As 2CVers in London gathered to watch the Prime Minister’s speech just last Monday (though that feels like an age ago now), it became clear we are living in unprecedented times. A sense of a need to respond, coupled with the uncertainty of exactly how to respond, has left many of us struggling to know how to rearrange our lives to fit this new reality.
The fear of loss of life is rightly most people’s first concern, but second to that is the fear that a damaged economy will lead to many more devastating impacts on our lives long after the pandemic is over. The consequences that the pandemic will have on the economy are deep and wide-ranging; it’s difficult to think of any sector that won’t be affected. From the obvious impacts on airlines as countries shutter their borders, to the painful hit to small businesses that rely on constant consumer cashflow to pay rent month-to-month, it is and will continue to be a monumentally challenging time. But as always, there is hope, that by turning to the best of ourselves, we can muddle through it. Already, key threads have emerged that are pulling people together in these strange times, and businesses and individuals alike are beginning to figure out how we can respond.
It’s important that we are all honest and open with each other – maintaining good communication and transparency helps us to build up common trust in a time of anxiety, and this rings true for communication from companies to consumers too. A notice from The Old Vic theatre as they closed their run of Endgame felt particularly candid, as they offered refunds whilst also pointing out their financial dependence on the sale of those tickets, asking customers to consider donating their ticket price in return for a video recording of the show and further content. Their honesty was appreciated, and many decided to make the donation, thereby supporting The Old Vic’s work into the future. A local bookseller on my high street in Clapham has closed its doors, leaving a note in the window to implore people to consider ordering books via phone to keep the business ticking over.
Honesty is a particularly difficult path to tread if you are a business that’s going to potentially profit from social distancing – like supermarkets, who are still seeing unprecedented levels of demand for staple products. They are doing all that they can to assuage the fears of the public, letting news camera crews into their supply chain to show that the shortages people are worried about don’t exist; jointly signing an open letter to ask customers to consider the needs of others as they do their shopping; and more recently introducing special hours of service for the elderly and NHS staff. Encouraging more mindful spending and putting people before profit is now not only the decent thing to do, it’s necessary.
Adapting to extraordinary consumer behavioural change will be difficult for many businesses, especially smaller ones without the financial cushion to take risks. However, for those that do have the power to do so, offering flexibility to customers where possible will surely be welcomed. A good early example of this came from Lush, who put up posters in their high street windows to invite everyone to come into their stores and wash their hands for free. Other businesses have taken care to adjust their policies around cleanliness and hygiene to reassure customers, including Deliveroo, who now offer a no-contact delivery service where food is left outside customers’ doors – though in such cases it is important to get the tone right, as it could risk consumer anger if businesses are perceived to be finding ways to profit from the crisis.
A really powerful example of business agility is that of luxury conglomerate LVMH, who have switched their perfume production to producing vast quantities of antibacterial gel, offered free of charge to the French authorities – Clarins followed suit this week. A surprising move from two luxury powerhouses that can feel distant to many consumers, their actions showed their willingness to contribute to the global effort to combat the virus. As government legislation continues to move quickly, we will all have to be flexible and adaptable to huge changes, presenting an opportunity for larger companies to keep finding new ways to contribute.
This brings us to the final important pillar of response, and something we’ll all need to rely on much more in the months to come – our communities. Business and community can feel sometimes feel distant concepts, but as the LVMH efforts show, it is important to recognise that business doesn’t go on without people. Individuals are sensitive to this extraordinary context, and companies need to show commitment where they can, treating workers with respect and care as we all navigate these difficult times. Greggs were quick off the mark here, immediately confirming that all their staff would receive full pay if they needed to take sick leave, long before any government guarantees were made. And businesses have also made moves to support our vital public services such as schools and healthcare – for instance, fitness Youtuber Joe Wicks is now offering free PE lessons every day to kids who are off school during the outbreak, with the first stream already watched by 1.8m viewers. A huge number of cafés and coffee shops, from Pret to Itsu, have moved to provide discounts and free hot drinks to NHS staff, as we all gratefully recognise the great sacrifice being made by those on the front line of the health service.
Then there is serious community pulling together going on enabled by social media, including a sudden rush of local Facebook groups of volunteers offering support and help for tasks like shopping and prescriptions to the elderly and those with a need to self-isolate. Social media brands are playing some part by highlighting official information sources and sharing public health advice, but any further opportunities to strengthen social links will surely be welcomed in an isolated time.
In the end, we can look to the hope that this empathy and community will remain, and we will more fully recognise its value in the future. Being in isolation leads us to better recognise the importance of the energy we give and gain from being with others – and I hope we will continue to make time and space for this long into the future.