If reports prove correct, even short of the reasonable worst case, the Covid-19 epidemic could mark a major change to the routine and lifestyles of individuals, organisations and communities. The virus is likely to test our societal bonds as we move into the government’s ‘Delay’ phase of strategic planning. Maintaining a balance between response and routine for the majority will be important at the same time.

Communities will be an important element in any recovery. Even as people self-isolate and adopt social-distancing measures, communities may prove to be the bedrock of our societal cohesion and can do much to provide mutual support at times of collective stress. They may be equally important during any recovery phase by helping to get social, commercial and economic activities bouncing forward.

Here are 10 actions for business communities to consider as the epidemic develops:      

  1. All for one, one for all. Overcoming this unprecedented challenge will involve everyone in the community playing their part in hygiene and containment measures. When even a small part of the population fails to be inoculated for common diseases then the whole population is exposed. With this epidemic, it is important that staff and organisations are encouraged to adhere to the latest medical advice (see Reference 1). (Action: We all have a part to play.)                                                                                                      
  2. A dose of reality. In this social-media age, people are sceptical of experts and authority, and tend to show a lack of deference. Hence, it can be expected that some will not follow best advice. Should schools remain open, some parents may still withdraw their children: advice that masks will not prevent infections may not stop masks being worn. (Action: Plans need to be adjusted to cater for minority dissent or disbelief, including fake news.)
  1. The importance of self-reliance. As with any major incident, especially one that is wide scale, we cannot expect the authorities to respond to all demands: they may be extremely stretched. Hence, individuals and businesses should make provision – and take responsibility – for doing as much as they can for themselves and their neighbours. This can be a long-term lesson for other events. (Action: Planning and preparation is the key to self-reliance.)
  1. Explanation alleviates fear. Education and openness can do much to dispel apprehension and fear of the unknown. The fact that there is no cure for Covid-19 (as yet) and many people may be affected – up to 80% of the population in the worst case – then it is important to explain the reason behind actions and their potential consequences. (Action: Business should be active in relaying messages to their communities from official bodies and recognised experts.)
  1. Trust is a vital ingredient. If confidence in authority is to be maintained and dissent minimised then trust has to be retained – like reputation, once lost it is very hard to regain. According to one report in 2018-19, 40% of people reported that many of the people in their neighbourhood could be trusted: this has declined every year since 2012-13 (see Reference 2). Confidence can come through a single voice of authority which does not have to be the CEO or a politician. The message needs to be reassuring, measured and frequent to as many as possible. (Action: Identification of this reassuring voice should be identified early and maintained.)
  1. Empowerment can help. If people are consumed elsewhere or unavailable through illness then those remaining should have the authority and knowledge to be able to carry on. Empowerment is a powerful motivator providing people know the overall objectives of the organisation and are given the latitude and resources to achieve them when plans go awry. (Action: Ensuring staff are prepared for substitutions and providing mission-critical directions then they may shine beyond expectations.)
  1. Pacing and proportionality. This epidemic may last for several months and even reappear as a second wave late in the year. It may become endemic in the population until a vaccine is deployed. Taking precipitous response measures risks making people frustrated with onerous restrictions by the time they become necessary. Hence, business should prepare for a lengthy period of disruption which will require pacing, proportionality and endurance. (Action: Substitute staff and alternative supply chains should be considered in difficult market conditions.)
  1. Leadership and morale. Like any major challenge, the ability to rise to the situation and ultimately realise success is down to leadership at all levels in an organisation. Such leadership maintains morale in the workforce and it’s that element which brings the best out of people and drives their efforts to ensure the business thrives. When people are dispersed, as occurs with home working, then leadership becomes harder but all the more important. (Action: Business leaders should have a deliberate outreach programme and use technologies like Skype to ensure that isolated staff are involved regularly.)
  1. Maintaining social order. If the situation deteriorates, the police may be unable to deal with minor offences and need to focus only on the most serious crimes and keeping public order. Maintaining orderly food supplies will be of paramount importance for the authorities: MI5 famously reported in 2004 that the UK was ‘four meals away from anarchy’. Ensuring safety and security will therefore fall more heavily on businesses and extra precautions may be needed. This also applies to neighbourhoods and staff. (Action: Security measures should be reviewed in the expectation of greater self-reliance.)
  1.  Adapting to a new situation. It is not unreasonable to expect that business communities may look somewhat different when the worst of the epidemic is over. Smaller businesses especially may struggle to survive a prolonged downturn in revenue, airlines can expect to see some consolidation (Flybe being an early casualty) but even larger retailers, travel companies, hotels, etc, may all tussle to both survive and thrive. A return to the status quo ante is unlikely and people’s purchasing habits may be disrupted for the medium term. This may require adaptation across large sectors of business. (Action: Anticipation of change through, for instance, horizon scanning is an activity that should begin now even though the extent of change cannot be predicted.)

References:

  1. See here for useful links on official advice.
  2. Repairing our Social Fabric: The state of community in Britain today, Onward report.