The COVID-19 pandemic has had a marked effect on the way we do business. Whilst it’s easy to default to the doom and gloom messaging of the financial downturn and how the health crisis has hampered commercial activity, it’s also the case that businesses have been encouraged (and in some cases forced) to experiment and innovate with new ways of working.
For small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in particular, 2020 has been a whirlwind of change. In the face of adversity, they’ve pivoted to digital operations, reached customers that are further afield than they could previously have imagined, and managed to survive through what has been one of the most difficult periods on record.
As we now look to 2021, there are encouraging signs that the next 12 months won’t quite be as dismal as the previous 12. According to forecasts from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a full economic recovery isn’t likely to materialise until the end of 2022 – yet Britain’s economic climate should still see an improvement during 2021. It’s hoped that the dual effect of Brexit certainty and a mass vaccination programme will revitalise the nation’s finances and help firms to rebound from their current state of decline and ambiguity.
Looking beyond Brexit and COVID-19, however, what exactly can businesses expect on their route to recovery during 2021?
To return or not to return (to the office)
Perhaps predictably, 2021 may see the nation slowly shift back towards more traditional working practices. That is, of course, unless businesses decide that their workforce is just as effective when signing in from home.
COVID-19 forced a great many businesses to move towards a virtual working environment, with a substantial number investing significant resources into hardware, software, data hosting and training.
It would be misguided to suggest that companies will move away from physical office space in a wholesale manner, but it seems that more widespread remote working is here to stay for 2021 and beyond.
Customer experience will be more important than ever
On the consumer front, businesses may have found it a little harder to provide their products and services digitally. For those firms that had traditionally operated from physical locations, breaking into an already saturated online retail market became a matter of life and death – with those unable to make the transition falling by the wayside.
In the UK, old-school retail empires including Arcadia and Debenhams struggled to compete in a world dominated by online veterans such as ASOS and Amazon. Unable to adapt quickly enough, some of these brands found themselves unable to open their stores and even less able to provide housebound customers with the services that they demanded.
Moving into 2021, businesses would do well to learn from this salutary tale of commercial heel-dragging. Had Debenhams and Arcadia taken a faster and more agile approach to online adaptation, they might very well have established themselves as a digital force to be reckoned with.
In essence, the modern commercial world is all about meeting consumer demands in the here and now. Speed and efficiency are essential, and will continue to be so even once the pandemic is under control.
Financing may be tricky
2020 was a tough year financially. Whilst the UK Government was able to provide many small businesses with bounce back loans and grants given in lieu of mandatory closures, these far from plugged the gap between usual trading and economic ruin.
Moving into 2021, it seems unlikely that the authorities will be in a position to provide any significant financial support package since they too will be grappling with a much-inflated deficit. Brands may also struggle to gain assistance from high street financial institutions, and the reluctance to of banks to approve mortgage applications and other such loans may be a sign of things to come within the business financing world.
Should this prediction prove to be true, small business owners may at least be able to find the financial support they need in the form of a quick personal loan. The personal lending market has grown at pace and there are scores of firms that are willing to extend flexible lines of credit to individuals to use for whatever purpose they may need money for – including for business reasons.
To navigate through the many options, it follows that businesses may turn to online credit brokers such as Little Loans, who provide a fast and effective way to identify the most appropriate lender in any given circumstance. These firms generally facilitate much faster lending decisions and payments than traditional high street lenders, and could help company directors and entrepreneurs to weather any financial storm that comes in 2021.
A clearer picture on international trade
Finally, it is to be hoped that businesses will at last receive clarity on the status of international trade as we move into 2021. Whilst firms have been warned to prepare for Brexit since the result of the referendum was announced in 2016, precious little guidance has been provided and business leaders have rightly criticised the authorities for the lack of certainty they’ve provided in this field.
Outside of the Brexit bubble, many businesses will also hope that the British Government can strike new trade deals with other key strategic partners in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Whilst the Department for International Trade has not yet released any details regarding their longer-term plans, businesses hoping for a swift recovery from the COVID-19 crisis may wish to consider how they can benefit from cross-border trade on a much wider scale, whilst making the international connections they will need to facilitate it in the future.
More of the same when it comes to business innovation
All things considered, the UK’s commercial activity during 2020 can probably be summed with a single word: innovation. Even despite extremely tough trading conditions, businesses have found ways to trade online, with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg noting that many businesses “have acted creatively to find new ways to reach customers.”
As we move into 2021, it’s hard to imagine that things will change as far as business innovation is concerned. The UK’s commercial sector always seems to find a way through its problems, and there’s no reason that Brexit or the pandemic should be any different.