When we finally see the gradual easing of lockdown measures, many small firms will finally able to get back to business. But it will be a very different world, with many practical considerations to think about. Jo Faragher explains.
Last spring, life turned upside down for Scott Souster, who runs bespoke tailoring service Souster & Hicks. “We had a full book of appointments for wedding suits that were cancelled,” he says. “Since then, there have been no events and not a lot of people going into the office. The only people we can make things for are the ones we already have measurements for, as we can’t get close to customers.”
Souster & Hicks has reopened since lockdown eased in April, but Mr Souster admits it’s a very different world. “The market has changed, so we’ve refitted the shop to showcase more casual clothes,” he adds. “But there’s the risk we go back into lockdown and we’ve spent this money for nothing.”
Many small businesses remain uneasy. The pace of vaccination and reduction in cases has been cause for some confidence, but they know we are not likely to return to the way things were before. According to Santander research, only two in five ( 42 per cent) of small businesses have fully continued operations since the outbreak of the pandemic; on average, SMEs have seen their profits slump by 16.5 per cent. Extensions to the Government’s furlough scheme and business loans have helped many to keep going, but the coming months will require practical adjustments in terms of health and safety, as well as preparing everyone mentally to cope with the changes ahead.
“Small businesses are still fighting fires daily,” says Chris Biggs, partner at accounting company Theta Global Advisors. “Turnover may be increasing, but there’s still uncertainty.
Some might be dealing with questions over whether to return to offices, while others are wondering whether to shift online. If they have no cash reserves, these are high-stakes decisions.”
Get it right, however, and the next few months could prove successful for small businesses – Theta’s own research shows that two-thirds of Britons have more trust in small businesses since the pandemic, while 19 per cent of small businesses have managed to win new clients during the past year.
Learning to adapt
Roz Chandler, who runs floristry business Field Gate Flowers, took a gamble when the wedding cancellations hit last year. She began offering online courses in wreath-making, and has launched an eight-month business course that trains people to become flower-farmers. “I wanted to show people how to make money from flowers – this helps them with everything from marketing strategy to social media and pricing,” she says.
Her wedding work will return this summer and she has set up her courses as a separate business, flexing her workforce with freelance staff. Santander has worked with similar businesses that have pivoted online, according to Head of Business Banking Susan Davies. “These are businesses that adapted to the circumstances and found new ways to keep serving their customers, which they’ll continue even when they can reopen and attend face-to-face events again,” she says.
One of the biggest shifts has been the move to home working, and location will be a major consideration for many. John Williams, director of workspace consultancy The Instant Group, predicts workers will “vote with their feet”. The company’s research found that 57 per cent of workers would prefer an office closer to home, with many favouring a hybrid approach where they connect with colleagues at the office but do some work at home.
There are clear cost savings to be gained from reduced office space, but consult employees first, says Mr Williams. “It is going to be a process of ‘test and learn’ to understand when staff come back, how they use workspace in the future, and what companies have to do to re-engage with them,” he explains. “This process will take anything up to two years to play out, so I would not imagine any hard answers before then.”
The transition back to a physical workplace may create some anxiety. This may be heightened for staff who have been on furlough for an extended period, says Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. “For some, it will feel like taking a new job again,” he says. “Doubts about skill levels, understanding and ability will creep in. If not addressed positively, this will fuel anxiety.”
Some may also require some reskilling and patience. “The body may not be as physically able or skilled to perform the tasks as well as before the pandemic,” he points out. “This may exasperate people and give rise to incidents.
People need a period to get match-fit again; employers need to consider this in their back-to-work plans.”
The best way to deal with anxieties is to keep up lines of communication, he concludes. “Bosses need to be honest that they are feeling this way, too,” he says. “If things are in the open, they can be seen as a collective challenge and everyone can find supportive solutions.”
Many businesses have survived the past year by having an open mind and being flexible within the restrictions placed upon them. The next few months might not be a breeze, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Mapping the way forward
“In the space of 24 hours, we lost 95 per cent of our orders. Our customers couldn’t do anything with our stock so had no other option but to cancel,” says Emma Goss-Custard, founder of gluten-free bakery Honeybuns. Its clients were airlines and hospitality businesses, so when the Government grounded planes and announced full lockdown, everything felt like it was in freefall.
As soon as she was able, Ms Goss-Custard placed all of her staff on furlough. The business had managed to free itself of debts, so had a buffer of previous profits on which it could survive. “Within months, two of our wholesalers had gone bust and people we’d worked with for a long time were in tears,” she says.
She developed a SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis to work out how to move forward. This identified weaknesses in Honeybuns’s online presence, which needed investment in digital advertising and search engine optimisation, as well as opportunities in terms of leveraging social media and positioning products for a new audience. Honeybuns now sells cake-building sets, collaborates with vegan candlemakers for gifts, and is looking into offering a subscription service.
As lockdown eases, the company will begin to work with wholesalers again and has already been asked to send samples to stadia and hospital cafés. Ms Goss-Custard is reassuring employees that safety procedures will be in place and that the working week will be more flexible. The key to success, however, is innovation. “When food service opens up again they’ll want to see what new stuff we have, and if we don’t think about that it will be a problem,” she says.
Reducing the risk
As government guidance that employees work from home comes to an end, there is likely to be a review into social distancing and other safety measures, says Hannah Thomas, a solicitor at FSB Legal.
“The results of the review will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on 1m+ distancing, face coverings and other measures may be lifted,” she explains, adding that people should continue to work from home where possible until guidance changes. Clinically extremely vulnerable workers who cannot do so should be offered the safest available on-site roles or be offered furlough, which is extended until 30 September.
From 6 April, employers with more than 10 staff in England have been able to access free lateral flow Covid-19 tests. Results from these tests are available within 30 minutes and if an employee tests positive they should self-isolate and seek a confirmatory PCR test. Similar testing facilities are available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Around one in 20 people are likely to suffer from ‘long Covid’ after having coronavirus, according to researchers at King’s College London. The condition is still not well understood, but it’s thought there are around 25 symptoms associated, including breathlessness, fatigue and nausea.
“Part of the difficulty for employers is that the symptoms come and go; people will feel fine for a few weeks and then have a setback,” says Christine Husbands, Managing Director of FSB Care. “They need to be open-minded, offering flexibility and understanding if people aren’t able to commute or come back to work.”