Path to revive city centres after pandemic is unclear - Rashmi Dube

Did Darwin have Covid in mind when talking about evolution and the survival of the fittest? That is what it is feeling like in many sectors across the country.

The pandemic has caused profound changes to daily life

If I was to review my journal for 2020 a decade from now, I would be surprised at just how quickly everything is changing, moment to moment, and how I am in the eye of history as it is being written by decisions that we as SMEs often feel we have no influence over.

I am scared to blink; if I do, I may miss something that seems so insignificant to me or my business.

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In fact, I need to remind myself that we all need to ensure we have a voice and that it is heard, and we can exert control around decisions that are made. However rapidly the world is changing, we can control our own responses to it.

In this storm, we also need to remember that we must control our personal commodity, data. Covid is an express train that has propelled evolution forward.

With talks in the news about increasing taxes, algorithms and the furlough scheme ending, this next chapter feels like the either the turning point or the tipping point. To make the situation a turning point, collaboration is required. Where we sit in this moment in terms of business and workers, we have seen a big push to get workers back to the offices.

The office spaces in most city centres still only sit a third full, but why should employees risk their health or that of their loved ones if they can work from home and are productive?

There are benefits from working from the office – one of which I personally have found is in terms of training.

Those that I train are missing out on listening in to other team members’ conversations and seeing how senior members of the team handle different situations with clients. I can, of course, tell the junior members of the team over a video call what has happened and their learning experience of it, but the impact is never the same and I question just how much a junior member of staff can learn in isolation.

I for one do miss being creative which I get from an office-based team working in a more physical form of collaboration.

The lack of workers also returning to the offices means there is a greater impact on the city centre’s eco system. Those shops such as Pret a Manger are feeling the impact. But vitally, many more have created a business around their core customer, the office worker, such as the Jacket Potato van.

With city centres in some parts feeling like ghost towns, the question on everyone’s lips is what is next? Social distancing is here for a long time and workers must feel safe in their return to work.

Morgan Stanley reported that only 34 per cent in the UK had returned to work compared to 76 per cent in Italy and 84 per cent in France. We were hit by the virus a little later, but those figures are dramatic.

What Covid has done is super charge a number of factors that were already in play and working from home has now been accelerated. There is also a danger that the city centre may end up dead and I am unclear how we will resurrect it.

Working from home of course doesn’t work for all sectors such as manufacturing or engineering who often sit outside the city in any event and are needed to be in location in order to achieve production.

These types of sectors face their own conundrums with trade unions arguing that a lot of places have not been made safe to return to work.

The tipping point is closer than we think and the moment of truth catapulting towards us. The question is how quickly can we get to the new future?

There is a strong desire to build back better and create a long-term vision, but just how we create new jobs and training programmes is unclear. Coupled with the risk of higher taxes soon, there is a fear for the SME that we will be strangled before we had time to take in a new breath of air in the bounce back phase.

Yes, this is unchartered territory. If we had not thought about the future of our businesses and communities and how they were likely to look in the next five years at the end of 2019, including the move to homeworking, it’s too late now to predict. We are already here.

The question now is how we adapt and change in ways that are beneficial for the economy, community, and planet.

As for reading my journal in 20 years’ time, I think Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a sociologist who coined the formulation that events are “restless – they change over time”.

He said that “events are never over…They always get refought and reinterpreted and remade. What Covid means to people in the future will have as much to do with them as it has to do with us.”

Rashmi Dube Partner – Gunnercooke