Chris Read: Be prepared for inevitable business change

Chris Read is back from his sojourn to Uganda just in time for the end of the second lockdown. Here he reflects on how businesses can bounce back from these unprecedented times...

After 20 days in Uganda, I am now back in the UK. The temperature has dropped somewhat and there are fewer leaves on the trees.

Other than that, nothing much has changed despite Lockdown No 2 nearing its end. The M25 is still a multi-lane speedway and the UK border was surprisingly cheerful.

This compares starkly to the rough roads of rural Uganda and their comically rude authorities. In any event, it’s election time out there. It’s better to get out before it gets too bloody: 38 dead already this week, shot by the security forces and the election is still three months away. What they lack in registered Covid-19 deaths they make up with gunshot wounds.

On reflection here in the UK, as one government replaces another or as ideological wars over Brexit rage, aggression is reserved for Twitter and Question Time. We are lucky that we no longer shed blood in the name of our philosophies, ethics and politics. It’s great to be home.

Reflections and retrospectives

As we draw closer to the Christmas and New Year season, there will be many reflections and retrospectives on 2020. I think we all know the kind of tone these will take. Word counting the most overused word of 2020 – “unprecedented” – will be fun.

In these unprecedented times, it would not be too unexpected to see further lockdowns put in place in 2021 as we stop/start our way back to normality, testing the efficacy of the range of vaccines which will no doubt gain clearance.

That brings us nicely onto what is or will be ‘normality’. Normality infers a type of lifestyle that represents the past, an existing condition, a steady-state. I personally do not believe that the times to come will mimick the times before.

For example, I expect we will be more tolerant of ‘state’ intrusion going forward. I anticipate that we will more readily accept top-down restrictions and surveillance, all for the greater good.

I am now in isolation for two weeks. I have already been contacted by the UK government’s coronavirus isolation assurance team. I am gladdened and comforted by this new Orwellian oversight.

In Uganda, everyone carries an ID card. Everyone also has their own personal medical card with vaccination information. Before an individual goes to the doctor, this card must be presented. Will we see a time where we also must show our medical history to gain access to services, shops, leisure facilities and airports? I would be more than happy to carry around my yellow International Certificate of Vaccinations to indicate my contagion status.

‘Extraordinarily low’

For Uganda, the death toll to Covid-19, today sits at 168 since the pandemic began. With a population of 44 million, this is an extraordinarily low headline figure. This pattern is not too dissimilar across other countries in sub-Saharan Africa (except for South Africa).

There are a number of reasons why Covid-19 spread so little over there.

Firstly, in that part of the world, they are used to dealing with epidemics from typhoid, cholera, malaria and, more recently, Ebola. People from different parts of the country do not mix. This is put down to low social mobility, lack of transport infrastructure and social boundaries, hemmed in by tribal adherence.

Uganda is also dominated by young people. Over 50% of the population is under 15. Life expectancy is just 63. By contrast, over one in six Brits (15.21%) are already over 70.

Lastly, the social structure of communities is built around clans, villages, and districts. Political organization and community mobilization work from the grassroots upwards. This delivers a very cohesive response to disease in which the people behave consistently and with complete compliance. This differs from our top down approach, which is a bit hit and miss at the best of times, delivering a range of confusing options and differing tiers of isolation.

Edging forward into a life beyond the current ever-present threat of infection, towards putting the economy back on a sound footing again, I think it’s time not for disruptive business models but for constructivism. What do I mean by that? It’s an opportunity for businesses to not only become more market savvy – working more closely with their customers and partners, but also more societally and environmentally aware.

For many companies, traditional norms in the business cycle have changed. They have become slower. Slower payments from clients, slower decision-making on new projects, greater caution in planning, married with increased attention on mental wellbeing. These all are facets of our current busines lives.  

Just to stand still in business, it often feels like we must run pretty fast. However, the most effective way to prepare for the inevitable change that is coming in business, is to slow down and even stop what we normally occupy ourselves with for a while.

In these carved out quieter times, we create a powerful opportunity to lift our head over the parapet and take that longer view which can make planning so worthwhile.

Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas