Cast your mind back to March. The UK had just entered lockdown and a range of complex social and economic challenges were fast emerging.
Vulnerable communities were struggling to access technology or food, staying at home was impacting people’s mental health, the UK was facing a shortage of PPE equipment, and the economy saw huge rifts between supply and demand.
In those first few weeks, despite firms facing significant challenges themselves, the CBI was inundated with offers of support from businesses that wanted to help. Firms that had spare trucks to transport food. Firms that wanted to donate IT equipment or redeploy staff to help keep essential services running. Firms that wanted to share their resources on supporting employee mental health, or transform their production lines to produce PPE.
So the CBI set up challenge groups to bring businesses together to tackle some of these big issues, where we knew collaboration and coordination could make a big difference – helping families in hardship, supporting mental health, temporarily redeploying people and supporting PPE production.
Unprecedented times call for innovative approaches
The CBI is a huge advocate of innovation. We support businesses in adopting innovations and innovate ourselves, trialling new ways of developing policy and representing firms. The COVID-19 Challenges presented an opportunity for us to really put our latest approaches to the test. Primarily, through the sprint process – a technique we learnt from one of our members.
A sprint is a structured approach that takes you from challenge to solution in a matter of steps. By bringing together a range of stakeholders and structuring your brainstorming, it forces you to think differently.
And that’s exactly what we did with our challenge groups. We brought together businesses, government, the third sector, and CBI policy experts to quickly identify what the challenges were, where the CBI could help empower businesses to solve these challenges, and then test, implement and monitor the solutions.
What did we achieve?
We’ve spent the last few months empowering firms to help out where they can: engaging and connecting over 300 businesses, from tech and legal to aviation and energy. We identified and addressed three key blockers that were stopping businesses from helping:
- Starting: the hourly emails from businesses offering support had one thing in common. Many firms didn’t know where to start. So the CBI set ourselves the goal of becoming a go-to place to triage business support. We:
- Used our platform to amplify existing campaigns and initiatives – from Business in the Community’s National Business Response Network and Reed’s Keep Britain Working campaign to the Devices Dot Now campaign which collated IT donations for vulnerable communities. We showcased examples of businesses innovating to help inspire others, from utilities providers like Centrica setting up new services to help families in financial distress, to flooring manufacturer Amtico completely transforming their production lines to produce life-saving PPE.
- Produced a wealth of guidance and best practice, including our go-to factsheet on Mental Health and Wellbeing in a Crisis with the latest tips and resources from firms, and case studies from Compass Group and Midcounties Co-operative to share insight on how businesses could temporarily redeploy staff. We also directed firms to online skills and redeployment portals to help them redeploy staff.
- Connecting: addressing the challenges meant linking up sectors, individual businesses, and charities that had never crossed paths. We set up regular challenge group calls to connect organisations and unlock collaboration, for example connecting sectors like aviation to food retail and agriculture, and working with the PPE Exchange to help firms collaborate to produce PPE.
- Clarity from government: firms needed government to address any policy blockers emerging as they tackled the challenges. The CBI stepped in to help, for example asking the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury for clarity on how firms could temporarily redeploy staff around the Job Retention Scheme and facilitating a call between members and the new PPE Tsar, Lord Deighton, to discuss how government’s strategy for protective equipment could best be delivered in collaboration with business.
The business heroes of the pandemic: what can we learn?
When it really mattered, businesses across the economy stepped up to the plate to help the national effort. But what can we learn from this gargantuan effort by the business community?
- Innovation as an antidote: Throughout the pandemic, businesses have seen years of innovation in months – and we shouldn’t overlook the importance of this. When faced with some of the trickiest challenges, innovation can be an antidote – from the Scotch Whisky industry pivoting to produce hand sanitiser to TaskRabbit connecting vulnerable individuals to volunteer Taskers who could collect medicines or food. It was the sprint process that enabled us to quickly identify the role that businesses could play in addressing the key challenges – and how the CBI could help by providing a platform for existing initiatives, connecting businesses, and acting as a fast-paced channel to address policy blockers.
- Collaboration is king: Businesses have been a driving force in keeping the UK moving and running despite what can only be described as the biggest upheaval to society in living memory. At the start of the crisis, so many businesses and organisations were trying to help but the landscape felt uncoordinated, undirected, and unnavigable for many. Our challenge groups, and the crisis response generally, have shown just how much can be achieved by collaboration between businesses, with government, and with clear goals.
- Harnessing the power of cross-sector partnerships: There’s much to learn from how firms shifted their entire working practices to rise to the procurement challenge. Firms were given the opportunity to deliver at speed and focus on the ultimate outcome, rather than the process of getting there. Welcoming new market entrants (over half of the published contracts awarded by central government went to new suppliers) and engaging the capacity of large firms and the niche-expertise of SMEs, meant that public-private partnerships could deliver solutions quickly. Going forward, supporting new businesses in winning public contracts, stripping out red tape, and emphasising strong relationships with suppliers, can spur even more innovation.
Through our challenges projects, we’ve shone a light on the business heroes who have made a difference, and will continue to highlight ways businesses can support their employees, communities and environment through our Everyone’s Business campaign.
But the challenges aren’t over. In fact, some of them feel as though they’re just beginning. So we’ll be continuing to support businesses on these issues. There are lots of ways for your business to get involved:
Helping vulnerable communities:
- Help us develop the details behind the CBI London Tech Guarantee to address digital exclusion by widening the provision of tech and data to young Londoners.
Supporting reskilling across the economy:
- People & Skills Networks (member only) – These peer-to-peer forums consider the key HR challenges and opportunities affecting UK business. Topics include diversity and inclusion, immigration, skills and current labour market trends.
Championing employee mental health:
- Our Diversity and Inclusion Conference will be held virtually on 30 Nov – 1 Dec, with sessions on mental health and wellbeing as well as other topics such as flexible working and social mobility.
Lessons from COVID-19 on public-private partnerships:
- Read our latest report on lessons learned from public-private partnerships during Covid-19 (including provision of PPE equipment) and add your case study to our forthcoming online library by emailing Josh Pritchard.
And as we move towards an economic recovery (and a second spike in infections), maintaining that spirit of collaboration and amalgamating business offers of support will go a long way.