How has the business world changed since the pandemic?

It’s been nearly two years since the UK first went into lockdown, and the move that forced most of us to stay at home has changed our lives in several ways since. But how has the business world been affected during that time? Business Leader investigated.

The workplace

Since the pandemic began, the workplace has undoubtedly experienced tremendous change. Home/hybrid work became the norm for many and for those who did have to go into work, there were social distancing measures to follow. But that’s not all.

Ben Thompson, CEO at Employment Hero, provides an overview of how the situation has changed.

He comments: “One of the biggest changes has been the rise in remote working and the ability to hire people anywhere in the world. Businesses have adapted their ways of working and are now onboarding and managing more people remotely.

“Companies have also had to change the way they support their employees’ financial, physical and mental wellbeing. Workplaces are now more than just an office with a few desks and chairs. Employers need to attract and retain talent by having a creative and supportive workplace where people can learn, develop and thrive – no matter where they’re working from.”

According to Melis Abacıoğlu, the Founder of HR wellbeing platform Wellbees, the rise of hybrid working also ties in with employee wellbeing.

She explains: “According to a recent Microsoft report, people tend to work up to three hours more when working from home. This means there needs to be more focus on employee wellbeing, both on an individual as well as organisational level, to help prevent burnout and create workplaces both online and offline that people love.”

In a survey of 500 UK HR decision-makers, Towergate Health & Protection also found that 86% of employers believe their employees would like more support for their health and wellbeing.

Brett Hill, Distribution Director at Towergate Health & Protection, explains the findings: “Two years on, the country thankfully seems to be emerging from the pandemic, but it has irreversibly changed many lives.

“The pandemic has altered the way we live and work and has changed our outlook and expectations. Employees need greater health and wellbeing support now than ever before and employers need to look at new ways to assist their staff that matches with the change in circumstances and growth in need.”

Wellness

Employee mental healthAs staff became increasingly interested in new ways to support their mental wellbeing, employers have started to invest more in these types of initiatives.

Melis Abacıoğlu explains.

“Recent Benefax and Wellbees reports, based off UK HR professionals, show that the HR department will be spending 60-80% more in 2022 on wellbeing projects,” continues Melis. “There was a minor drop in 2020 when the pandemic hit, but in 2021, we saw that spending increased hugely.”

Although we’re now seeing additional investment in employee wellbeing, does this mean wellbeing initiatives have changed since the start of the pandemic? Melis says they have.

“Wellness initiatives in the workplace, before the pandemic, were mostly related to physical wellbeing with a focus on health management. During Covid-19, the focus has shifted towards a more holistic approach. In line with this trend, the ROI measurement has mostly been focused on lowering the annual insurance premiums rather than directly helping employees.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, this notion has shifted towards ‘wellbeing analytics’, where HR professionals are reading the signals from employees in an aggregate way to understand daily wellbeing levels and needs. Furthermore, as work itself became hybrid, the way wellbeing is being delivered has been digitalized, with major spending in employee wellbeing platforms being seen across the board.

“Moreover, wellbeing in some companies shifted in its form. According to a global Bersin report titled “the Healthy Organization” and spanning 100 organisations around the world, those companies that look at wellbeing not at an individual level but at an organisational one, focusing on getting everyone from C-level to line managers on board, tend to deliver 2.2 times higher financial returns, tend to be 2.8 times more adaptive to change and 3.2 times more likely to have engaged employees.

“In other words, these organisations do not look at employee experience and wellbeing as two separate entities.”

According to Ben Thompson, there are also additional benefits to such initiatives, plus several wellness trends that we’re currently seeing in the workplace.

“The implementation of holistic workplace wellness programmes can see a huge return on investment, from a drop in absenteeism to an improvement in retention, and greater rates of presenteeism, as well as an increase in employee happiness,” says Ben.

“The promotion of better work-life balance for every employee is another trend we are currently seeing. It is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to improve your employees’ mental health. Businesses are discouraging working outside of hours and making sure that teams take leave, for example.

“We have also seen an increase in companies offering financial wellness through the offer of confidential sessions with a financial adviser, access to discounts, and the introduction of savings packages.”

eCommerce

Although the UK high street has been on the decline for many years, closing physical stores and keeping the public indoors helped eCommerce giants soar to new heights of wealth. Amazon, for example, managed to reach a valuation of $1.7 trillion.

There were also wider changes to the general eCommerce landscape, as Mark Walker-Smith, Head of Business, UK & EMEA at Sekel Tech, explains.

He says: “It’s clear that the pandemic changed purchasing habits in many ways – from the rise in online sales and the increased use of digital channels to the changes in where and how people are spending their money (for instance, an increase in grocery store buying to support more home cooking rather than dining out is a trend that’s here to stay).

“eCommerce is about more than just digital/online sales – the interaction with the consumer has evolved and become more complex. The goal here is to provide a unified retail experience with seamless social and local searches, options to explore convenient physical channels, browsing to order fulfilment, and delivery without any break in the experience.”

David Ripert, Co-Founder and CEO of Poplar Studio, also looks to the examples of 3D modelling and augemented reality.

He says: “Technologies such as 3D modelling and augmented reality were still considered a nice-to-have pre-pandemic. Since then, we’ve seen dramatic changes in customers’ digital habits.

“Take eCommerce for instance – the explosive growth of this area during the pandemic forced digital-hesitant retail businesses to enter the space, which naturally resulted in a packed online marketplace. This made shoppers demand better customer experiences, leading many merchants to add 3D and AR content to their stores, resulting in a 94% conversion lift, on average.

“Fast forward to now and the augmented reality market is valued at $30.7 billion, with around 810 million active mobile users. Post-pandemic, businesses will be using more innovative technologies to reach customers as digital-only continues to grow in popularity and usage.”

Of course, the pandemic was characterised by several different periods. The rules varied between lockdowns and amongst the different parts of the UK; we had schemes like Eat Out to Help Out, the rule of six, and domestic and international travel restrictions too. All these things affected our everyday lives and our shopping habits. But how did companies navigate these changes to the way people spent their money?

“During the pandemic, according to industry trend analysis, brands that had a greater degree of digital integration at multiple touch-points outgrew their competitors significantly,” continues Mark.

“Industry data shows that 90% of leading retailers either have an omnichannel strategy or plan to invest in omnichannel tech when it comes to offering digital experiences, while only 8% think they have mastered omnichannel.

“Key to an omnichannel strategy is Organic Discovery coupled with optimised and personalised Customer Engagement, which will bring down the cost of customer acquisition, support ‘knowing your customer’ in much more granular detail and lead to better customer retention and loyalty.

“The companies that have been successful during the pandemic are the ones that either had digital transformation at the heart of their business/operating model or could move very quickly to react and speed up the availability of their digital capabilities.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and purchasing decisions and habits continue to evolve, again those companies that can position, tailor and effectively offer their services and products in the way (and via the channels) that consumers want to engage with will, ultimately, be the winners.”

Will things revert now Covid restrictions have been lifted?

At the end of February, the majority of Covid restrictions were removed, and now there is no longer a requirement to take any Covid-19 tests or fill in a passenger locator form when travelling to the UK from abroad. So, now we’re ‘learning to live’ with Covid, does this mean the business world will return to its pre-pandemic state?

Ben Thompson provides a mixed overview of what he believes will happen in the workplace.

He says: “Many businesses have adopted a hybrid working model, where people will split their working week into days in the office and days working from home. ‘Remote first’ is a relatively new description that employers are including in job descriptions to suggest that the role will predominantly be carried out remotely.

“If employers choose to enforce a return to the workplace, the health and safety of employees will be essential to ensuring they feel comfortable with returning to the office.”

Mark Walker-Smith provides a similarly mixed view for the eCommerce landscape.

“Whilst there will be a continuation of growth in online/digital-led commerce on the back of the shift during the pandemic, there has also been a shift in the way people are viewing and accessing ‘hyperlocal’ based services (typically products and services physically in-store within a couple of kilometres of home),” continues Mark.

“The Statista 2022 Retail Review shows that the use of digital devices before or during shopping will influence 58% of in-store sales, so the concept of ‘hyperlocal’ services and strategy is an important one that spans both the digital and physical space for brands.

“Certainly, for some product categories, there will always be the desire for convenient in-store interaction and purchase, even if the discovery and research is done digitally as a point of entry to the buying cycle – it’s clear that moving forward, choosing between online sales and brick-and-mortar stores won’t be the answer — instead brands will need to offer a compelling, optimised and personalised omnichannel experience.”

Covid has undoubtedly changed the rules of the game, and even though it’s no longer playing such a big role in our lives from a legislative point of view, it’s left a legacy on the business world that looks set to continue.

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