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2021 – Reasons for Optimism

December 9 2020 by Paul Bulpitt

This hasn’t been an easy year. For some, it has been incredibly tough. I heard someone say that we’ve all been in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boats. For many, it has been rather bleak, and the prospect of Brexit x COVID isn’t an appetising thought to springboard us into 2021.

Amidst the various challenges – from working out how to pay the bills to deciding who to spend Christmas with – there are definitely reasons for optimism. As this is the last piece we’re going to post for 2020, we wanted to share a few:

Accelerated digital adoption

What New York business school Professor Scott Galloway has termed ‘The Great Acceleration’, is the phenomenon we’ve all witnessed. Many areas of our lives have seen a decade of progress in the space of eight weeks, from March to May 2020. The most visible case of this is with our buying habits as eCommerce adoption spiked and everyone, even my 90-year-old neighbour, scrapped for an Ocado delivery slot. For many of us, working from home has meant a calendar full of video calls. Before March, not everyone had the infrastructure to do this. Now, everyone has Zoom and their share price has rocketed accordingly. Businesses who had the infrastructure from the outset, have had to figure out what fits culturally. For example at Wow, we had to figure out from a cultural perspective how to run our internal meetings remotely, how to cultivate those daily social chats you’d have over lunch, and how to celebrate birthdays. (We did try singing Happy Birthday on a video call, which ended badly!)

Whilst we will go back to having in-person meetings, productivity, efficiency, and financial gains from working remotely are here to stay. I know decent-sized businesses who are giving up their office space, with no intention of returning. This will have a profound impact on the operating model of those businesses. Not just the rent savings, but the opportunities it opens up for expansion and recruitment.

There’s a counterpoint to this that accelerated progress comes with its challenges too. The accelerated progress for businesses who were previously cash-strapped means they are now much less likely to survive. The big winners from all this are clearly the big global tech companies. We all need to do our bit to support our local businesses with sustainable business models, who have just been very unlucky with various lockdown measures.

Purpose driven businesses come of age

Faced with the biggest shock that many businesses have ever encountered, with multi-year plans going up in smoke in a matter of hours, and business as usual seemingly gone forever – many business owners had no choice but to revert back to their founding principles. This connecting – or reconnecting – with core purpose is a trend we’ve witnessed in businesses of varying sizes, across varying industries. In a world with such uncertainty, doubling down on core purpose has turned out to be the most sustainable strategy. When many other performance indicators had been rendered useless, core purpose endured as a ‘North Star’ metric. In the toughest of times, it’s almost as if some people have fallen back in love with their businesses. That is truly beautiful, and a reason for optimism.

What’s interesting is that this trend is not just confined to founders and leaders. At Wow, like many organisations, this engagement with ‘why we do what we do’ and the satisfaction that comes from working with a clear purpose is team-wide. From speaking to colleagues, speaking to other business leaders, and from the data we have at Wow from our team engagement software Officevibe, we see higher job satisfaction than ever before. Therefore, we see greater engagement than ever before as we all have an intense focus to deliver on our core purpose – the why we do what we do.

As the shackles of incremental, endless, directionless, and pointless growth are removed – and is replaced with meaningful work. The coming years will be interesting as we reap the benefits of this revitalisation.

It’s important to note that as part of this intense focus, many have been overworking and are burnt out. My hope is that collectively we can pause over the winter break and come back refreshed for the year ahead with the same passion. But, without the need for the unsustainably manic work rate that has crept up on us all and become the norm this year.

Stronger culture than ever

Within businesses, we’ve all had a shared experience. This can’t help but create a sense of increased togetherness – assuming we have pulled or been pulled together! There’s a certain strength organisations will be imbued with. The collective and individual resilience that has been built is a reason for optimism.

Cash (and fundamentally profitable business models)

Some businesses have clearly had a terrible time this year. Some, like those in the hospitality and tourism industries, face an uncertain future through no fault of their own.

However, for many businesses, this year hasn’t been easy – but they have to weather the storm. The key to weathering the storm is cash. Fortunately, government support measures have enabled many businesses to end the year in a reasonably comfortable cash position, well placed to take on 2021. Next year there will inevitably be a significant number of businesses that fail. For those who can weather the storm, there will undoubtedly be opportunities that open up as other businesses, insufficiently capitalised, fall by the wayside.

To maintain a strong cash position, the best advice is to focus on profitability. There’s always lots of chatter about managing cash flow, but the biggest lever you can pull is to work profitably in the first place. If you can do this, there will be commercial opportunities, recruitment opportunities, and opportunities to do a tremendous amount of good – definitely a reason for optimism.

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