Watch the webinar
It took the form of a conversation between the CBI’s own UK Policy Director, Matthew Fell, and the Group Director for Corporate Affairs at Kingfisher, Nick Lakin. Kingfisher presides over several home improvement chains around the world, including B&Q and Screwfix in the UK, which have begun reopening their stores – so we were extremely grateful to hear Nick’s insights on this crucial process. Here are the key takeaways:
- Flexibility within a framework
- New policies for a new economy
- Change and change again
- Communication is crucial
- Safety in (and outside of) your workplaces.
Flexibility within a framework
In an article for the Financial Times today, Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s Director-General, talks about “flexibility within a framework”. We also talked about “flexibility within a framework” in the webinar.
It should be, we think, one of the guiding principles of the restart. As Matthew explained, “Every individual business is different. It’s impossible for any government to set out exactly what every business will do.”
What does this mean in practice? We know that the government is currently developing its restart guidance, and that it’s doing so on a workplace-by-workplace basis – so that offices will be treated differently from outdoor retail, which will be treated differently from factories. “We’re quite likely to see something [on this] early next week,” said Matthew.
This is, as we have said in previous webinars, a sensible approach – but it should also be adaptable to different businesses’ needs, rather than entirely prescriptive. Matthew suggested that the guidance should feature “practical examples” and “case studies” so that businesses can more easily “translate it to their own settings”.
New policies for a new economy
The forthcoming guidance isn’t the only component of the restart phase. As Matthew pointed out, the CBI is paying attention to several other areas, too.
The first is, in Matthew’s words, “how we evolve business support as we enter this new phase”. Many of the government’s support schemes, including the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), are currently “broad-brush, economy-wide” endeavours – it could be that, as a staggered restart happens, they could be “targeted at those sectors that remain closed or most challenged in the coming months”. Additionally, the JRS itself could be made more flexible, to allow for part-time work, or have its level of generosity adjusted.
The second area that Matthew highlighted is how we “build back better” – which is to say, how we create an economy that is greener, fairer and more prosperous than before. “Where there is going to be demand stimulus,” he added, “make sure it’s got an eye on that from the off.”
And the third area was the labour market, which is likely to witness higher levels of unemployment across the coming months and years. “What,” asked Matthew, “does a retraining and redeployment effort look like?” He cited the example of the GM Task Force, designed to help former Thomas Cook staff after the travel group collapsed last year. “Can we think about how we do that on a bigger scale, right across the country?”
Change and change again
Nick detailed how B&Q and Screwfix have experienced the pandemic. Like so many businesses, they’ve had to keep on adapting over a short period of time. Or, as Nick put it, “you’ve had to pivot your business, then change it again, then change it again…”
In the first instance, ahead of the lockdown, this meant introducing social-distancing measures. Then, once the lockdown was announced, it meant shutting down B&Q and Screwfix entirely, even thought this wasn’t strictly necessary under the government guidelines; “we decided to put the full thing into freeze and wait and look at the best way of operating”. More recently, it has meant slowly reopening stores.
Even in the latest stage, B&Q and Screwfix are having to adapt constantly and quickly. Nick explained that both businesses reopened “aiming for 100% Click and Collect”. This is a very new challenge for what is normally an in-store retail operation. “We had loads of people visiting our websites... which weren’t set up for that sort of volume.”
Communication is crucial
As Nick said, “your responsibility starts with your own people”. B&Q and Screwfix have made their decisions – from shutting down to reopening – in close consultation with their own staff. B&Q first trialled reopening 14 stores “where colleagues were keen to get back”.
This process was helped, Nick explained, by the businesses’ pre-existing channels of communication. B&Q staff are, he said, particularly active on the social platform Yammer – this became a venue for testing workplace sentiment ahead of crucial decisions, such as the shutdown, and for communicating the experiences of those stores that were reopening earlier. “You can’t have enough regular dialogue throughout this.”
But it’s not just internal communications – external communications matter, too. Many of the reopened stores, said Nick, have even reached out to local police forces and health & safety inspectors to let them know what’s happening and to invite them to visit. This is a key element of reassuring not just the authorities but also customers.
Safety in (and outside of) your workplaces
“Safety is fundamental in all this,” emphasised Nick. Both B&Q and Screwfix stores have introduced a range of safety measures now that they have reopened – including Perspex screens at checkout, and contactless-only payments.
Nick also mentioned the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE). In the first instance, B&Q and Screwfix rushed to supply PPE to frontline health workers who really need it. Now they are trying to build up their own supplies of – generally, sub-medical-grade – equipment for their own staff. “We haven’t mandated that everyone wears masks at this point, but we have made sure that supplies are available.”
Crucially, though, the safety measures don’t just extend to B&Q and Screwfix. Nick also described how the companies are working with their third-party distributors to ensure good practice in warehouses and other locations. “Where there’s a third party, it’s just as important for us because, ultimately, it’s our name on the door…. Going forward, there will be greater discipline around auditing.”
Key questions we answered:
- To Matthew, what are the key principles that the CBI is thinking about in relation to businesses re-opening?
- Many firms are still in ‘survival mode’ – but some are starting to think about a restart
- You might have seen our piece in the FT today outlining five important principles:
- Health first. To build public confidence (and prevent 2nd lockdown).
- A unified approach. Govt, health experts, business, unions and employee voice – all working together. Open and transparent.
- A phased approach, starting with enablers:
- Transport – for example, the support for roll-on-roll of Ferry services last week, tube services in London, tram and bus systems in the regions.
- Medical support and equipment – testing, PPE. Heard earlier this week that testing now available for key workers – good step forward.
- Different sectors face different challenges – offices, farms, factories all unique – economic measures will need to reflect this.
- Freedom within a framework. Clear parameters but with flexibility.
- Build back better. Long term – fair, sustainable, levelling up regions. Learning from experiences of new ways of working during crisis.
- To Matthew, what are the factors to consider regarding how we make the restart work?
- There are many issues we need to consider:
- Consensus building, unions and so on
- Consistency of message (work & home)
- Caring responsibilities (move in step, schools, etc)
- The availability of PPE kit
- Travel & transport
- Supply chains:
- We need UK-wide coordination between the nations and regions
- We must evolve economic support in sync with health advice and re-opening plans.
- To Matthew, you’ve said it’s important that economic support evolves in lockstep with health advice – any insights on what that might look like?
- The most obvious question being discussed is around the future of the JRS. There’s nothing concrete beyond the end of June, and we know it places a significant cost to the exchequer.
- Potential options might include:
- Restrict to sectors, which has the advantage of being more targeted
- More flexibility / partial furlough, more along the lines of European short time working model
- Reduce level of generosity, which makes it more affordable but less targeted
- The current approach is economy-wide over sectors, does that continue to make sense with staggered restart?
- When we get to thinking about any economic stimulus, how do we apply the “build back better” principle?
- And what does the retraining and redeployment effort look like?
- To Matthew, any insights on the latest thinking from government around the restart?
- Here’s what we know so far from UK government’s approach:
- There won’t be a ‘big bang’ – but a gradual shift from phase 1 to phase 2.
- They’re acutely aware of links between different parts of society – business, transport, schools.
- Strong desire to build consensus with business, unions, and civil society.
- We also know the outline of the government’s approach to re-start; categorised by type of work, rather than sector:
- Outdoor work – including infrastructure, energy, construction, housebuilding, and agriculture.
- Leisure and wellbeing – including restaurants and pubs.
- Non-food retail, including real estate.
- Office work, research and other non-customer facing indoor work.
- Factory and industry-based work, including manufacturing, food manufacturing and engineering.
- Distribution and logistics, including transportation and storage.
- We’re expecting more information soon.
- To Matthew, regarding transport in London, how do you manage social distancing on the tube? Have your conversations with government included these considerations?
- This is critical and a big part of our conversations with government as it is relevant to many sectors.
- We think transport considerations must move in step with the restart plans, including availability of PPE and schools.
- Transport is a particularly challenging area. Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees who could, in theory, turn up to a train station and find the platform is packed, and decide they don’t feel safe to come to the office.
- To Nick, can you talk to us about the journey that Kingfisher have been on during Covid-19, and any learning you’ve picked up from re-opening?
- We’ve had similar experiences to many firms, where we’ve had to pivot and change our business multiple times during a six week period.
- In the run up to the lockdown, we were implementing social distancing measures and saw a flood of people panic buying.
- Once the lockdown was announced, we used a lot of ways to communicate internally, using ‘Yammer’ as a tool. There was a live debate on whether our colleagues felt safe coming to work.
- We believed if we had colleagues who didn’t feel comfortable working, then any measure we would put in would not work. You need to have the buy in of your employees.
- B&Q made the call to shut everything once the lockdown happened. The government designated our services as essential retail, but we decided to pause and assess what the best way of operating was.
- 100% click and collect was the aim after the lockdown. That requires an awful lot of changes to be made very quickly.
- Huge volumes of customers turned to our website, a website that was not designed to deal with that scale of increase, that quickly.
- We implemented a trial of re-opening across three days on 14 stores.
- We created a full training pack for employees on how to manage customers and behave in the back office.
- To Nick, what proportion of your staff had concerns about returning to work and how have you dealt with them?
- We’ve had regular dialogue with our employees and regular monitoring of employee sentiment was key. We would have senior leaders running daily vlogs updating employees on the measures we were taking to keep them safe.
- As Yammer is a live social forum, we were monitoring employee sentiment in real-time.
- We found that at the end of March, many felt bad about coming to work. But through our dialogue we took our employees with us at every step of the way.
- I believe that when it comes to employee safety, you cannot overcommunicate the steps you are taking to protect them. Repetition is key.
- To Nick, how did you manage to keep your employees safe during the re-opening trial, and what were the challenges you faced?
- We have managed to find a way to get Perspex installed everywhere. Where the was a will, there was a way.
- PPE was different. There is a global challenge with this product, but we are seeing supply beginning to match the demand. We tried to get the PPE we had to the frontline workers – NHS and care workers.
- From a sourcing perspective, we are working with suppliers in all parts of the world. We have put in large orders on different kinds of PPE and getting it to where it is needed.