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A year of transformation: Looking back on 2021

Adrian Reynolds | 5 January 2022

It’s fair to say that the last two years have been the most challenging, turbulent and exhausting years business leaders have faced in a generation.

While 2020 saw the pandemic arrive in the UK, 2021 has been just as critical for business as we all find ways of adapting to what may be a long term endemic.

Last January, we were looking forward to a new year in which we could recover and rebuild only to have our hopes dashed by the worst wave of the pandemic we’ve experienced so far. Businesses, which had already been through so much, had to face yet another lockdown as we pinned all our hopes for normality on a successful vaccination programme. Meanwhile, we prepared ourselves for the biggest change in the UK’s international trading relationships for almost fifty years as the Brexit transition period came to an end.

Since then, businesses across the country have been rocked by a stop-start economy, rising inflation, widespread labour shortages, importing and exporting challenges and a cultural shift that has transformed expectations related to work, retail and leisure.

Whether it’s the merits and consequences of lockdowns and mask-wearing, Brexit, remote working and online versus physical retail, there will be debates about each of these for many years to come. Every one of these changes has demonstrated that the most important thing for any business is the ability to adapt.

Although many good businesses have fallen over the course of the pandemic, the most successful organisations are the ones that accepted change, adjusted to new situations, capitalised on new opportunities and avoided the pitfalls.

It has also demonstrated the importance of giving and receiving help; whether it's from shoppers making an effort to buy local, companies accepting government support packages, or the sharing of advice and guidance, the strength of community was made clear over the course of the year.

There are still challenges for many businesses - manufacturers struggling to export, retailers picking up the cost of supply chain and logistical difficulties, entertainment venues trying to draw in reluctant crowds and care homes and cafes eager for more workers - but things are looking brighter.

The more we face, the stronger we become as a result as creative or tried-and-tested solutions are explored. Agricultural businesses have diversified their income streams, hauliers have increased pay to attract and retain drivers, manufacturers have revised their supply streams and target markets while retailers, large and small, have embraced online sales like never before.

On top of this, almost every business has been forced to reevaluate their impact on their workers, the wider community and the world. Initially forced by social distancing, and then in response to a subsequent cultural shift, organisations have been compelled to readjust the work/life balance along with their broader offer to workers. Now, the option of remote and flexible working is an expectation among job-hunters, helping people to make work fit around their home lives and not the other way around.

Meanwhile, with the UK having hosted the COP 26 summit, businesses have been inspired to make great strides when it comes to climate change and caring for the environment. Carbon offsetting, green energy production and electric vehicle use is surging and there seems to be a real passion among business leaders to make a change for the greater good of the planet.

As we head into 2022, I wish I could confidently say that the worst of the pandemic is now behind us, but with omicron now spreading across the country, I can’t be sure. Equally, I can’t say that the economy will boom and that all the problems of Brexit have been ironed out - they haven’t. But when it comes to who we are as a business community and how strong and enduring our businesses are, I think 2021 has been a very successful year and our best is yet to come.

Whatever happens in the next year, I would urge business leaders to continue doing what they’ve excelled in doing throughout the pandemic: keep adapting, evolving and adjusting. Don’t be afraid to make changes to improve, look after your workers and the planet, accept and seek help when you need it, and, above all, don’t give up hope.

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