How UK business is responding to COVID

‘New technologies don’t harness themselves… skills are the lifeblood of business’


Jonathan Geldart, Director general, Institute of Directors
By Jonathan Geldart, Director general, Institute of Directors

The coronavirus pandemic has curtailed demand, upended business models, cast a pall over consumer confidence and generally knocked the knees out from under the economy. The challenge for directors, however, is only just beginning.

With restrictions continuing, it looks like a tough winter ahead for many firms. Even when, or if, a vaccine materialises, it’s still going to be rough underfoot. Despite government support, many organisations have had no choice but to rack up significant debt as they deal with the impact of lockdowns. Directors at these firms will be entering the post-pandemic world with precarious balance sheets.

Despite the considerable challenges, the UK’s business community is proving immensely resilient. “Never waste a good crisis” is a phrase I regularly hear when talking to directors from across the country. This mantra speaks to the true source of organisational resilience: it stems from the ability to be agile and innovate when confronted with seemingly insurmountable problems.

Already, scores of British companies have been making swift adjustments in response to the circumstances, not hesitating to upend well-worn business models to reach their customers.

Technology can transform, but not on its own

One of the key ways they have done so is by embracing digital technologies. Among Institute of Directors (IoD) members, more than a quarter have moved operations to online platforms, with a similar proportion creating new products and services altogether, all in a way they intend to keep in place after the pandemic. Meanwhile, almost three quarters said increased remote working was working well for them.

Clearly, capitalising on new technology can provide a key way to improve organisational resilience. As has often been observed, businesses are on the whole better set to deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19 than they would have been even ten years ago. Companies that had already tried remote-working tools and online delivery platforms came into the pandemic with a head start.

It’s no wonder that improving tax incentives for investment in new equipment and software has been a long-standing ask of IoD members; it pays to be ahead of the curve on emerging trends and ideas.

New technologies, however, don’t harness themselves. The people wielding them are even more important and skills are the lifeblood of business. It’s not just digital capabilities that have been under the spotlight in this crisis either, broader leadership skills have become all the more important. Remote working puts a different spin on managing teams, while the hardships brought about by the pandemic have put a premium on clear internal communication.

The secret to recovery is a broad skillset

The question, then, is how to ensure your organisation can find an edge in areas like digital technology and skills development. The answer starts at the top.

Ensuring there’s a strong and broad skillset at the executive level is pivotal. Recruitment is one side of the coin, but it’s just as important to embrace continuous development. No director is the finished article and we must all constantly be looking to up our game. Whether through rigorous training or connecting with fellow directors, none of us can afford not to keep learning.

Directors must be able to draw on as wide a range of perspectives as possible. Whether it’s achieved through a board or advisers, diversity of thought is fundamental to good corporate governance. This comes from embracing every type of diversity, from gender and ethnicity to neurological. It’s only through this broad view that business leaders can stay alive to their unknown unknowns and to the many opportunities that lie ahead, despite the pandemic.

There’s no doubt the economy is still well and truly under a cloud. With enough agility and perseverance, however, UK directors will be sure to find the silver lining.


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