out of a crisis that has affected so many. But for me it’s been good to get a sense of how much my colleagues love their jobs, how much they’re looking forward to coming back to work, and how my senior team have performed. Things happened so quickly we needed to be on our game… and we were. From a personal point of view being at home with our kids has been an experience I’m grateful for. They will soon all fly the nest so this may be the last time we have them all together, for weeks on end, having time to talk and laugh together.


Thandi Dyani,  Leader of impact investments for the One Life Foundation and CEO of Impact Hub Johannesburg | Locked down in Copenhagen

This crisis is definitely a turning point in the relationship between business and society. Businesses are realising that we’re all vulnerable to what nature wants and they need multiple stakeholders from and around society to exist. I hope that this can be a wakeup call for many who think that the only business of business is business. It is about their employees and value chains – having products and services that serve society.

In some ways, the pandemic has hit places that are normally privileged and ‘above’ visible impact from issues like climate change. But it’s showcasing the divide in the world in a subtle way – how people can or can’t distance themselves from each other; how they can or can’t work online, with a steady fibre connection; how they can or can’t stock up on essentials. There’s also a more negative impact on human rights in many places. Maybe the silver lining is that this pandemic is amplifying inequality in all of its ugliness – it’s more visible. Perhaps everyone will finally act more responsibly towards people and the planet after this.

It’s been interesting that businesses that don’t believe in the flexibility of taking some meetings online or letting their employees work from home really have had to rethink everything rather quickly. In this new system, there’s much more acceptance on how we work and where, how to accommodate our processes to a more balanced structure where we are more honest about our lives – we’re on Zoom with kids and chickens and doing meetings in the kitchen. The good thing is that it’s made us more aware of mental health – in my team and our community, checking in on how we all are, actually comes before business now.

In some ways, the pandemic has hit places that are normally privileged and ‘above’ visible impact from issues like climate change.

'Sustainability, and the balance between purpose and profit, will become a new paradigm for any business.'

Ekaterina Khaletskaya, | Co-founder and CEO of Moscow’s Impact Hub | Locked down in Moscow

Businesses are trying to fill in the gaps governments don’t have the capacity to deal with, and in order to maintain the loyalty of the customers after the crisis, businesses will have to demonstrate that it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. There’s no going back. Corporate social responsibility will have to extend beyond its departmental side function and become the core of the company. Our view is that sustainability, and the balance between purpose and profit, will become a new paradigm for any business.

The Covid-19 crisis has sped up the process for big businesses recognising the responsibility they have in their communities. For example Tochka bank, a Russian digital bank primarily working with small and micro businesses, launched a Covid-19 fund promising a one-time stimulus payment to businesses affected by the pandemic. Yandex, the largest technology company in Russia, has announced that it will offer free coronavirus testing countrywide. Russian companies, like those around the world, have quickly found a way to shoulder responsibility.

What we’re most worried about is the impact on business that can’t flip to an online model. Some social enterprises that we mentor – like art studios and inclusive restaurants employing people with disabilities – won’t be able to fully transfer their services online, otherwise they’ll deviate from their mission. Some offline businesses will continue existing though – but they might move to a ‘luxury’ segment as in-person, live interaction will become more valued. Others will require more support and new ways of collaborating with big businesses and local communities to stay afloat.

We believe that despite the rough beginning, people starting their micro-businesses now will repatch the economy later. Weathering this storm won’t be easy, and the cost will be high, but eventually, just like any crisis before, it will foster innovation and the development of new business models.

"There’s a chance that we might decide not to return to our previous mode of GDP growth at any cost."

Ben Page | CEO of Ipsos MORI | Locked down in SW London

The most visible effect of this situation for us as an organisation has been in massive digital acceleration as we stop face to face interviewing for the time being, and move to being an entirely virtual operation. We’ve always had great collaboration but it’s been even better now that everyone is on the same footing. Divisional boundaries seem to matter less, plus there’s a much closer connection between senior leadership and the company as we move to weekly all-staff webinars rather than every 3 months – the tech has facilitated that.

I think as an organisation, we’ll use our offices less now that we know we can get work done in more creative ways. We were already championing flexible and home working before C19 but this experience has meant that the new default is likely to be working at home, rather than the other way around. Our offices will be used for in person collaboration when its vital, and we’ll stick with a lot more virtual meetings, less business travel, more virtual tools for collaboration.

Are there any positive takeaways? Well we’ve learnt that a slower pace, less pollution, less traffic, less travel can be satisfying. We’ve discovered that fast fashion, eating out all the time and flying constantly are not necessarily the key to happiness. There’s a chance that we might decide not to return to our previous mode of GDP growth at any cost.  Perhaps instead we’ll look to rebalance society in favour of the groups who have been shown to be vital in the crisis – but often the worst paid. We could do as Milan has said it will; reset and remake our cities and our communities with a focus on human health and the climate. On the other hand, most predictions are wrong so it is perfectly possible that we end up racing for more construction to stimulate growth at any cost more subsidies for polluting industries if they provide jobs and so on. Carbon emissions shot up again after the 2008 recovery so I guess we have to wait and see.

Maurice Ward, Berwick-upon-Tweed, financial manager of Berwick Film Society and Fellow of the RSA

After going through this, we’ll ask different questions of the state. People talk about Covid-19 like it’s a war – and look at what came out of WWII – the NHS and the welfare state. Those schemes were developed in the middle of the war – so why isn’t the government working on health and inequality now?

I’m intrigued by the potential for greater ‘pro-social behaviour’ in businesses, and our chance to harness collective spirit. I’ve run businesses throughout my career and have seen that the trend is to value the rights of the individual very highly. That’s a balance we’ve got wrong – we focus far too much on individualism and the market economy. This situation is a great time for change, and potentially radical change. We’re being shown how many people can be affected by the actions of a single organisation. Not just management and employees but suppliers and customers – all have some kind of a stake. So let’s have a future where businesses are no longer owned by and working for the interests of an elite group of shareholders – it should work for all stakeholders.

In my town it’s usually impossible to get a doctor’s appointment – and the nearest proper emergency department is 60 miles away. But now suddenly we’ve got online appointments and remote diagnosing. We clearly have the power, skills and knowledge needed for large-scale, life-changing innovation. There are many powerful voices saying things have got to change – we just need to make sure it happens.

"The massive takeaway for us professionally and personally is a newfound appreciation for the ‘local’."

Sir Tim Smit KBE | Co-founder of The Eden Project, Director at The Lost Gardens of Heligan and Owner of The Shipwreck Museum | Locked down in Cornwall  

Across our organisations, we have nearly 600 people furloughed through what would have been a very busy season. If Eden opens we think it will be in the middle of summer, and we’ll need to have far fewer visitors and time ticketed visits. In no time at it’ll be autumn and then back to praying for financial survival through winter; hoping that the Exchequer understands seasonality of trade.

The human cost is less about the initial financial impact, it’s the emotional context of missing time spent with colleagues and friends, and the simple joys of the craic of being alive and sharing experiences. Most people are reading, watching, eating and drinking more but also reflecting on whether lives are well led. It feels like many are suddenly aware of how beautiful their place is; the hedgerows, the birdsong and the absence of noise pollution.

We will survive this but throughout this experience has reaffirmed to people how much they value friendships, families and the simple act of time spent together. For business this means putting more thought into the meaning of things, the moments you create, the rootedness that people want in their lives.

Our great gardens have been turned into hives of volunteers where our ranks of pristine heritage vegetables and exotic flowers have been given over to rows and rows of vegetables for an  organisation called People and Gardens to get them to those in need. Fresh vegetables are so expensive that their business was under real pressure before this, but now Eden and Heligan can help. It’s grand and it reminds you that this is about real people and growing real food.

The massive takeaway for us professionally and personally is a newfound appreciation for the ‘local’. Overnight, almost everyone we know wants our expertise, support and services rather than going out and engaging with some distant global market. This is immensely powerful and sows the seeds for a massive reimagining of our business model as a nation. Suddenly there will be an appetite for local investment, decentralised utilities and collaborative production. It’s really interesting looking at your supply chain and exploring how radical you can be to protect it make it even more local. This would otherwise probably have taken thirty years, but now we have new normal. It feels right.

As told to Fiona Shaw and Sophie Gwynne. This is the first feature in an on-going conversation about the impact of Covid-19 on business. If you’d like to contribute, get in touch at [email protected]

“This situation is a great time for change, and potentially radical change.”


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