This piece by Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M, see here
“Cap’n, she can’nae take much more of this.” Who would have thought that the much loved Scotty would capture the scene not of star trekking but the more earthly matter of the mood of business here on terra firma.
Make no mistake, the UK economic dashboard is blinking red, and the worry has to be that the latest virus projections push it to the point of overload.
Despite a generally positive set of measures from the Chancellor, last week’s new lockdown announcements delivered by the Prime Minister sent an ill wind through the streets of cities where workers were beginning the big return. The message of encouragement slammed into full reverse. Go home and prepare for lockdown.
That business plays the cards it is dealt is well known. Tell us the rules and we can get on with it. But the constant chop and change (and that’s not even considering the other big ticket item, Brexit) provides a mighty to-do list for the very best minds among us.
A critical consideration at the heart of this pertains to confidence. You know, things can only get better. Sorry, different leader but you get the point.
But perhaps in amongst the Prime Minister’s list of restrictions was a glimmer of what we might be playing for. We have a timeline to work with. About six months.
And there is good reason: in six months, the smart bet is on a working vaccine injecting its way through the world, plus the respiratory illness minefield of winter will be most likely behind us, and the fightback for the future could be in full swing.
So, the question then pertains to what do we do until then? Spend the time on survival, or plan how to thrive?
The educationist Sir Michael Barber has a view on this. He points to the darkest days of 1940 when “a small number of senior officials from the Ministry of Education requisitioned a few rooms in a hotel out of London and set about their task — to design a school system for after the war. The war lasted another five years, but the design provided the foundation for legislation in the last year of the war and the system after it.”
The “what comes next” question is immensely important in providing people with the confidence to back a positive take on the future. And it is crucial that the government engages business on not only the rules of the commercial siege, but critically the ideas that will help us break out of it.
The war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill made the point that “the future is unknowable but the past should give us hope”.
And the past really should give us hope. This is a nation that has a particular talent for business, and there are signals from this backstory pointing us to what we might do next.
Already this is a very promising year for business incorporations — the second quarter of 2020 has just delivered the largest Q2 year-on-year increase since 2012.
This reflects the pattern of the financial crisis a decade ago. The initial pain of recession provides a catalyst for people to give running a business a go. The “what happened next” was transformational. Huge numbers of people choosing to turn their back on established careers and make their own way.
What we also know is that the unfulfilled opportunity — much commented on at the time — was that a great many of these businesses could have scaled up by making hires to build their businesses, but didn’t.
You can imagine the impact of Britain’s five million small businesses each making a single hire on the projected menace of mass unemployment.
So, perhaps the true successor to furlough might be a “my first hire” campaign to help small firms go for growth, build teams, and benefit from operational capacity.
Time working from home shouldn’t be and is not time sat on our hands. In 1665, the plague closed the University of Cambridge. Isaac Newton was just one of the seventeenth century work-from-homers. He spent two years in lockdown in Lincolnshire working out calculus, the laws of motion, gravitation, the meaning of colour, and more.
How we approach these next six months therefore matters. Could they become the moment of the great reset: the re-design and the re-think?
The lesson of Star Trek’s fictional chief engineer Montgomery Scott was that no matter how seemingly overwhelming the odds were, he and his crewmates always somehow found a way through.
Triumph over adversity. It is the creed of the optimist, and enterprise needs it in the here and now — not just in the starships of the future.