By Dave Baldwin
If you’re keeping up with the business news, you don’t have to look very far to find stories of economic distress. Given the Government effectively closed down the economy to stem the spread of coronavirus, the consequences could only be devastating for many businesses and households.
But I am an optimist by nature and an entrepreneur by background. However hard life can be, there is always hope and usually an angle. Ongoing research from the University of Bradford should give us good reason to believe the turnaround is not far off and with it the beginnings of a recovery in the fortunes of our district.
The major project by the university’s well-regarded School of Management shows that one in five firms taking part in focus groups have reported a positive impact on their business from the pandemic. Initial findings from the study of 600-plus companies show how the widespread disruption has forced companies to fundamentally reconsider how they operate.
Such soul-searching rarely takes place in fair weather. Violent upheavals on the other hand force us all to stop and question what is important in our lives. The research shows Covid-19 is spurring many companies on to change for the better, according to Professor Sankar Sivarajah, Head of School of Management.
While smaller firms were typically unprepared for such a crisis – who was? – they are proving sufficiently agile to adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, smaller firms often fare better than their larger counterparts in this respect. No lumbering giants, they can quickly and decisively pivot their business models to suit market needs.
Digital transformation is accelerating across the board. Companies which previously saw no need for e-commerce operations have set up online offerings for their goods and services, taking advantage of the low-cost and readily available technologies. Firms are streamlining their businesses and focusing on absolute priorities.
In Bradford, restaurants are now repositioning themselves as takeaways and using third-party platforms to reach new customers. High street accountants are jettisoning old bookkeeping habits and moving filing systems from cardboard to the cloud.
Productivity, long a bugbear for the UK economy, is actually improving in some cases, according to the School of Management study. Working from home – or living at work as it feels for some – has many benefits. Workers are finding themselves judged on output instead of simply being present in an office all day. They are repaying this new trust with extra commitment.
The enforced changes to working life are likely to prompt radical rethinking in the way we use city centre space. As has been identified by the council, Bradford city centre offers a major “northshoring” opportunity as corporates restructure and look to move expensive operations out of London and the South East. With its magnificent architecture and fine legacy of heritage buildings, Bradford also offers massive potential for imaginative new co-working space.
None of this should downplay the enormous challenges faced by businesses and households as a result of this terrible virus. Of course, for the one in five firms which have reported a positive impact, there is the vast majority which have seen the exact opposite and are shedding jobs as sales fall off the proverbial cliff.
A large number of firms will fail, typically the ones that cannot change direction. That’s capitalism, red in tooth and claw. But the ones that survive and thrive will be the ones that grow, take on new recruits, require space and invest in skills and training. They will form the foundation of our recovery.
We know Bradford has a longstanding and proud tradition of enterprise. Our diverse communities are culturally inclined towards entrepreneurialism. Indeed, we have the highest density of companies per sq km of any major UK city outside London. Make no mistake, these are tough times. But Bradford’s businesses will be at the forefront as Britain bounces back.