What does the future hold for UK businesses?

The world is more connected than ever, and the pandemic has shown us that nearly every country on the planet can see their economies paused. To find out more about global trends, Business Leader spoke to five business professionals to get their take on inward investment, working patterns and e-commerce.

The Panel

Christian Bartsch
Partner, Bird & Bird

Pattie Walsh
Partner, Bird & Bird

Ann Hiatt
Investor, Non-Executive Director and Author

Chris Jones
EVP Marketing and Services, Descartes Systems Group

Emmanuel Logan-Moll
Managing Director, All Seas Capital

Whilst every country and culture is unique, the pandemic brought one commonality – lockdowns and working from home more. The debate has been polarising, with many saying working from home is the future and those in the opposite camp stressing that the office remains the natural habitat for work.

Of course, forced remote working because of a lockdown is different to flexible working agreed in peace time, but the reality is that whatever you call it – how people view work is fundamentally changing.

Pattie Walsh is a Partner at international law firm Bird & Bird, and is based in Hong Kong. She says that this new way of working isn’t all nirvana: “There is hype about the new workplace, and no doubt many good things have come out of this ‘experiment’ of where and how we work – but when you’re advising clients with global workforces, you get to see some of the challenges too.

“One of which is limits and who sets them. There has been massive burnout amongst employees who are always on, and I believe there is a disconnect to how leaders feel things are going, and how people on the ground feel. It’s important to ensure that works doesn’t become a dangerous situation and you never switch off.”

Pattie continues by stressing that there are many that can’t work from home: “Employers may be keen to change their working structure to save real estate costs, but many haven’t created an adequate remote working set-up and a recent global survey showed that one in ten employees don’t have access to good Wi-Fi. It come down to a choice, but then who choses and who decides – is it the boss or the staff?

“You also need to be careful about the transfer of costs from the workplace to the individual, because in Hong Kong it’s very expensive to keep the aircon running, and many young people benefit form workplace benefits such as the subsidised gym or food.”

BEWARE OF THE ‘HIPPO EFFECT’

Ann Hiatt is a Non-Executive Director and consultant who previously worked at Google and Amazon. American born, she currently lives in Spain.

On new working patterns she says: “Like anything it’s about what is the best outcome for all, and I would say be aware of the ‘Hippo Effect’ – it’s the highest individually paid person and what it means is that innovation and change usually ends in meetings, because everyone agrees with the boss. It can’t be just the boss who decides on how we work.

“How we’re optimising our environments is important too because people are going to want spaces where they can work uninterrupted, and it may be that people work at home, but come to the office for culture, for celebrations and for that energy that work brings because it can be challenging to create this on Zoom. Certainly, we’ve recognised that some of the old routines are no longer serving us well.”

INTERNATIONAL TRADE

Like work, international trade is a binding element that brings people, businesses, and countries together. And no doubt, there hasn’t been a more challenging time for the brave exporters operating in the world, and to find out how trade has been impacted in the last year, we spoke to Chris Jones from global logistics firm Descartes.

He says: “We have looked at trade flows for the first two months of 2021 and compared these to the first two months of 2020. China has been the biggest winner and its exports to the UK are up 36%, whilst the EU’s exports to the UK are down 19%, and overall UK imports were down 10%. You can say that these numbers were influenced by Brexit and Covid-19 but one surprise for me was that US imports to the UK were down 27%.”

INWARD INVESTMENT

Like international trade, global challenges will have impacted investment activity and to find out to what extent, we spoke to Emmanuel Logan-Moll, who is the Managing Director of All Seas Capital – a private equity investor that operates across Europe, typically dealing with businesses that have revenues of between £50m and £500m.

He comments: “One of the big trends we’re seeing, is that the investment market has become binary and there is a flight to quality, with investors looking for high quality assets that have not been impacted by the situation and are likely to carry on doing well and paying high multiples. At the opposite of this, you have assets that would have traded at a scouted valuation previously and they are struggling to trade and get investment.

“Healthcare and technology are sectors that haven’t suffered, and you’re seeing investors gravitating towards these. Overall, there is a still wall of capital looking for opportunities and those that match criteria are receiving a lot of attention.

“It’s going to get busier too, because all the deals that were paused at start and middle of 2020 due to Covid-19 will happen – so you’ll get many more deals and more transactions.

“Looking forward, in the next six to 18 months, the expectation is that there will be more problem companies once state support stops because they will have taken on additional debt, so you can expect more business failures in the market too.”

START-UP DISRUPTION

With so much funding around and many people assessing their careers, Ann Hiatt believes this combination will spark a start-up revolution.

She explains: “At the start of the pandemic all IPOs disappeared, and then when the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to zero, that changed behaviour and investors moved from safer bets like bonds and started investing them into companies. Then we saw some major IPOs – like Airbnb and Snowflake.

“This has trickled down into start-ups too, and I’m seeing many smaller companies and individuals getting funding. People are thinking ‘why don’t I launch a business as my life is disrupted anyway?’.

“It’s fun to see this happen because these are the unicorns of the future and I’m seeing lots of companies that operate in the EdTech and HealthTech space too.”

WILL THE E-COMMERCE BOOM BE SUSTAINED?

Alongside HealthTech and EdTech, e-commerce is a sector that is thriving, and Chris Jones believes that this will only continue.

He comments: “E-commerce moved five years ahead in one year and for both small and large retailers. I don’t expect this to slow down and if anything, it will only continue to grow as consumer habits have changed forever when it comes to how and where we shop.”

Christian Bartsch, who is a Partner at Bird & Bird also agrees.

He says: “We’re seeing clients changing and adapting very quickly in this space, and the changes they’re making won’t be reversed. I think there is still a space for physical retail for many but for the majority it will be a blended strategy and for some companies that haven’t had a successful digital strategy, it has been a case of being in survival mode.

“I’d also say there is a wider point around digital and technology and how it is a great democratiser. It’s been interesting to look at businesses with legacy infrastructure that usually make decisions slowly play catch-up very quickly and start to make decisions quicker too and this has been facilitated by technology and change.”

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