Adjusting to pandemic working has been interesting, and even fun.
The online chats bring amusing moments, like my Canadian friend whose dog wanders in to shot, or my South African colleague who has a ‘greenscreen’ backdrop which has him sat on a beach one day, but in a swish office the next.
I’m now playing my mate at chess online, whilst we have a beer, and every week I do appallingly in the Downtown Zoom team meeting quiz.
This transition to online has also meant conducting conversations in the #DowntownDen, a platform which really captures the business climate and shines a light on where we are economically and politically.
First, I spoke with Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Camden Town Unlimited and Euston Town Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), member of London Local Enterprise Partnership, and chair of Camden Giving. Then I had a four-way high street panel conversation with Professor Kim Cassidy, an expert in consumer behaviour and marketing, Joe Barrett, co-founder of Teenage Market and member of the Government’s High Streets Taskforce, and Matt Baker, member of the Grimsey High Street Review and consultant to the Local Government Association on high streets. Finally, I spoke with Peter Ryan, an international expert on customer engagement, BPOs, and call centres.
Three big themes emerged from all these conversations.
First, and mildly distressing for someone who likes to wear a shirt and tie, we have now shifted irreversibly to wearing casual attire whenever doing business. It seems highly unlikely that we’ll ever return to suit, brogues and Crombie!
Second, town centres have been going through a state of flux for quite some time, but the difficulties they have been experiencing are going to be accelerated by the coronavirus. As Simon stated: “What was going to happen to high streets over the next five to ten years, anyway, is now going to be fast-tracked to five to ten months.”
Kim spoke about how consumers were changing their behaviour, obviously more online shopping, but also developing a desire to spend their money more wisely. She stated: “People are thinking about the goods and services they are buying, the value of whatever they are buying, in terms of ‘is this going to last a long time?’, how good quality is it? Also, people will value the experience of going shopping more.”
Matt made the point that online retail has, for the first time in the UK, now outstripped high street sales.
And Peter spoke about how the shift to online – whether it’s meetings, retail, or booking holidays – meant companies must develop better business continuity plans for when crisis occurs. Those firms that cannot deal with their customers effectively when a problem arises are more likely to lose them afterwards. Kim also made the point: “How retailers are handling the people in the business is impacting consumers and that won’t go away very quickly, that’ll hang on. So, I think retailers need to be very careful about that and the long-term impact that might have on their image.”
But there was not an inevitability about all this change. Joe explained: “The role of local authorities is going to be absolutely huge after this crisis. If we can facilitate more partnerships and connections between the public, private and third sector our town centres will benefit as a result.”
Matt stated: “Local authorities have a critical role, it’s important that the Government empower them more. We’ve seen the local government minister move quite swiftly in this crisis to relax planning rules etc. and I think there are calls on him at the moment to continue that. Ultimately, I want to see local authorities return to having a role as custodians of place.”
The Government could also take further action to help high streets, such as shift the burden of business rates away from the occupier and on to the landlord, as Simon suggested. And this leads to the third significant point to come from these #DowntownDen conversations.
Real estate could be hit hard because of this pandemic. Peter made the point that there had already been a shift to call centres and BPOs moving to more homeworking, and that this has been accelerated by coronavirus. These centres have traditionally utilised a great deal of office space, the need for which will be reduced.
This is matched by the broader acceptance, based on the pandemic, that working from home, at least partially, inevitably calls for less office accommodation. All this is combined with retail and high streets shifting more rapidly to an online model which will change the value of high street property.
Some of the solution is in schemes like Simon’s excellent Camden Collective, where meanwhile use leases are used to fill vacant disused buildings to benefit the creative small business community, providing free and subsidised coworking space. But obviously this won’t be enough.
It seems, not only will we all be dressed more casually as a result of this pandemic, but our town centres and cities could also look dramatically different as both retail and office space change radically.
Simon Danczuk is Downtown in Business London Chairman.