Life after Lockdown
An independent report into how attitudes and behaviours have changed due to the lockdown measures imposed in the UK and the implications for our society and businesses.
As restrictions start to lift and we consider what life after lockdown might look like I wanted to know how, if at all, our behaviour and attitudes have changed and the implications of this for our future society and businesses. We are surrounded by commentary and opinion in the media however, I wanted to go straight to the horse’s mouth. This is an unsponsored, unsolicited study based on my interviews with over fifty colleagues, friends and family members from various industries, age ranges and locations across the UK. All of whom were asked the same question:
“What changes for you, your family and your business as and when we emerge from lockdown?”
When interviewing the participants, I tried hard not to lead their replies allowing them instead to freely consider what changes they had made over the past couple of months and might realistically maintain in the future. It soon became apparent that when considering a time frame for the future it became impossible to discuss it in terms of months but was easier to discuss a time pre and post a vaccine becoming widely available, (or as one participant put it; pre childcare and post childcare).
Whilst I managed to gather a relatively broad range of participants it is also worth noting that they fell within a relatively close demographic group of middle class, middle income families and individuals and came from a mixture of business backgrounds as well as some who had retired. I have tried not to generalise or sterilise their responses, they are the opinions of the participants guided by their own circumstances and experiences. Where possible I have picked out the common trends from their responses and highlighted the key observations and implications.
The results are overwhelmingly positive and provide a fascinating insight into how individuals, families and businesses are coping with current conditions and preparing for the future. It is my hope that whilst the sample size was relatively small, the implications and observations made here might provide some insight to what our future society and workplace might look like and allow us to plan accordingly.
Key trends – Personal / Family
The joy of time
- Not having to commute, the positive impact of remote working.
- Spending that time instead with family or on personal development.
- The importance of genuine, face to face communication and taking the time to forge close bonds for the future through shared experience and interaction.
Observations and Implications
The overwhelming trend to emerge was that people hate commuting. This is a key driver for the future rise of remote working (discussed later in this report). Commuting not only steals time, but energy. Many of those interviewed have used this time with their families (those with young children have had to use this time for childcare and home schooling) and engaging in activities for enjoyment or personal development (e.g. reading, listening to podcasts, gardening, online exercise etc). As a result, participants expressed their heightened sense of happiness and fulfilment.
It is a common complaint that we do not have enough time or energy to do the things we love; life gets in the way. It is all too easy to shrug our shoulders and accept that things will return to normal once schools, work, and a busy social life re engage. What a shame it would be to look back on this period as nothing but a fond memory when instead we have the chance to make minor changes to our lifestyles that create small spaces in our schedules allowing us to spend more time with family and doing the things we love.
The future society
- Until a vaccine is widely available, social distancing measures will continue to impact behaviour and attitudes when interacting with others.
- The importance of human contact, the need for face to face interaction to forge real bonds.
- An increased sense of community.
- Increased communication with friends and family via video conferencing.
- More selective about who we socialise with and where we socialise in the future. The desire of some families and vulnerable people to avoid crowded places (e.g. restaurants, pubs, clubs etc).
- Financial hardship and unemployment may lead to social unrest and volatility.
Observations and Implications
For many it was the loss of physical contact with friends and family that has been the greatest challenge over the past couple of months. Whilst video conferencing has replaced some of that need it cannot replicate it. The increased sense of community supports this as we come together as neighbourhoods to face the challenges of isolation. As one interviewee remarked, “it is good to see how the individualistic nature of the UK has responded to lockdown with the emphasis on collective survival rather than the individual”. As with any form of fasting it makes us appreciate what we have given up. For many when the fast is over they intend to continue staying in touch with their families, (most likely via video conferencing) and neighbours.
This period has increased the recent focus on mental health. The likely future shock of forthcoming financial hardship and unemployment faced by many will pose tremendous challenges for our society that are better faced as a community, not as individuals. Our continued communication with friends and family is the first step.
- Will travel domestically in the near future (i.e. pre vaccine) and will continue to support the domestic travel market even when restrictions are lifted.
- Opinion was divided with regards to foreign travel, younger participants and those who had travelled extensively for leisure pre lockdown cited an immediate return to international travel once allowed.
- Continue to support local shops (e.g. grocers, butchers etc.) and to shop more efficiently opting for fewer, larger, regular trips to the supermarket.
- Younger participants cited an immediate return to pubs and restaurants once allowed to do so.
- Rise of online shopping was highlighted as convenience and availability of goods online grow hand in hand.
- The enjoyment and convenience of using online exercise routines during lockdown. Many suggested that they would continue to do this rather than return to the gym.
- Increased use of streaming entertainment content. Expedited existing trend. Increased financial power to Netflix, Amazon etc threatens the future of cinema.
- The impact of financial constraints is likely to affect our choice as consumers.
- A lack of choice had led to less waste and a more thoughtful attitude to consumption.
Observations and Implications
It is as consumers that the most obvious change in behaviour occurs. The personal attitude to risk for many was the determining factor when considering travel, especially overseas. An increased appreciation of what the UK can offer (no doubt helped by the Summer months), has led to a change in attitude to overseas travel for many. Good news for the domestic travel market but for a beleaguered foreign travel industry this has long lasting implications.
Convenience has clearly risen as a priority for many participants. A wealth of online exercise and streaming content has implications for both gyms and cinemas in the future. Home delivery is unlikely to drop when normal service resumes however it was heartening to see an increased awareness, appreciation, and loyalty to smaller, local stores. If our desire for convenience is matched by our desire to support local stores those stores who continue to offer online and home delivery options will no doubt capitalise.
For some, recent events have highlighted their high rate of consumption and waste, a topic of conversation before the lockdown. The threat of limited availability has brought our consumption habits into focus and led to a determination by some to reduce their levels of consumption in the future. A tightening of disposable income matched with the loss of some of the options from the high street may well have an impact on this resulting in lasting change.
Time to think
- Have had time to reflect on values and consider ‘what it important to me / my family?’
- More of a focus on the need for self-care, both mentally and physically.
- A newfound appreciation of what we have. What we took for granted has now been given added value.
- A desire to simplify the way we live our lives.
Observations and Implications
Having more time has, for some, meant a period of reflection. Be it consideration of how they live their lives, what is important to them or what they need to focus on in the future has been a rewarding exercise leading to some much needed clarity.
As previously mentioned, we only miss it when it is gone, and the realisation that we have a lot to be grateful for and how important the simple things in life are has been a bit of a revelation to many. However, reflection is nothing without action. Whilst some have taken the steps towards change in some part motivated by necessity in others by desire, the majority of those interviewed admitted that whilst the will to change was there they were likely to revert to previous behaviours once normal service resumes.
Achieving realistic behavioural change is no small feat but with guidance, discipline, a genuine desire to change and a realistic, achievable process in place, it can be done.
Key trends – Business
- Majority of companies are looking at adopting a more flexible approach to office working.
- Hatred of commuting as main incentive for remote working.
- Time saved = increased productivity.
- Opportunity to think strategically.
- Using digital software more effectively and frequently to talk to colleagues.
- Will not be needing large, expensive offices in the future.
- A need for more flexible travel fares if no longer committing to a regular commute.
- Remote working poses significant challenges to management and the office culture.
- A continued need for face to face meetings, be it new business development, client management or training where remote access does not replace human contact.
- Companies are looking for more innovative ways to bring their employees together and create a genuine team experience.
- Companies are conducting a survey of employees to understand their attitude to remote working with a view to providing options to suit them and company culture in the future.
Observations and Implications
As one interviewee stated “it is a hatred of commuting, not a hatred of the job” that often provides the main incentive for remote working. Corporate cultures and workplaces differ as does the mindset of different age groups. As people’s priorities and experiences change, so do their attitudes.
I am wary of making a sweeping generalisation that remote working is the future of the workplace. My research suggests that the majority of those interviewed have changed their attitude towards it and expect remote working to play a larger part of their working lives in the future. There are many positives; high levels of productivity, clear communication channels, engaged workforce and financial savings. There are also significant challenges to the management of a remote workforce, not least the threat to team cohesion and office culture. For many it did not remove the need for face to face meetings (e.g. new business development, recruitment, client management and training) but, aided by improved technology, it has shattered the myths that working from home is unproductive. Perhaps the wisest approach being adopted by some is to survey the workforce with suggested options for remote working and see what their response is, it may be surprising.
For the many industries that support the existing office culture the implications of a move to remote working pose a challenge. Office space, co-working space, transport providers, catering outlets, gyms and others all stand to lose if a significant portion of the workforce opt to work from home and look to save money as a result. Businesses will need to be increasingly flexible, innovative and have a thorough understanding of the changed market if they are to meet the challenge remote working presents.
Future working practices
- Some companies have formed working parties to look at future working practices often with the involvement of all levels within the business.
- Companies are reviewing their business model to become leaner, more efficient and to minimise their exposure to risk.
- Desire to de-risk the supply chain.
- Accelerated use of digital platforms in the future.
- Anticipate significantly reducing both domestic and international travel for business.
- Predicted redundancies within their industries.
- Reinforced the importance of an ethical approach to business.
- Communicating effectively with staff during the lockdown has had the positive side effect of creating a ‘humanising effect’ on the working relationship between the Senior Leadership Team and employees.
Observations and Implications
In many ways recent events have acted as a catalyst for emerging trends in the workplace rather than creating new behaviours. The increased use of digital platforms, a reduction in air travel and a more ethical approach to business were emerging before we went into lockdown. What is significant is the rapid acceleration of these practices. Microsoft say that have achieved in three months what the envisaged would take three years in the adoption of their MS Teams software. Behaviours that were considered a possibility a few months ago have had to be rapidly adopted and as a result are likely to remain in place in the future. As one interviewee put it, “those companies without a digital proposition risk being left behind”.
The unintended side effects of recent events are also of interest. The wish to de-risk the supply chain (by sourcing suppliers from the domestic market) could have a beneficial effect on UK manufacturing, (who envisage being at 100% production by June). For those who have been communicating frequently and meaningfully with their employees throughout the lockdown there has been the added benefit of seeing a ‘humanising effect’ on their relations with staff, bringing the senior leadership team closer to the employees, with huge potential for a more engaged and loyal workforce in the future.
The less positive side effect of recent events sees the likelihood of redundancies across several sectors which clearly has significant implications for businesses and society. Businesses will be under increased pressure to ‘bounce back’ from the damage of the past few months. This will not only test their business practices but also their ethical proposition as they look to make savings to ensure survival.
Business planning lessons
- Getting the business basics right was the most quoted reason for ensuring survival.
- Having a good customer mix has been crucial, reducing their exposure to a single market and reinforcing the need for an adaptable product.
- Importance of calm leadership through a crisis. The need for pragmatic leadership, not panic.
- Importance of communication. Having a well thought through ‘road map’ for employees on how the business will operate both in the short and medium term and then communicating it clearly to the company.
- Poor contingency planning and resilience of many companies.
- Planning for the future presents challenges when there are so many unknowns. Many companies are focussed on planning for the most likely scenarios in the next twelve months but have gone no further.
Observations and Implications
It was interesting to note the lessons from those companies who have weathered the storm. Often it was as straight forward as getting the basics right. As one participant put it “we were in a strong position going into the crisis, we have a lean business with limited overheads, a good order book, loyal customers, cost efficient, good working knowledge of the P&L and decent cash reserves”. Some companies took a more cautious approach, opting to rent rather than buy equipment and avoid committing to a heavy investment in assets. Others reacted quickly to the changing market and reduced costs, requested a loan, and then focussed on strategies for survival.
Crisis brings the importance of strong leadership and clear communication into sharp focus. The need for pragmatic leadership not panic was cited as a trait of the entrepreneur. Companies that failed to plan for resilience or contingency and to communicate effectively and frequently lost the confidence and trust of their employees. Those that had a process in place, or were quick to adopt one, and took time to ensure it was understood by the employees retained this trust and are in a good place to ‘hit the ground running’ as and when normal practice resumes.
Whilst planning for the future remains of utmost importance, it became clear that planning contingent on so many unknowns was difficult if not futile. Many found it easier to plan for various options in the short to medium term rather than guess what might happen too far into the future.
The Future of…
Some of the participants were able to give guidance as to what the future had in store for their sector. I have highlighted some of the key points below.
Charity. There are hard times ahead. The impact of the last few months will take a long time to recover. The future will either provide a bumper year as people commit to fundraising with people giving their time (e.g. volunteering) as well as their money, or the reverse as people are forced to consider their own finances more carefully and there is a lack of disposable income. Small local charities with poor cashflow and a lack of an online presence will suffer.
Events. Many believe there can be no return to mass gatherings until tests or a vaccine are made widely available. For large scale events it is almost impossible to put social distancing measures in place for both spectators and participants with many believing the resultant experience would deter people from participating. There is likely to be a focus on virtual offerings complimenting the physical offering in the future. There was however an overpowering sense of optimism that there will be a return to high levels of demand post lockdown with the public’s willingness to participate being guided by their personal attitude to risk. Some foresaw a renewed interest in events providing a company bonding experience. Wellbeing will remain important but without the ability to travel the focus will be on the domestic market. On the one hand some suggested that large event companies would survive whilst the small ones disappeared. An alternative future saw smaller events being the first to re-emerge, benefitting smaller charities. Will consumers support more local charity events that are close to their heart? If redundancies are likely then there could be a boost to freelancers in the industry. Either way one participant suggested they would carefully consider public opinion and reputation before starting up again.
Higher Education. There are hard times ahead. As many institutions race to convert courses online to cope with current restrictions. There is likely to be a large fall in overseas students in the future, which in turn has massive implications on funding with many students not required to pay fees until the last moment it is impossible to predict dropout rates. It is likely that the distance learning options will increase, this has implications to both the student experience and the many industries that have grown up to support higher education.
Medical Services. The medical world is currently preparing for a 2nd wave. At present there are empty beds on the ICU, unknown in recent times. People are beginning to use the NHS properly, not going to A&E and hospitals are adopting a more direct, efficient approach to treatment and correction. The handling of the crisis provided a good example of existing policy being adapted rapidly to suit the current threat. It was due to the hard work of the staff on the ground that made this happen. Urgency has shown what is possible, there is a continued need for collaboration within the NHS (e.g. GP practices, procurement, and delivery of services). The use of technology to support GPs, e.g. video and online consultations has had great benefits leading to reduced waiting times, convenience for patients and a humanised relationship between GPs and patient. Increased use of remote monitoring devices in care homes has also been a great help. Is the future wearable technology? The current crisis has highlighted the need to address our attitude to death, the expectation that modern medicine will ensure a long, sustained life and the resultant shock when this is not achieved. It has also helped raise awareness of care homes and social care.
There are concerns for the future, however. The reduction in presentations to GPs may lead to an increased strain on the NHS at a later date. Delayed operations over the past couple of months mean a high working rate will be required throughout 2021 just to reduce waiting times. Patients staying away from hospital also adds to the future burden. However, the sustained low activity has allowed a pause for thought. It is critical that the time is used wisely to prep for future high workloads. There is the continued need for increased funding, but will the taxpayer accept this? As one participant noted, there is a need for an NHS wide debrief to capture the many positives from the Covid crisis.
Property & construction. Although changing, the residential rental market should do well with continued enquiries from overseas, especially in London. Construction has continued throughout the lockdown, with orders remaining good. This is good for the supply chain (e.g. builders’ merchants). It likely that demand for commercial property such as warehousing and distribution will be strong, however as already suggested office space and retail rental is likely to be hit hard. Manufacturing hope to be back up to 100% production by June. Landlords have been greatly assisted by the rates grant, and for those that have given tenants rent holidays their revenue is backloaded rather than lost. They remain ‘cautiously optimistic’.
Retail. Currently planning for a phased return to work. There are challenges to operating safe stores; lone staff operating, low admittance to stores, PPE requirements, screens and reduced opening hours not only compromise the store experience for the customer but also put pressure on the financial viability of the strategy. Some stores are moving to appointment only for high value clients. The crisis has also given a boost to ethical shopping and sustainability. Recent consumer data suggests that there has been a focus away from formal wear towards loungewear, electricals, kids wear & beauty. Recent events have also expedited the move away from the old fashioned dept stores with low turnover of goods and a poor online offering. The future will see high turnover, innovative businesses with a good online offering. This in turn has expeded the re-evaluation of the role of stores, as consumers become more confident with e-commerce and move to smaller high street stores away from large malls. It is highly likely that discounting activity will also continue. The future is online with stores in support.
Travel & hospitality. This sector has been hit hard in recent months. The implications of which might see the repurposing of hotel space to accommodate group gatherings (e.g. conference space). International hotel chains could bring disparate companies together using technology i.e. hosting a conference in multiple hotels across countries at the same time. There will undoubtedly be a short term focus on domestic travel which is good for the local economy. Perhaps the hardest hit will be short breaks or ‘city breaks’ as travellers look to travel with more meaning, (i.e. education, volunteering, experience etc) in the future. The luxury market can offer isolation breaks to the top end of the market (i.e. private islands reached by private jet). For the remainder, it is likely that the industry can only start to recover once public opinion deems that it is safe to travel again.
What can I do next?
- Create small spaces in your schedule to spend time with family or continue with new hobbies/activities.
- Stay connected with friends and family.
- Focus on supporting the local / domestic economy.
- Consider your attitude to consumption and waste, do I need all this stuff?
- Reflect on your values and motivations, ask yourself, ‘what it important to me / my family?’. Have the discipline to change what isn’t working.
- Focus on the need for self-care, both mentally and physically. If I want to, how do I make the change?
What can my business do next?
- Consider innovative ways to bring your employees together and create a genuine team experience.
- Conduct a survey of employees to understand their attitude to remote working with a view to providing options to suit them and the company culture.
- Form working parties to look at future working practices. Involve all levels within the business.
- Review the existing business model to become leaner, more efficient and minimise exposure to risk.
- Focus on the basics
- Aim for a good customer mix, reduce exposure to a single market
- Create a well thought through ‘road map’ for employees on how the business will operate both in the short and medium term and then communicate it clearly
- Prepare for future shocks. Create a crisis plan and contingency measures.
- Plan for the future. Consider the most likely scenarios for the next twelve months but beware forecasting too far into the unknown.
The actions and reactions of business to the past few months may well shape the future of the workplace. It would be fair to say that in many cases the pandemic has accelerated or expedited change in behaviour rather than created new patterns of behaviour. Those businesses that have taken stock of their situation and the changed environment they now find themselves in are preparing to re-engage with the market, altered, and fortified for the hard times ahead. For those that are unprepared or unwilling to change a bleaker future awaits.
What is harder to foresee is a realistic and enduring change in the behaviour of individuals and therefore society. For many the ‘Optimism bias’ is strong and they hope for a better future whilst also fearing that there will simply be a gradual return to previous habits and behaviours. There is a fundamental difference between ‘want’ and ‘will’. The desire and discipline to change from a comfortable, if vaguely disappointing old habit to a new, challenging but more rewarding behaviour. To embrace realistic, enduring change requires more than just willingness. However, it is more achievable than we might think.
One participant perfectly described her behavioural change arc as being one of initial reflection leading to clarity which galvanised her into action resulting in lasting change. Many have undertaken the process of reflection over the past couple of months, which if correctly guided can lead to clarity around values and most importantly provide a clear action plan consisting of small, achievable steps and a dose of trial and error along the way. By celebrating successes, noting errors but always moving forwards it is possible to achieve lasting change.
The door now stands ajar and we are taking the first steps to recovery and beginning to think of life returning to normal. If we genuinely want to make this a ‘new normal’ then now is the time to consider your thoughts and turn them into actions; reflection is nothing without action. As another participant remarked “we will only get realistic change through provoked, persistent dialogue”. Rather than letting others drive this dialogue, drive it yourself.
My sincere thanks to the those who gave me some of their precious time and more importantly their frank insight and intelligent observations upon which this report is based.
If you would like to discuss any of the aspects of this report or explore the ways in which Coaching might assist you or your business, please get in touch.
Graphics provided by Controlled Events Ltd.