One British retailer has Covid-19 lessons to offer

‘Next’ sheds light on how to prioritise functions and work around a crisis, which could be useful to those struggling to cope

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk past a Next store on Oxford Street in London, Britain December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo
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It was all going splendidly until it wasn't. That was the takeaway from a major audit by fashion brand Next about the balance of forces in the workplace since the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown began in the UK in March. What it lays out for the future is a roadmap for society at large, and more specifically managers and the workforce.

A deep dive into the results statement of the British clothing brand retailer (full disclosure: I am neither a shareholder nor even a customer of the firm) summarises how well-managed businesses are coping. And what comes next.

“From a business perspective the pandemic has been hugely expensive and disruptive – but there has been much to learn from the experience,” it says. “Having to work from home has opened our eyes to new and better ways of working, collaborating and communicating amongst ourselves and with our suppliers. The world had obviously changed and one of the keys is embracing that reality."

With the UK government teetering on the brink of a second national lockdown, the country is not clear of shocks just yet.

When the first one was enforced six months ago, it was too late to "squash the sombrero", to use the graphic term employed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His (unfulfilled) wish was to kill off the familiar graph of infection cases spiking with a clunking fist of lockdown. Unfortunately he acted at least 10 days after the likely optimum moment to strike.

The effect on Next's business was an immense shock. More than half a million square metres of warehousing was repurposed to achieve social distancing. This included one-way systems, perspex shielding, sanitation equipment, temperature checks and a raft of new operating procedures. After just two weeks, more than 4,000 employees were asked to retrain how they did their jobs.

The lessons learned were broken into three sections: the good, the bad and the unknown.

The single-best feature of the lockdown conditions for employees was the slashing of the daily commute, which has caused stress and inconvenience for those undertaking long trips. The report said it was now open to question why either an employer would require or an individual would want to undertake lengthy daily journeys in future.

A firm at the forefront of worldwide procurement of “fast fashion” has a far-flung supply chain. The auditors found that the shift to digital platforms encouraged more regular contact with suppliers and closer collaboration through video calls. It added that its corporate procedures had held back small teams more capable of taking decisions.

Next's "bad" aspects called into question the very purpose of corporate life. "We have missed the chance conversations, unplanned questions, the ability to learn from colleagues, along with the training and camaraderie that the office provides. At its best, an office can be a cauldron for new ideas and enhanced collaboration.”

The killer assessment of video conferencing was that it often amounted to a colossal waste of time. “Large video calls have encouraged the proliferation of one of the business world's most damaging practices – death by deck: slideshow presentations that transform meetings from productive exchanges of ideas into boring, one-way lectures; with the "presenters" rattling through bullet points already visible to their stultified audience.”

So what about the outlook? Nobody knows. The firm’s leadership was careful not to lay out the obvious pitfalls, never mind the stored-up problems not yet apparent. “The prospects for the next six months remain as uncertain as the outlook for the virus itself; never has our guidance been more tentative or as broad in its possible outcomes," it warned.

How it intends to approach the coming rebirth (or cataclysm) is vaguer still. “We will allow the balance between working from home and in the office to evolve over time, allowing each functional area to work its way towards the optimum working practices for its particular needs and its particular people.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the construction site of the new dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) currently under construction on the Harwell science and innovations campus near Didcot in central England on September 18, 2020.  The building is being constructed to manufacture vaccines for Covid-19 and is set to open next summer. / AFP / POOL / RICHARD POHLE
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen at the new vaccine manufacturing centre near Didcot in England on Friday, has struggled to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak. AFP

“We will, however, set out some very clear simple principles, which we expect people to follow when determining the balance between home and office working – above all else we need to be clear that the business must come first.”

Global leaderships – in politics as well as the business sphere – would do well to boil down the priorities for the weeks ahead in similar terms. They, like rest of us, are likely to endure more turbulence and loss. It is somehow reassuring to know that the framework for progress can be set out along simple lines.

The initial lockdown produced productivity gains. The reasons behind this bounce were varied and the advantages need to be consolidated. As The National's series on the future of work-life balance demonstrated last week, change is already well entrenched. It is also true that the current set-up is deeply flawed and a better balance must be struck.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National