By Gareth Loudon – Professor of Creativity at Cardiff School of Art & Design and 20Twenty lecturer.
In these incredibly tough times for businesses, the need for finding ways to survive, let alone thrive, are more important than ever. Many companies have had to consider the prospect of reducing their workforce, either temporarily, through the UK’s furlough scheme, or through permanent redundancies. Some industries have been particularly impacted, and it is not clear how they will be able to get back to normal trading in the short term.
The pandemic has changed people’s lives, routines and behaviours significantly both in terms of work and leisure and as consumers. However, these changes can also create new opportunities.
Companies need to be alert and sensitive to the changing demands to see which opportunities they can possibly address. For example, the Royal Mint switched to making 1.9 million visors for the NHS to help protect the NHS workers from infection. Another example is a small outdoor events company who provided a school with a large Tepee to support outdoor learning and to help maintain social distancing.
Innovation Is Crucial
I am currently involved in a collaborative project with a company in Wales, P&A, who make garden furniture. The closure of all garden centres in the UK inevitably had a significant impact on their business. Particularly as the season for buying garden furniture is normally from March to September. However, one positive out of the crisis is that people are spending more time in their garden. Therefore, the challenge for P&A has been to switch to more online sales, which they have done well.
Another company I have been supporting in a small way is Rescape who provide virtual reality (VR) solutions for patients in hospital to help them reduce their levels of anxiety.
However, due to the Coronavirus and possible cross-infection in hospitals, this impacted on their business. Their innovative solution was to re-purpose their VR equipment for the NHS staff themselves (which they could keep at home) to help them with their own levels of anxiety.
Innovation is crucial whether that is re-purposing existing products, re-purposing existing skills, finding new modes of delivery, creating new products and services based on changing demands or finding new markets. Standing still is not really an option for most companies at present. Innovation is also crucial in regards to new ways of working.
New Ways Of Working
Even before the pandemic started, many companies have been exploring new ways of working and challenging the traditional workplace model – for example, by allowing work-at-home days or by joining co-working spaces such as Welsh ICE.
A small number of companies use remote working as their default and employees only meet up a few times a year for strategic planning days. Innovation requires time for reflection as well as time for action. When you ask most people where they get their best work ideas, they rarely say when they are at their office. Innovation also thrives on collaboration and by learning from others. Therefore, workplaces need to support flexibility in work hours as well as flexibility in where employees need to be.
Since the lockdown, remote working has become a requirement for many of us. Permanent remote working has several disadvantages; however, I would discourage companies from going back to their old ways of working after the pandemic is over. Remote working, blended with face-to-face interaction can provide a better balance of reflection and action, of individual focus (without distraction) and collaboration.
With people getting more used to online interaction (for example, through Zoom or Microsoft Teams), the opportunity for collaborating with individuals and companies in different locations might also become easier and more accepted – it might also result in a better quality of life for people and reduce the amount of travel. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for the development of new tools to support remote working more effectively. One company in Cardiff, Bait Studio, is doing just that. They are developing a new digital platform to allow visual effects companies to work remotely.
I don’t think the pandemic will just have a short term impact, I think it might well change people’s behaviours longer term and have a significant impact on certain industries. However, it will also open up new opportunities in other markets. Governments are already being encouraged to invest heavily in more environmentally sustainable industries.
What is clear is that companies will have to innovate to survive and to thrive post lockdown. The key to creativity and innovation is to be attentive, alert, aware and sensitive to the changing landscape and to new opportunities – and then to act. Companies who don’t innovate will struggle to survive.