If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as straightforward progress in any aspect of life. For some time, a cozy consensus seemed to be developing – in politics, business and culture in general – that things were more or less at an acceptable level, and that we didn’t want to see any major changes. Since approximately 2016, however, the world has seen things turned on their head multiple times.
It is hard, against that backdrop, to predict anything about how the world will change in the next decade, but if you have any ambitions to make a success of your business you’ll need to at least have an idea of what progress looks like. This needs to be balanced against the fact that unforeseen events can change a lot – had you heard of the terms “social distancing” or “self-isolation” before this year? – but while events can change easily, general trends are less malleable.
In order to figure out how you should approach the future in business, then, it is important to look at the prevailing trends, and how they have been affected by recent events. Looking through the prism of everything we know, we can get some idea of what business might look like in ten years’ time – and what part you may be able to play in it.
Distancing May Be With Us for Some Time
Even the most eminent epidemiologists and behavioural scientists can’t give us a clear answer on when the Covid-19 crisis will be “over” in a meaningful sense. Locking down allowed many of us to avoid infection, and may have spared health services from a worse crisis – but as we are finding out, when lockdown is relaxed in an area, a rush of new infections tends to follow.
In short, we aren’t in a place where the crisis can even be considered to be at the beginning of the end, and with an event of this dominating nature there are always profound effects not just in the short term, but on an ongoing basis. Where possible, people are going to want to observe social distancing, as it is one of the few proven defences against transmission. With stories emerging of other possible viruses of pandemic potential, it is hard to envision people willingly choosing to be part of a throng again any time soon.
If you’re considering a business operation, particularly if you intend to start a new business in the next few years, this is an essential consideration. Can you operate on a socially-distanced basis? Better yet, can your business work digitally with all of those involved working from home? These are the businesses that are likely to have the fewest obstacles in their way in this next decade.
The Skills Pool Will Favor Employers
Look across the world, and the story is the same – while governments are extending cash handouts to businesses who keep their employees on the books, many businesses are, in the end, going to have to make staff cuts and some are going to go to the wall no matter what happens. The net result of this is that more people are going to find themselves claiming unemployment than ever before.
While there is a lot to be said for governments taking responsibility at the present time, it’s hard to see this being maintained indefinitely, and before very long we are going to be looking at extremely concerted moves to get people back in work. For an employer, this is a decent opportunity. Never before has there been so much movement of labour, and it is inevitable that there will be hugely gifted workers looking for employment.
This means that from a labour hire point of view, you may well have your pick of the most skilled employee pool that has ever been available to an employer. As long as your business is viable in this changed world, you have a ripe advantage that is rare in this day and age.
Businesses Are Going to Have to Embrace Change
Students of history will be able to tell you that when the Great Plagues tore through Europe many centuries ago, the unexpected side effect of the chaos was that suddenly, serfs had more power. While it’s obvious that the employer-employee relationship of the 21st century is different in many ways than the feudal system, the principle remains. The importance of key workers – and the risk that they have borne during the recent crisis – is going to be hard to ignore in the near future.
Smart businesses will be alert to the ways things can change in the blink of an eye. The idea that you can just hire an employee and expect them to put up with anything because they will be grateful for the paycheck has been exposed. And while there is a lingering suspicion that the “ethical” leanings of a number of businesses are more opportunistic than heartfelt, the genie is out of the bottle now. Younger employees, millennials and Gen-Z alike, are going to favor employers who back up their ethical messaging with ethical action.
The positive news for those businesses who pay attention and embrace change is that every sign shows a happier workforce is a more productive workforce. Experiments with ideas such as a four-day week show that more rested employees get through more work in a shorter space of time. The businesses that recognize not just the need to change, but the positive benefits of that change for every part of their business, are the ones that will thrive in the coming years.
Versatility Will Outstrip Experience
There will always be a place in any workforce for the true specialist; someone who understands a part of the business in a way that can’t be taught in a few short training seminars. These employees will, however, decrease in number as it becomes clear that modern businesses value flexibility above experience. There are multiple reasons for this, and whether those reasons are good or bad can be debated at length, but the headline is that the more things each member of your workforce can do, the better you can react to unforeseen circumstances.
Say you have five employees. One of them is great when it comes to computers. Another is an ace salesperson, while another absolutely rocks when it comes to customer relations. Add in a tech support wizard and a human resources star, and you’ve got a skilled quintet there. Now imagine any one of those employees falls ill and can’t work. Can the tech support employee work a shift in IT? Yes, maybe, but will you have enough tech support expertise among the other employees to make up the workload in that area? The idea of a leaner, more flexible workforce is that, if you have to battle on with an employee out of the mix, you can do it because you have multiple people with multiple skill sets.
One caveat to this is that all the lean flexibility in the world will not save you from a situation where multiple employees are out of commission. As a small business, there may be an economic necessity to keeping your numbers low but, as your business grows, be aware that you’re going to be much better off with a surfeit of useful employees. While you could save money on their paychecks by narrowing down the numbers, their presence on the payroll may well be what keeps you ticking over during a pandemic.
Finally, Don’t Look to Reinvent the Wheel
While there will be – by necessity – something of a revolution in terms of how businesses function behind the scenes, it may well not be mirrored in what is sought by customers. The past four years, or more, have been marked by turbulence as shock after shock has buffeted the world and each individual country. People may well want change where it matters, but they will want certainty in their homes and in their shopping choices.
If you have a bold, earth-shattering idea that could change the way we do things, think carefully whether it’s what is needed, and broadly wanted, right now. If it’s a medical service that offers a new way of dealing with health issues, it may well be welcomed. Otherwise, be cautious with launching anything too different right now. A lot of your potential customer base just want some reassuring familiarity.
Trying to predict the way the future will look is often a fool’s errand. How can we possibly know where things will stand in 2030? If you’d predicted, in the middle of 2010, that we’d have everything going on that we do now, people would have considered you to be a fantasist. But the above points are, it would seem, quite defined and conclusive given everything that has happened in recent times. If you are looking to make a business work in the medium-term future, it would be worth heeding those points and making decisions accordingly.