Adapting to change: How Covid changed my business

The past two years have seen many challenges for KBB businesses, mostly brought about by the global pandemic. What permanent changes have been made in response? And what has been learned from the experience? Matt Baker investigates…

Where the Covid pandemic takes us in the future is not something anyone is willing to predict. But there is one thing we can be certain of and that’s the changes we’ve all had to make to our personal and professional lives, and the learnings we’ve taken from those enforced changes.

Last month, the kbbreview Retailer Survey 2022 revealed that 89% of retailers rated the health of their business in 2021 as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Let’s look beyond those numbers and see what KBB businesses have to say about what they’ve learned from the Covid pandemic.

Practical changes

Forced restrictions and social distancing has led to offices and showrooms closing, opening and being adapted, but aside from temporary changes, there are some that have been more permanent. 

Jim Geddes, managing director of JS Geddes in Kilmarnock says: “Covid has ensured we have become more time efficient by working to appointments in the studio. This benefits our sales and showroom team, who can better plan their days. “We believe our time management throughout the company has become even better by consolidating all visits before making the journey.”

Geddes has revamped all the kitchen company’s business procedures, including appliance demonstrations that are now done by Zoom calls, rather than in the studio. “Again, this is a time benefit, but we still ensure we continue to carry out important procedures,” he says. “These procedural changes have been discussed by all staff members and a new company ‘Procedural Handbook’ will soon be issued.”

Geddes also says he has “reduced working hours for our staff by opening the showroom later and closing earlier.” But more on staffing and looking after employees later.

Sticking with companies that embraced technology through the pandemic, Liberty Fitting were already using technology on account of its director, Mark Conacher, being in Vancouver, Canada and remotely managing the company in Dundee. “We were forced to embrace technology many years before the pandemic hit. Now that everyone is more accepting and onboard with technology and video calling, it’s certainly made my life and communication with others a lot easier,” says Conacher.

“Although we’ve always used some form of video technology for communication, we never used it for surveys or meetings with customers. That’s now a permanent thing that we offer. It really helps when we have jobs over an hour away and now it has become acceptable to suggest this and have some of these meetings over Zoom. It’s not only great timewise for us and the customer, but brilliant for the environment as we save those two- or three-hour round trips in a diesel van.”

Hygiene became a focus for KBB businesses and Liberty Fitting, as frontline installers, were no different. “I don’t see that changing even after Covid dies down and I don’t see why it should change,” says Conacher.

For suppliers, especially appliance manufacturers, production has been a key area of focus during the pandemic. Smeg responded by making changes to hours of operation. “We introduced 24-hour shift working through manufacturing to deliver on a rise in demand,” says head of marketing John Davies. “We’ve also seen lots of new investment in systems and communications.”

Staff and wellbeing

For those who kept their jobs during the pandemic, which is a significant feat given the working climate, thoughts turned to our work-life balance and perhaps showing more consideration to our colleagues. In its ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021’ survey, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that the proportion of UK senior business leaders that have employee wellbeing on their agenda is 75%, up from 61% in 2020. And for line managers, that figure rose by 9% (67%, up from 58% in 2020).

So, on a personal level, does the KBB industry treat its employees any different since the pandemic hit? Have we seen a change in how employees view their own job?

Retailer Jim Geddes sees it as a two-way street. “Our team have shown tremendous commitment to the business. Our warehouse and installation people have worked weekends to try and catch up on the backlog. During the first lockdown our installation staff were all furloughed, but we as a company ensured that the final 20% of their salaries were paid. We are now reaping the benefits with our staff helping the business get back to normal by committing many extra hours.”

Liberty Fitting has become a more caring company, so says Conacher: “The pandemic forced us to stop and think about one another. We think more about how our staff are coping, how our customers are feeling, and the impact of our actions. Covid gave us a massive dose of perspective on  what was important,” he explains. 

“As far as treating employees differently, I would say I am now a lot more conscious of their health. I feel Covid has changed me and I’m more sympathetic and aware of the health and mental wellbeing of all of our staff. For our employees, they’re obviously going through their own journeys with Covid. After the first lockdown, I think they were just grateful to be employed after not knowing what was going to happen to their jobs.”

Conacher believes his employees now focus on taking care of each other and doing what they can to avoid catching Covid or passing it on. “They all fear being off work isolating,” he says. “I guess they now realise the important part that employment plays in their life and how it’s not just about the money but also their sanity. They all hated being off work during the lockdowns.”

Davies says Smeg appreciates the hard work its employees have put in over the past two years. “Our employees have been rewarded for their commitment with new welfare and wellbeing schemes launched alongside employee surveys to baseline opinion to support continuous development. Options for flexible working to help support family and other commitments has also driven loyalty.”

Difficult decisions

In a year where so many decisions had so much riding on them, what has been the single most difficult decision our KBB businesses have had to make during the pandemic?

“When to reopen the business again after lockdown,” says Geddes. “This was made extremely difficult by the lack of guidance received from the Scottish Government and our local MP. We eventually had to make our own decision on reopening.”

Conacher at Liberty Fitting agrees. “It might sound crazy but the most difficult and scariest decision I’ve had to make during the pandemic was opening up again after the first lockdown in June 2020. There was still so much of the unknown and opposing public opinion around that time. Were we doing the right thing? Would there be push back from customers? Was it really safe? Who do we believe? We had to be sure we did what was right for our staff, for our customers, and obviously for our brand. We had to be 100% positive we could open up safely. “On the flip side, closing down was the easiest decision I ever made.”

For a company the size of Smeg, shutting down any part of the business is a big deal, but Davies feels it was the only direction it could have taken. “Closing production in northern Italy during lockdown was a hugely difficult but natural decision to secure the health of staff.”

Covid v Brexit

With a global pandemic, shortage of tradespeople, and worldwide supply chain issues, it’s easy to forget about Brexit. So many of these challenges go hand in hand and are a by-product of each other, so has there been any major changes that are the direct result of Brexit, rather than Covid?

“Deliveries from Germany (and the UK) have been affected with delays on furniture and even UK delivery times have been increased,” says Geddes. “We now have a shipping agent who processes our customs declarations for goods we are importing.”

At Liberty Fitting, the cause and effect of things aren’t so clear, with Conacher believing that it’s too much of a grey area. “I wouldn’t say that there have been any direct changes to Liberty because of Brexit. Obviously, we will have been impacted along the way because of shortages somewhere, but was it caused by Brexit or Covid? By the time it gets to our stage, it’s difficult to know what’s causing what.”

The shortage of skilled tradespeople in the UK has been a longstanding industry issue, and Conacher admits that Brexit has had an impact, but it hasn’t brought about major changes to his business. “There was a period where we were desperately looking for more staff because of the volume of work being offered to Liberty but there was just no one there. In hindsight this has been a blessing,” he says.

“Rather than growing rapidly, which we weren’t ready for, we’ve managed to hunker down and spend the past two years improving many areas of the business.”

Just like any international manufacturer who sees the UK as a key market, Smeg is finding the same issues arising time after time. “Surging prices, availability of material, and transportation costs constantly present a challenge,” says Davies.

So, what does the future look like for KBB businesses?

It’s worth keeping in mind that figure from the kbbreview Retailer Survey 2022. If 89% of retailers think their business is in a positive position after the past two years, it wouldn’t be sugar coating the situation we’re all in by saying the current state of the KBB industry is still healthy. Challenges remain, yes, but it seems the people in our industry – leaders, managers, and staff, whether retailer or supplier, big or small – have the necessary skills and experience to get through the next stage of our collective Covid journey. 

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