Watch the webinar
In today’s webinar we spoke to two leading businesses about innovation and adaptation for a post-Covid world. We were joined by Dr Bruce Charlesworth, Chief Medical Officer, RB (Reckitt Benckiser), Dr Sarah Prichard, UK Managing Director, Buro Happold, and Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director at the CBI.
Here's what they discussed:
- The week in review
- How RB and Buro Happold responded to Covid
- Adapting to the new normal
- Changes to consumer behaviour
- What changes would you keep from Covid?
The week in review
This week, businesses have got to grips with the government’s updates to the job retention scheme, announced last Friday. One of the key things to have come clear over the past week is that employees who have not been furloughed by the middle of this month will not be eligible for furlough from July, said Matthew Fell in his round-up of the week.
The 14-day quarantine measures for travellers to the UK were confirmed by the Home Secretary this week, to be introduced in July. But Matthew said that he hopes we could shift to a “risk based approach” when the measures come up for review. Travel corridors between lower risk countries could be one approach. The UK could take this as an opportunity to “step up and show leadership on the global stage” by working with global partners to develop internationally agreed standards for testing and screening at transport hubs, he said.
Systems for testing and tracing have gone live in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with the programme starting up in Wales on Monday. There are a few areas still to iron out for businesses, said Matthew, principally regarding statutory sick pay for self-isolating employees. At present, only SMEs can reclaim the cost of statutory sick pay from the government. Sick pay is not designed for the absence of large portions of the workforce. How can we make this work for employers?
How RB and Buro Happold responded to Covid
“It’s fascinating how much things have changed,” said Sarah Prichard, UK Managing Director at Buro Happold, a design engineering business. The company made a decision to send its workforce to work from home before lockdown measures were introduced. The company had been rolling out flexible working arrangements with laptops and cloud computing for some time pre-Covid so colleagues were able to move seamlessly to home working. They have introduced some new systems, such as Microsoft Teams for collaborative working, but there have been no interruptions for their clients, she said.
For RB, the situation was somewhat different as they play a big role in manufacturing essential hygiene goods and personal care medicines. You’ll know them from brands like Dettol, Harpic, Nurofen and Lemsip.
On the Hull site where Bruce Charlesworth works, the company made a “very early decision” on introducing home working for those employees that were able to operate from home. The company cut back on non-essential research and development work but stepped up production of in-demand goods like surface cleaners and hand sanitisers. The company moved from producing 1 million units of sanitiser per month to 1 million units of sanitiser per day, said Bruce.
For those colleagues who have to work on site, the company has introduced measures to make social distancing possible. Layouts have been changed, floor markings laid out and occupancy of spaces reduced to make it safe for employees.
Adapting to the new normal
The economy is moving slowly towards the recovery phase, but the threat of Covid-19 remains. The world we are going back to will be different, noted Sarah. We have to prepare for a “new normal” and a “different future.”
Buro Happold is helping its clients to adapt the building assets, campuses and facilities they have to the new ways of working. New data on the “dynamic movement of people” within space will help them to work out innovative solutions for businesses to safely increase occupancy of their spaces, in some cases to an upper level of around 60%, she said.
Covid has changed “what we do” and “how we think” said Bruce. We now live in a world where we know that a pandemic can happen and we fear it may happen again. We have also learned a lot about how we work and that working from home is not necessarily a drain on productivity. It has come clear that we don’t need as many meetings and we can prioritise tasks in a more efficient way, he said.
Living with the “new normal” will also require investment from the government. With a Budget expected in July, Matthew explained some of the measures he would like to see:
- Young people will be disproportionately impacted by the Covid crisis. There is going to be a “significant restructuring” of the economy. How can this be achieved in a way that creates jobs for the young that will serve our economy’s future needs in digital, health, teaching and the green economy?
- How can we build a “green recovery”? Funding will need to focus on green infrastructure and energy, retrofitting homes and greening towns and cities.
- The crisis has shown “how important digital is to so many people and industries.” More people will work from home outside urban centres in the future so the regional levelling up agenda will have to include rural digital inclusivity.
Changes to consumer behaviour
Today’s session offered some interesting human insights into how people’s behaviours have changed during Covid-19. A big part of Bruce’s job is to understand the needs of the people who buy RB’s products – products that are thoroughly enmeshed in people’s homes and lives.
Naturally, he has seen lots of consumers stocking up on products for cleaning and hygiene. It remains to be seen whether that uplift in demand for products like hand sanitiser will remain elevated as we move into the “living with Covid” phase.
Other products have seen a big drop-off in demand. Durex is one of RB’s brands, offering products such as condoms and sex toys. While condom purchases have declined, sales of sex toys have gone up, giving some clues about how Covid has impacted consumers’ personal lives.
People are not visiting doctors and dentists as often now due to lockdown and concerns about contracting the virus in healthcare settings, so the demand for some self-care medicines has likewise increased. Media coverage earlier in the year linked ibuprofen to negative outcomes for treating Covid symptoms. This was of interest to RB because of their Nurofen business. More recent guidance and research has shown positive indications for ibuprofen as a treatment, however. Media reporting on drugs like these has been highly influential for consumers during this period, explained Ben.
What changes would you keep from Covid?
Working from home will be one of the things that Sarah continues after this period. “The culture has just changed overnight,” she said. Before cultures of presenteeism predominated, but the changes forced by Covid have given us “trust, transparency and empathy,” for colleagues with more of a focus on “output,” she said.
Bruce has worked a lot to raise the profile of the science behind RB’s brands during Covid and played a role in combating the “infodemic” by providing information to the media. This kind of transparency and focus on science is something he hopes to take forward.
For Matthew, collaboration between government, business and bodies like the CBI has been the most important change. Working together to fix problems has been critical to managing the crisis.
Key questions we answered:
- Matthew, how do we make sure innovation features heavily in the recovery plan?
- We should focus on Gigabit and how we can reduce the time and cost of a gigabit network rollout (including broadband and 5G).
- We also need to form a landmark connectivity taskforce to drive the uptake of gigabit connectivity across businesses and consumers.
- Our aim should be to update the UK’s 5G strategy to make the UK a global ambassador for 5G industrial applications. The strategy must focus on accelerating both public sector and business experimentation and adoption at scale, working with partners across the UK.
- We also need to stabilise R&D by rapidly deploying new funding to restart and accelerate shelved innovation projects, and also deliver support to shore up the university sector.
- We should help support the growth of dynamic start-ups and scale-ups in every region of the UK by building on existing funding structures as well as exploring new channels.
- We also need to look at regulations and government legislation:
- Create a cohesive, pro-innovation digital regulation strategy that gives companies the regulatory certainty they need to invest, innovate and create jobs
- Map all digital regulations and accompanying remits to identify overlap and pinch points, ensuring we limit the burden of regulation on new challengers and scale-ups
- Use the next fiscal event to ensure all regulators with major digital portfolios are appropriately resourced, in order to cope with an expanding digital remit.
- Sarah, how is Buro Happold adapting to the virus?
- The majority of our staff are design engineers and consultants working with clients to come up with solutions for the built environment. We're based in UK, but also have global reach.
- For example, we moved to being cloud-based. Our colleagues have been fantastic in their attitudes and dedication, supporting both projects and clients.
- We had good systems in place. And then we rolled out Microsoft Teams to enhance collaboration – and there hasn't been any interruption to our service.
- Bruce, what are you seeing in terms of consumer trends?
- We've seen a big uplift in terms of the purchase of hygiene products. We've had a 30-fold increase in how much hand sanitiser we manufacture – we've gone from making a million units each month to making a million units each day.
- We’re also seeing more demand for self-care medicines – as people are less able to see doctors or dentists. So people are looking at medicine in a slightly different way and perhaps treating conditions in a different way.
- We’ve seen enormous changes in sexual behaviour in terms of the use of our products. We are a large condom manufacturer, but we also have a whole array of sexual wellbeing products. We’ve seen a reduction in condom usage and purchase, but we’ve seen a big increase in masturbation. For many this is a taboo subject, but we see it as an everyday conversation because it's what we do.
- One of the challenges for us is seeing different countries doing different things at different times, and the impact that's had. For example, China as a country is a big purchaser of condoms via e-commerce. We also have a large Dettol factory in Hubei province.
- Sarah and Bruce, what measures are you taking to keep your employees safe?
- At Buro Happold, we prioritise supply over everything else. We cut down massively on non-essential research and development. We went from having about 1,400 people on site every day down to about having 300-400.
- We've transformed the site in terms of its layout to incorporate social distancing. We’ve changed the furniture layout and we've mopped the floors.
- We’ve also established a global group incorporating representatives from health and safety, communications and HR.
- For RB it’s about risk minimisation rather than risk elimination. We're in completely uncharted territory, no matter how careful we are with interventions and planning.
- We’re trying to understand what the drivers are in terms of being ready to go back into the office. One of the things that we did quite early is organise a staff survey globally to understand the positives and the negatives of working at home and in the offices. And that's given us some really important insights into how to make our workplaces better places.
- One of the things we're beginning to think about now is how we achieve good interactions between people when we return to the office, while still maintaining social distancing.