The top 5 post-lockdown lessons for UK businesses from New Zealand

In his second blog on lessons learnt from New Zealand and moving forward from the COVID-19 lockdown, our newest Partner David Shadwell looks at what lessons UK businesses can learn from NZ and how to prepare in small steps to return to normal.

1. Develop a COVID-19 plan so your business operates safely

Under the current New Zealand level of lockdown, there are a variety of measures in please to keep workers safe, limit interactions with customers, and help prevent a second spike in cases of COVID-19.  Businesses must self-assess their ability to meet these restrictions and operate safely, just as they would normally to meet their duties under Health and Safety legislation.  However, the following guidance has been issued in NZ and UK businesses would be mindful to review:

  • Your business cannot operate if it requires close physical contact.  There are exceptions for some essential services, or in an emergency or critical situation.
  • Your staff should work from home if they can.
  • Customers cannot come onto your premises unless you are a supermarket, convenience store, petrol station, pharmacy or permitted health service.
  • Your business must be contactless.  Your customers can pay online, over the phone or in a contactless way.  Any deliveries or pick-ups must also be contactless.

Retail stores and hospitality businesses such as bars and cafes may operate, but customers cannot enter the premises.  Delivery, or drive-through or contactless pick up by customers is allowed.

Construction businesses can start work again but strict hygiene measures must be put in place.

As we can see from these NZ measures, the focus is on maintaining safe distancing, whilst still trying to carry out day to day tasks.  Think about your business, are there additional measures you can implement now in order to help your staff to prepare for a return to work – extra space between colleagues, any additional home working support, such as using a tax relief on home working, flagged up Chiene + Tait’s Hazel Gough.

 

2. Even with zero new cases, NZ is not out the woods

As of 4 May, New Zealand had gone 24 hours with no new cases of coronavirus.  This seems like a remarkable achievement, and something that could signal a rapid return to pre-COVID-19 ‘normal’ life.

However, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Ministry of Health, said NZ’s current lockdown rules need to remain in place for a time, despite the zero cases milestone. Infectious disease physician Dr Ayesha Verrall said the milestone is something to be “optimistic” about, but also a sign there’s still work to be done.

The indicator we should be looking at the most is locally acquired cases – contacts of a known case, and very rarely community transmission, Verrall said.  These are all new cases which are not imported from overseas, and therefore are transmitted among the community.  Even if we have zero locally acquired cases, the likelihood is we will continue to see new cases imported from overseas, she added.

Psychologist Dougal Sutherland commented that having zero cases will be a test for New Zealanders in “keeping the faith” and keeping to the rules.  There is a “danger of complacency” that comes with not having any new cases, as people may try and escape the boredom of being at home, thinking they are OK to do so, he said.  He urged people to remember that we were not out of the woods yet. It seems inevitable that restrictions in various forms will be with us for some time and success at phase 1 does not guarantee success further down the track.  Indeed, very similar messages have been shared by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – if there is any risk of a second wave of cases that might overwhelm the NHS, the risk is too great and all citizens should take their own, and the safety others very seriously until infection and death rate figures allow us all to securely move forward.

 

3. Everyday life quarantine and summer don’t mix

The danger of complacency is real.  New Zealand recently enjoyed its first weekend at its current alert level, but unfortunately good weather and confusion over rules drew droves of people out of their bubbles.  In some areas, the hills and beaches got mobbed and local police had to move people along.  There was also wide-spread confusion that while responsible exercising was fine, it’s not ok to just hang out.  The police were alerted to 685 parties on Friday night in Christchurch alone.  This has led to enforcement actions taken against over 500 people.

With the milder temperatures of springtime in the UK, this means that winter is long forgotten and summer is around the corner.  This is unlikely to mix easily with a lifting of lockdown restrictions, whenever it happens.  Plus, with many people craving fresh air and warm sunshine in our normally cool Scottish landscape, the combination could provide a multitude of challenges for authorities.  South Korea has taken the precaution of publishing a 68-page guide to the dos and don’ts of “everyday life quarantine” in an attempt to reduce the risk of confusion.  I wonder if the Scottish Government will consider doing the same.

 

4. The pace of change has been turbocharged

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an astronomical acceleration in change to how we work. When people want to change, they can, and we’ve all been forced into a massive period of unprecedented change.  This includes the explosion of video conferencing, changes to schooling, the shift to online shopping and contactless delivery.  Similarly, millions have discovered a productivity boost gained from fewer social interruptions.  Going forward, there may be some real benefits from employing staff who can make those kinds of quantum leaps in how a business works.

The impact of technology was already being felt in changing business models and some jobs being replaced or transformed by automation, although the pace of technological change was largely static or slowing.  Technological change has a growing impact on disruption to the future of work, the workforce, labour markets, productivity and wellbeing. COVID-19 has turbocharged this change.  Some key components of technical change are recent improvements in the power and quality of artificial intelligence (AI), the spread of robotics, and the emergence of digital platforms as ways to seek and organise work.  This may no longer be the case.  There have been several recent breakthroughs in AI.  For example:

  • British AI company DeepMind announced in 2018 that it had developed a healthcare algorithm that could detect over 50 eye diseases as accurately as a doctor (Vincent, 2018);
  • An AI system has achieved 95% accuracy in reading lips, considerably outperforming human lip readers (who were only right 52% of the time) (Manyika et al., 2017);
  • An IBM programme took part in a live debate with humans in 2018 in “what was described as a ground-breaking display of artificial intelligence” (D. Lee, 2018); and
  • Image recognition software now exceeds human accuracy levels (Shoham et al., 2018).

The fear is that technology is replacing cognition.  This will leave people with no comparative advantages and no work to do.  Perhaps, though, the rise of technology makes skills like communication, leadership, and cultural intelligence more important than ever.  Businesses that recognise and place more value on staff with an active growth mindset, curiosity and a willingness to learn, may be better placed to adapt to this new pace of technical change.  Charles Darwin noted that survival is not based on being the strongest or even the most intelligent, but the most adaptable.  The UK’s future prosperity will depend on how well it is able to adopt technology.  Rather than treat technology as a threat, we need to remove barriers to businesses adopting technology, and assist our people to gain the most from innovation and adapt effectively to change. The businesses that will do well will be those that are adaptable and resilient in the face of this significant change.

 

5. You won’t get much notice

In a televised address to the nation on March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced unprecedented limits on where and how people can meet and gather during the continuing coronavirus.  The lockdown officially started the next day.  He is due to announce on Sunday May 10th how some of the measures may be rolled back, possibly from Monday 11th May.

This trend of changes being announced with minimal notice might continue.  New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said New Zealand will likely have two days’ notice before entering a different COVID-19 alert level from the current position.

So, as we wait for information on when the UK’s next phase might kick in, and what its staggered approach might look like, businesses should prepare as best they can now.

Businesses are likely to be required to encourage home-working and stagger shift times to prevent buses and trains being overwhelmed.  Staggered shift times should also improve social distancing inside offices, where employers must keep staff two metres apart.  It may be necessary to use floor tape to set out appropriate spacing.  Protective screens and equipment may be required where keeping the two-metre gap is not possible.  Additionally, providing more parking spaces may be necessary to avoid employees sharing cars.

 

Just as New Zealand businesses must self-assess their ability to meet the restrictions and operate safely, employers in the UK should expect to implement a coronavirus risk assessment before allowing staff back in the office. Even with Government-issued guidelines, every business and every employer will need to make some judgement calls, and these can be taken now, so you are as prepared as possible when science suggests the pendulum can start to swing back to ‘normal’.