The UK's lockdown measures, currently two months in, have seen a range of changes. From 'Stay at Home' messaging to 'Stay Alert' updated guidance on meeting non-family members, and a return to work in England for those who cannot work from home.
Last week, the government updated its 'plan to rebuild' COVID-19 recovery strategy, highlighting the health, economic and social considerations before detailing each phase of its approach.
As the country gradually eases lockdown, businesses across the world are starting to plan ahead, and consider how they might be able to resume doing business safely.
Looking to the industries that have had no choice but to continue operating throughout this pandemic, Helen Dickinson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Ian Wright CBE, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), discuss how they turned their challenges into learning outcomes and the key tips businesses need for planning to reopen safely.
Face and overcome immediate challenges
When the awareness of coronavirus largely hit the majority of the UK population this year, neither the BRC or the FDF had the privilege to plan effectively. New information and guidance frequently affected the nation, while the number of infected people grew daily.
Helen Dickinson recalls that the retail industry was "all hands to the pump" at the frontline of a crisis management situation, eager to keep the supply of food going to supermarket shelves, while collectively keeping employees safe.
This meant an increase in hours on the clock, trucks on the road, social distancing measures, such as marking the pavement to keep shoppers two metres apart, as well as one-way arrows displayed on the floor of stores, and Perspex screens to protect staff at checkout tils.
Now, the industry is in a completely different place, having found its stride in a new kind of normal. However, this jump to a new way of working didn’t come without its challenges.
Work with your peers and sectors to solve common issues
"People were the main concern," Helen says.
"There were all sorts of scary projections about the number of people that might get sick.
"Most substantially, there was a need for retailers to talk to each other in ways they wouldn't normally either want to, due to the competitive nature of their businesses, or be allowed to, because of competition law."
As a result, aspects of competition law were suspended in order for chains in the industry to communicate and work together more effectively, for the greater good.
Ian Wright states that the first problem for the food and drink industry to solve was the issue of being designated as key workers. Following this, actions around health and safety and moral reassurance were taken.
The industry re-configured factories, changed entrance processes from touching a keypad to tapping a card, altered factory catering deliveries and helped employees to get to work.
"Public transport has all but evaporated in large parts of the country and food manufacturing plants aren't in city centres," he says. "We're completely dispersed across country, so transport to work is difficult.
"We had to get Public Health England to give us guidance on car-sharing, which is pretty counter-intuitive in a lockdown, but you have to find a mechanism for doing it."
Safety and clear communication are of the utmost importance
Both Helen and Ian have not only used the eight weeks of lockdown to help keep the country running alongside their hardworking employees and members, but to also reflect on the most important lesson of all: safety.
"Perception of safety is very important," Ian says.
"You can tell somebody and prove that something is safe until you're blue in the face, but unless people feel safe and perceive it to be safe, you've got a big issue."
That is the key message that both CEOs urge businesses to keep in mind when planning to reopen.
Looking to and learning from other organisations and countries is also important, which is what Ian's global members did, including Nestle, Kellogg's, and Mondelez. However, Ian acknowledges that "learning by doing" is the best way forward.
As businesses question the areas they need to look out for as they consider reopening, Helen says: "Make sure that you're putting safety first and doing the best by your staff and that will be a great mantra to have, rather than trying to do everything."
In doing the best by employees, Ian and Helen advise businesses to also include every member of their organisation in the consideration and reopening process, rather than presenting a plan as a "done deal".
Then, once the plan has been finalised, clear communication must resonate in the form of external messaging.
Initially, a key issue for the retail and food and drink industries was the rise in demand for food as this brought about unrealistic expectations, such as delivering to everyone's homes in order to sell more food.
There were many discussions with government as well as statements to customers about store hours and vulnerable customer guidance, which then helped to shift the overall messaging around the recognition of retail and food workers as key workers.
Even a crisis presents opportunities to learn and grow
From these challenges turned solutions, both Helen and Ian agree that they have discovered a new outlook on business: productivity can be found in the most tentative of situations.
"So many people have said to me they planned to do something that they thought would take 18 months, and done it in four weeks," Helen admits.
"Certainly, from a BRC point of view, there are things that we would have questioned, planned, and taken ages to land, when actually when people have to do it, it's amazing what can be done. The resilience and innovation have been amazing in many respects.
"Now is the time to have a bold vision about what the future should look like and just get it done, there's no time to debate."
Ian agrees with this saying, "things that could 'never' have been achieved, have been achieved," and while reopening is no easy feat, going into it with an assertive mindset can lead to a positive outcome.
Actively learn from mistakes
When considering business continuity, taking the time to plan, and learning from the industries that didn't have this opportunity, is beneficial, however it's essential to acknowledge that it will be a trial and error process.
In each step that every business takes, whether small or large, the general advice from the industries that have remained open is to not just acknowledge the lessons learned but to also take a proper account of them to avoid falling backwards into the same mistakes.