7 business lessons the pandemic can teach us

pivoting after disruption

While the last few months have been incredibly tough for businesses, hand-in-hand with disruption comes innovation.

The pace at which businesses have adapted has been astonishing, and we’ve all learnt new ways of working and collaborating.

As part of London Tech Week’s virtual event series, a panel of entrepreneurs and experts got together to share what they want to take forward from this period of disruption.

The discussion focused on the short-term disruption for businesses, the human disruption we’ve all faced as individuals and as customers and what the new normal might look like going forwards.

Packed with great insights, we’ve summarised the expert’s seven key business lessons the pandemic can teach us.

Panellists included:

  • Rob Chapman, CEO Founders Intelligence (RC)
  • Caroline Plumb, CEO and co-founder of Fluidly (CP)
  • Felicity March, Director of Resilience and Security at IBM (FM)
  • Gori Yahaya, CEO and founder of Upskill Digital (GY)
  • Adrian Criddle, VP and General Manager at Intel (AC)

1. Invest in your people

GY: “Businesses that we see that are doing well are those that understand the importance of investing in their people. Understanding that roles are beginning to shift, based on having to adapt to the crisis, and being able to upskill and onboard employees quickly is so important. We’ve seen incredible levels of agility.

“Even some of our own leaders internally have this itch to want to pivot and want to learn quickly. Clearly nobody wants a crisis to happen, but it’s an itch to want to flex that creative prowess.”

2. Keep agility

RC: “Some of our clients have delivered projects that were slated for six months, 12 months, or longer and delivered them in two weeks. They’ve suddenly learnt that with a clear purpose and aligned, small teams working hard, you can get amazing things done quickly.

AC: “If the nightingale hospital can be built in 10-15 days, why does my next pricing tool for my sales team take one year to roll out? There’s a whole pivot shift, and sense of agility.

“It’s a new norm now in how a job description is written that you want this innovative, creative, multi-dimensional inclusion.”

3. Be flexible

FM: “Business continuity plans typically get left in a drawer and no one gives much thought to them. So one thing we have learnt is getting companies to really understand how they need to be flexible, not just in where the workforce sits or the types of things they’re doing each day but also the skills. A lot of skill requirements have changed.

“We don’t say the new normal in IBM, we say the next normal. We’ve got a concept of ‘emerge smarter’, we want to think about how we can do things better and the usual blockers of where people would hunt for jobs (because of commutes or childcare) we can now make sure aren’t there so we have better diversity and inclusion.

“We know what the current and next normal is but then we may have to adapt again. One thing I would urge is make sure you have that flexibility to flex to where we’re going next.”

4. Focus on inclusion

RC: “The last few weeks have really shone a spotlight on the need for greater inclusion and diversity, particularly in tech. What can we learn and take from this crisis to get better?”

GY: “We run a number of programmes where we’re trying to raise awareness of the challenges of an inclusion barrier. What crisis unfortunately does to some leaders, is it makes them revert back to comfort zones and pre-existing networks. What people need to be aware of is all things really aren’t equal.

“Investing in programmes that minimise hiring biases can be really beneficial. As you’re building for a team that is going to have the skills you need in the future, you need to think about whether you are investing in the platforms and networks that will get you access to the right people. There is talent out there. Businesses often think they’ve put a job out there to everyone but it’s not actually as accessible as you might believe it is.”

CP: “I think the Black Lives Matter campaign has prompted debate in my leadership team to say we’re not doing enough and to ask how we can do more. It’s very easy when you’re recruiting and under time-pressure (as startups often are) to recruit through networks and that is one of the least inclusive things that you can do. So one of the questions we’re asking is what are we doing to break some of these cycles?

5. Break free from routine

CP: “Humans are creatures of routine, we tend to have the same morning routine for instance and we like that. But, to get any form of innovation you have to break that routine. I remember teaching my daughter to play cards and the first question out of her mouth was ‘Why does the king rank higher than the queen’ which was such a good point, but I’d never thought about it. It just became an accepted status quo that you absorb into your knowledge without properly recognising the implicit bias.

“Trying to break routines is really important to driving diversity and innovation, and the good thing about a pandemic is that it forces change. You’ve reached a breakpoint and you can use it to unconstrain your thinking and get tremendous creativity.

6. Be more human

AC: “We’ve tried to empathise with the team and the people. I challenged our HQ because they gave out a structured format for how to do video calls, and it said make sure you have a perfect white wall behind you but giving people permission that it’s OK for children or dogs or a shabby bookcase to appear, gives everything a much more human element.

“I’ve reached all through the organisation and in the first few weeks I did 120 one-on-ones just to check in with people, not work-related but asking how people were, how many people do you have to take care of. I hope working life will be a better place as everything is more humanised than it was before.”

FM: “I’ve learnt more about my colleagues in the last few months, it’s like how it was years ago where you had a ‘work family’. At IBM we say bring your whole self to work, bring your kids or your dog. And it’s so powerful we actually know each other as humans again.”

7. Keep innovating

FM: “Looking forward, I passionately feel we need some standards around personal, technical and business resilience as a leader, you should have to be able to demonstrate how quickly you can get back up if you’re knocked down.”

GY: “In our business, we’re trying to look at the new normal, and for me as an entrepreneur and a stoic our organisation regularly looks at the current climate and we then evolve our proposition to adapt to what our clients need. So new normal for us is just normal. We continuously try to evolve and continuously try to help clients evolve. We have to be super quick and agile and once you feel comfortable with this, you can empower your human capital to do the same thing which helps you stay ahead of the curve.

“We look to build culture carriers, who can carry your business culture whatever is going on.”

FM: “We’ve seen huge innovation and I love it, all the barriers are broken down.”

CP: “One of my favourite stories is from a while ago. A business called The Jubilee Project asked adults ‘If you could change one thing about your body what would it be?’ and the answers were things like ‘Be taller’. They then asked children and they said things like ‘I want a shark’s mouth so I can eat loads of food’ or ‘A mermaid’s tail so I can swim faster’.

“We tend to see substitutions, savings of time and cost, we tend to fix things as adults, but I think the real innovation comes from additions. How do you create a superpower? This kind of change is a time to create a new layer, a new set of superheroes. I think it’s quite exciting to see what innovation is going to be out there.”