Published On: Fri, Jun 19th, 2020

Building back better

Many business leaders believe the key theme of the coming months will be how to ‘build back better.’

Returning to work after a lockdown enables many businesses to re-set and almost start from a blank piece of paper. Many business leaders believe the key theme of the coming months will be not simply how to rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic – but how to build back better. The lockdown has been a time for reflection, the business mind never switches off. This has especially been the case for entrepreneurial business people who have been plotting their next adventure or planning key strategic changes to their existing business model.

Top of many executives list is the issues surrounding human resources. The shutdown of many factories has highlighted the true cost of labour. The furlough scheme has helped soften the true financial burden of an unproductive workforce. One of the biggest challenges moving forward revolves around how companies treat staff. The longer the crisis drags on, the more important treatment of the workforce will be.

On the one extreme you could follow the entrepreneurial ‘disruptor’ Sam Altman formerly of Y-Combinator – the American seed money start-up accelerator behind household names such as ‘Airbnb and Dropbox’. He firmly believes automation will take away the jobs from all of us: “What happens if you just give people money to live on? What happens if you give people enough money to have a home and eat and have fun? Someone doing mechanical labour maybe not fulfilling their aspirations and dreams. Society will have to change dramatically. We can generate more wealth to allow this…” In Altman’s world firms would become more efficient and generate more wealth, this would then be taxed accordingly generating funds to pay for individuals to basically ‘no nothing’. This is extreme, however, when it is plugged in to some of the production challenges of the current pandemic there are elements that become relevant.

There is an argument that some manufacturers of windows and doors would happily increase their investment in automation. It would be much easier to switch production on again after the lockdown if factories were fully automated. In fact, the greatest issues have centred around the re-incorporation of workers into the production process. There is evidence that the companies that have found returning to work the easiest are those who have invested the most in modern fabrication machinery. However as one commentator pointed out ‘working out what is the responsible things to do is hard – attitudes shift.’ – this dilemma is a growing issue as businesses and their owners often have a moral responsibility to employ workers.
There are of course opportunities to deploy workers in other areas where human labour is essential. Re-working of human resources cannot be ignored. We are a long way off workers carrying out mechanical duties being given the option to ‘do nothing’ as Sam Altman suggests, however there is scope to offer re-training programmes so they can deployed in other area of the business. Where increased automation can potentially overcome issues on the factory floor, the challenges in the office and sales environment are slightly more complex.

One of the major positives to emerge from the pandemic is the increase in remote and home working. This has the potential to be the single biggest change to millions of peoples working lives. The implications for both workers and employers are gargantuan, and even life changing. For those that have fully grasped the full potential of the available technology, their productivity has increased massively. Why would you drive half the length of the country for a hour sales meeting, when you can hold a demonstration on Zoom and post the client a sample? Even more logical when you consider the environmental impact of travel. Why would you pay for expensive office space when all your order processors can operate remotely? It is all very logical. The only real caveat being the lack of natural human interaction. It’s an area where businesses have to tread carefully. HR lawyers are currently on standby, where office workers are being forced to return to the workplace, to carry out roles that they have been performing perfectly well remotely. There has to be an acceptance by businesses that there is going to be a new working landscape and they must listen to the concerns and needs of their workers.

In the retail environment, changes also need to be made. From fitting to surveying, new procedures need to be implemented. Remote selling using visualisation software is a given. There are obvious concerns around precise measuring, and for this the process needs to work hand-in-hand with the procedures and rules implemented for the installing teams.

All businesses have a rare opportunity ‘to build back better’. However, we all hope time is running out though, as a return to the promised land of full order books and rampant sales won’t give us the time to consider these business changes…