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Business management

Looking forward to a world of change

A panel of entrepreneurs and bank experts met recently to discuss how businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic can change their thinking to build back up sustainably and ethically.

Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of digital health company Babylon, was speaking at the Futurefit conference. He was part of a panel of entrepreneurs tasked with offering advice on how to “pivot and get fit fast”.

Earlier, Paul Thwaite, chief executive officer of commercial banking at Royal Bank of Scotland, summed up the challenge to all businesses. “We have to prepare ourselves for a more digitised and more climate-orientated future,” he said. “This means we also need to redefine the role businesses play in society, and what it means to be resilient.”

A more digitised future

The pandemic led many businesses to accelerate their digital transition – the sort of clean-slate challenge that inspired Dr Parsa to become an entrepreneur. “We’ve left behind a world in which we had got used to doing things in a certain way over decades,” he said.

If we’re to make use of the pandemic to pivot, Dr Parsa argued, we can look at opportunities that force of habit previously caused us to reject and now embrace them – not grudgingly as compromises but because they offer new possibilities to grow. For example, in his industry, Babylon services now make it possible to book an appointment and consult with a doctor within a couple of hours or even less using a mobile phone.

Much of the technological innovation required to bring about this kind of transition is already here, added Natalie Campbell, CEO of Belu Water, a social enterprise. For example, consumers who are focused on what goes into products, where they come from and how they get to market already have the mechanism to find that out, using barcodes and QR codes. “They are the direct experience for a customer. [They] can actually shop on the go, scanning everything via an app and finding out the provenance of a product, thinking about all the other things you can buy to make it a complete recipe and a meal.”

Technology like this can help businesses think about how best to engage with the end consumer experience, Campbell noted. “Not just to sell them more, because that’s not the thing we need to do, but to get them to buy the things they actually need,” she said.

We have to prepare ourselves for a more digitised and more climate-orientated future. This means we also need to redefine the role businesses play in society, and what it means to be resilient

Paul Thwaite
Chief executive officer, commercial banking, Royal Bank of Scotland

Dr Parsa added that this type of technology-driven thinking will become embedded in many businesses that can pivot successfully. “Businesses used to have an electricity officer,” he said. “Later on, there was somebody in charge of phone calls or telephones. What should come out of this crisis is that there is no such thing as technology companies: we are all technology companies.”

Rethinking the ways employees flourish

The panelists agreed that technology can only help teams do their jobs better. That means reimagining the way people in organisations can flourish, too. Renée Elliott, founder of Planet Organic, and co-founder of Beluga Bean, which teaches teams to look after their well-being, said: “My conclusion is people need to know how to take care of themselves. I don’t mean the basics, I mean better than basics, really understanding yourself and improving your well-being, which is very individual. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Mr & Mrs Smith, the online boutique hotel booking service, pivoted overnight from matching customers to hotel rooms to managing the fallout of mass cancellations, both for disappointed would-be travellers and shell-shocked hoteliers. Tamara Lohan, co-founder and CEO of the site, explained: “The whole business had to just pivot to being there for our customers, being there for our partners.

“We had to build technology on the fly during that time to be able to cope and manage the new things that were coming. We’re thinking more about the future and where it’s all heading. I love all this talk of being kinder, thinking about travel in a more sustainable way.”

The change in Lohan’s industry has been a rethink in how to manage resilience in the face of constant unexpected news. In the short term, this has been dominated by travel restrictions and lockdowns. Longer term, the increased need for flexibility might be something nervous customers will value highly.

“The thing that has really changed in the industry is the way hoteliers and airlines are providing complete flexibility,” she said. “You can book the flights, the hotel, with complete confidence that if it has to be cancelled, you will get your money back or you will be able to change it to later on in the year. That is what will give people confidence to book ahead.”

Elliott recalled her early experience of Planet Organic as a model for how to take care of people and suppliers. “We talked a lot about respect with our customers, our farmers. My experience now is that customers are becoming more interested in meaning and purpose and connection. Who you are as an organisation seems to be taking more priority,” she said.

The role of business in society

All of this implies that leaders may need to pivot, too – not just in their thinking about models and profit centres, but in the entire culture of the business.

“As a CEO, the thing that [the lockdown] flagged on day one was: ‘What is the role of me as CEO?’” Campbell recalled. “It was to become chief hope officer, to become chief purpose officer, to become chief momentum officer and really think about creating a new culture.”

Elliott concluded that a culture that considers a business’s contribution to society, and the well-being of suppliers and staff, may be a new driver of innovation. She had launched Planet Organic in 1995, because her “real wish was to take purpose-led business and show that that was good business”. Post-pandemic, the concepts Elliott helped to pioneer are being embraced by multinationals as well as non-profits. “It’s not financial. It’s your ‘bouncebackability’, it’s your ability to adapt and thrive in any situation, along with well-being,” she said. “Business has a responsibility to do this. And when we do, it future-proofs our businesses.”

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