Category: ICON Business Solutions

A Different Way Forward – The Growth Economy Post Covid – BGF in partnership with Delineate

Foreword about the sample

BGF commissioned research firm Delineate to carry out a survey between October and November 2020 to understand the concerns, hopes and needs of the senior managers who lead growth economy businesses. The researchers spoke to 532 executives, board members, senior managers, owners and partners of businesses with at least 20 employees and turnover in excess of £2 million. 

We believe that the results reveal important truths about the challenges and opportunities facing the growth economy. Getting to grips with these findings is essential for the UK to move forward in the post-Covid world.

A Story of Resilience

The Covid-19 crisis has dealt the UK an economic blow the likes of which have not been seen in decades. At the same time as businesses have been dealing with the disruptions of the coronavirus, they have also had to prepare for a period of uncertainty following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020.

Two-thirds of respondents (67%) feel that Covid-19 has created significant barriers to growth for their business, while 57% predict that Brexit will create significant barriers for them.

Of course, not everyone has suffered in the pandemic, many businesses see growth opportunities related to Brexit; however, the evidence from our survey confirms what many feel – the year 2020 has been extremely challenging. 44% of firms in our sample said their revenues had fallen during the pandemic compared with only 14% who said revenues had gone up.

All this would appear to add up to a rather gloomy picture. However, what our survey also identified was a strong sense of resilience among growth economy companies. Despite the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit, three-quarters of respondents said they were still motivated to grow their business in the next 12 months.

Opportunities and Obstacles

Further evidence of a resilient mindset among growth economy companies was revealed when respondents were quizzed about their most promising business opportunities next year. The most popular choice was market growth, followed by international expansion, entry into new sectors in the UK, and taking market share from competitors. 

There are tangible obstacles, though. When asked about the factors that were stopping their businesses from growing, respondents were most likely to say, “there is too much operational risk in the sector in which my business operates”, a result that seems likely to be related the Covid-19 pandemic, which has significantly disrupted many sectors. The second-most popular choice was “there is not enough demand for our products and services”, a result which may also be connected to Covid-19.

Another finding was that 12% of respondents said there was too much debt on their balance sheet to deliver a sustainable profit. The pandemic has forced many businesses to resort to borrowing and there is a serious risk that the cost of servicing these debts will constrain business expansion in the years ahead.

Adapting and Thriving

Businesses have not been idle during the pandemic. The most popular adaptation declared by respondents was investment in digital infrastructure. For many businesses, system upgrades and other investment was needed to allow their staff to work effectively from home during coronavirus lockdowns. Although these investments were, to an extent, forced on management teams, these upgraded systems will be a positive legacy of the virus. Online collaboration tools, cloud computing and other digital investments ought to pay dividends in the years ahead.

Of course, some firms had to take more drastic action. The second-most popular adaptation was to reduce headcount, an unfortunate outcome. Other firms had to discontinue operations in some areas of business as a result of the pandemic, while others still adapted by changing their route to market. Again, there were positive signs. More than a quarter (27%) of businesses reported that they had entered new sectors during the pandemic, while 17% said they had not made any significant changes to business operations.

Given all the measures taken, it is perhaps not surprising that 61% of respondents said the pandemic had prompted them to make permanent changes to their business model. These include more flexible working for staff, an increased use of videoconferencing, and a greater emphasis on e-commerce as opposed to traditional bricks-and-mortar premises.

Attitudes to Staffing

Of course, there have been hard choices to make, particularly around headcount. Redundancies have been made despite the unprecedented measures, such as the furlough scheme, that the government implemented to protect employees during the crisis.

Further job losses are expected as this government support inevitably tapers off. When asked about staffing levels, 21% of respondents said they planned to make a few redundancies in the months ahead and 8% said they planned significant redundancies. In sectors that are expected to be most affected, such as the travel industry, restaurants and bars, these job losses will be painful for staff.

The data indicates that businesses in London and the South East are most likely to say they plan to make redundancies, while businesses in the East of England and the Midlands are most likely to say they plan to take on new staff. Businesses in Scotland and Northern Ireland were most likely to say they did not plan to change their headcount.

Funding amid Covid 19

The pandemic has complicated the environment for business funding in the UK. Exactly half of respondents said it was harder to access funding now than a year ago – a concerning finding as it implies the pandemic has imposed a constraint on business growth.

When asked about the relationships with banks, our respondents had had mixed experiences. 42% said their bank had been slower to respond than usual during the pandemic – understandable given the disruption of the coronavirus but no doubt frustrating for businesses with urgent needs. On the other hand, more than half of respondents (56%) said their bank had been very supportive of the business during the pandemic.

The most popular funding source was the furlough or job retention scheme, accessed by about a third (34%) of businesses in the sample. This was followed by the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), accessed by more than a quarter (27%). Private Equity funding was accessed by nearly a fifth (19%) of businesses, making it the third most popular funding source on the list, ahead of both the Future Fund and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS). 

Growth Plans for 2021

Clearly, 2020 has been an exceptional year, in which many businesses have resorted to exceptional measures to stay competitive. They may have relied on schemes such as CBILS and BBLS, when ordinarily they would be wary of taking on too much debt. The spectre of an overly indebted growth economy is a concern for many in the business community. 38% of respondents aim to refinance their balance sheet in 2021.

Which funding provider is their first port of call in this refinancing effort? Perhaps unsurprisingly, banks are still the most-popular first choice, selected by nearly half of respondents. Private Equity and/or venture capital was chosen by 17%. The third most-popular answer to this question was high-net-worth (HNW) individuals and/or angel investors, followed by capital markets. 

Regional Highlights

One notable finding was that businesses based in London and the South East were significantly more pessimistic than average about barriers to growth stemming from Covid-19 and Brexit. 

Respondents based in the North West were considerably less likely than average to say that morale had been negatively affected by the pandemic. Businesses in the Midlands were more likely than average to have invested or plan to invest in digital infrastructure. They were also more confident about their growth prospects than the sample as a whole.

Businesses in the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, on the other hand, were more likely than average to have discontinued operations in some areas of the business in response to the pandemic. They were also more inclined to think that Brexit would offer new opportunities for their businesses and were generally more positive and motivated to grow in the next year than respondents whose companies were based elsewhere.


This research report has revealed that growth economy companies face significant challenges relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the research also underlines how resilient these companies are. They have responded by increasing their investment in digital infrastructure to enable their staff to work remotely. These and other investment made during the crisis will be an enduring, positive legacy of the virus.

Some companies have clearly benefitted from the pandemic, e.g. Amazon, but many others have had their business models thrown into doubt. 

Many firms have been kept in business thanks to emergency action from government in the form of the furlough scheme, CBILS, BBLS and the Future Fund. In the months ahead, these businesses will face a reckoning as this emergency support runs out. 

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Agile working: All hype or the future of SMEs?

Technology has been one of the driving forces of change in the business landscape. Companies can no longer rely on long term planning but must adapt quickly in order to survive. To be able to cope with the uncertain and evolving environment, organisations have implemented a different approach to working. Agile working allows companies to be flexible and react rapidly to new changes and demands. But is this way of working sustainable?

This article provides SME Business Owners with a useful overview of the following:

  • What is agile working?
  • Why is an agile working environment the future for many companies?
  • Agile working policy
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Should you implement agile working?

What is agile working?

Agile working is not a new fad. In fact, it has been around for a couple of decades. The agile working definition was first used in software engineering. The method designed by software developers, was used to improve and accelerate the development process, by allowing workers to work in different areas of the office, work remotely and when they decide, offering more flexibility. Over the years, this approach has progressed into a workstyle that has been adopted by many organisations across the globe.
There are many ways in which agile can be incorporated into the workplace. In its essence, it serves as a tool to remove any barriers that could block employees from reaching an objective. Agile working is based on the concept that we are all humans at the end of the day, and some days when we are having a bad day, it may be hard to get the job done. An agile environment means that employees work when they are their most effective, improving productivity, output, and employee satisfaction within the company.

Agile working is about providing employees with flexibility and independence through digital solutions. It encourages physical workspaces to foster partnerships, collaboration, and learning. However, the main mantra behind agile working is that its policies focus on the activity and outcome of the work, rather than just the workplace.

Why is an agile working environment the future for many companies?

Since the global crisis, many employees have been forced to work remotely. Social distancing is something that will need to continue for a long time and as offices are starting to open again, the pandemic will have permanent effects on our behaviour. Many workers may decide after the pandemic subsides, that they prefer remote working and offices will open at much smaller capacities. This can be facilitated more easily, as companies have increased the use of digital software and tools in order to work from home productively. Due to the increase of virtual learning and work, technology has played a huge part in agile work and in order to remain competitive in your market, it’s important to adopt this kind of environment.

Agile working policy

Companies who adopt an agile working policy must redefine the following aspects:


Employees have the freedom to work remotely or in different areas of the office. This allows for maximum flexibility with no constraints. The workspace is often optimised to a suitable agile working environment to accommodate this new workstyle. While assigned desks and meeting rooms will never go out of style, it is time to pull down the partitioned cubicles to create an open space, which can include: hot desks, mixed seating, touchdown workspaces and a lounge area.


The objective of agile working is not to work harder but to work smarter. When it comes to problem solving, large teams are less flexible and efficient. By breaking down these large teams into small cross-functional units, the process will become more effective. Agile teams typically work in short cycles, by doing this they can adapt, learn and reflect. Bringing value to the customer is the main purpose. In fact, feedback from the end user is incorporated in every cycle.


In order to flourish, the agile mindset needs to be instilled in every employee of the organisation. Failure is a main concept within this working style. It is not perceived negatively, instead it is used as a learning opportunity to improve. To reach the set objective workers must collaborate, share knowledge, be transparent and flexible.
Advantages and disadvantages of agile working
The following are the advantages and disadvantages of shifting to an agile work environment:


  • Attracts and retains talent: offering better work conditions will lead to higher job satisfaction. Employees will stay longer, and new talent will be attracted.
  • Productivity and creativity rise: the flexibility of agile working boosts productivity and creativity levels in workers. For instance, 75% of millennials believe that agile working has had a positive impact on their productivity levels.
  • Saves costs: the effective use of workspace, allows companies to downsize and save money on running costs, furniture, etc.
  • Improves work-life balance for employees: work is seen as an activity not a place. Employees can adjust their work schedule to fit their needs, this reduces health issues and absenteeism


  •  Not suitable for every company: Implementing an agile working policy does not necessarily mean that a company is going to be successful. This workstyle does not fit certain types of businesses. Factors such as: customers, stakeholders, regulations, etc. can stand in the way of a good outcome.
  • Challenge to monitor performance: Workers have the flexibility to decide when, where and how they want to work. Over time, it can become difficult to manage performance outcomes. For goals to be met, a strategy needs to be implemented. Factorial offer a performance management system so you can make decisions based on qualitative data.
  • Requires a cultural change: Change does not happen overnight. Both management and employees will have to completely transition the way they work. This requires time, practice and encouragement.

Should you implement agile working?

In this fast-paced environment, the only constant is change. Agile working may not be a good fit for every company, nevertheless, it is here to stay. This does not mean that your company needs a complete overhaul.


In the end, it is all about finding the right balance.
Start by contacting your local ICON advisor for a discussion about how this impacts *your* business
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How to Keep Your Business Alive in a Post Covid/Brexit world

There are mixed fortunes for business ahead. Many are indeed prospering during the current Covid pandemic, whilst many are languishing in the ever-decreasing spiral of despair. This article will examine what sets those successful businesses apart from the rest and recommends a six-point plan to build greater resilience into your business.

Many markets and sectors remain largely insulated from the challenges of the pandemic whilst many struggle. On a macro level China’s economic recovery continues improve as growth increased from 4.9% between July and September compared to the same period last year. The economy in China has grown at rates unmatched in Western markets and this is because strong lockdown measures combined with government economic stimulus has worked well.

Contrast this to the UK position, where the Bank of England boss has said the UK faces ‘an unprecedented level of economic uncertainty’. Britain’s economy fell by 20% in the 3 months to June 2020 as it battled with the impact of coronavirus.

Many sectors within the economy such as retail and hospitality remain severely affected by impact of the pandemic. A record number of shops closed on UK high streets during the first half of this year (circa 11,120 chain store outlets). The profound effect of changing customer behaviours and move to purchases on the internet happened long before the pandemic struck, but the impact is now exacerbating the situation.

This situation is not unique amongst all business sectors as many have started to thrive, and government initiatives have helped to generate positive cash flow for growth. Such industry sectors experiencing growth can be seen in any leisure or home DIY sectors providing products for home use. Sales of home gym equipment or products for home improvements continue to increase in demand. The main challenge in these sectors is to ensure adequate stocks in the supply chain.

The current situation with Covid is unique and no-one knows when business will return to ‘normal’. Doing nothing and procrastinating is no longer an option. So, what is your response to deal with this uncertain world to make sure your business can weather the Covid and post Brexit storm?

Noted below are our recommendations for shaping your business, with the goal of building ‘business resilience’ to ensure your business can remain sustainable and profitable and continue to grow:

Re-focus your team

Make sure you have a team that you can trust that have clear responsibilities to match their skill sets and competencies and empower them to be effective decision makers. Assess the training requirements for your staff and ensure your staff are equipped to cope. Many employees now work from home so plan how best to manage this whilst ensuring a fast and efficient flow of information.

Embrace the ‘digital age

Review how technology can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your team, the delivery of your products to market and the flow of your internal communication. Having ‘real time’ information will give you the edge over your competitors – use this information and encourage your team to act on this quickly. You will need to act fast and be ‘fluid’ in your decision making.

Review your current position and future goals

Review your progress against your plan or goals. If your business is not where you need it to be it is time to act. Review your end goals (for 2-5 years) and define these in SMART terms and reframe these based on your resources and capabilities i.e. on what you can control today. Build a management ‘dashboard’ with clear goals (KPI’S) and accountabilities for your team to achieve and review these monthly. Understand that what gets measured gets done – and so have the right measures in place.

Positively engage with all your stakeholders

Make sure you communicate effectively with all your staff, shareholders, and external parties such as suppliers and clients. Keep them up to date with what you are doing and measures you are putting in place to deal with the virus. Have a plan for dealing with your market post Brexit and make sure your stakeholders know about this. The key is to involve all parties in the decision-making process so they ‘buy in’ to the direction you are taking. Above all – promote confidence that you have an effective plan.

Understand your customer needs

There is no better time to evaluate your customers’ needs and requirements than now. These may have changed significantly over the past few weeks. For example, they may be more concerned at securing adequate supplies. It may be time to do an audit of your customers and their buying profile and instigate a research campaign to find out how their businesses are being impacted by the virus. Review and respond to your findings in an updated plan of attack.

Have a financial plan

Review your cash flow and funding requirements. Currently, it is only banks that must maintain a funding cover in terms of the proportion of cash reserves to lending. It may be time to build and/or conserve your ‘war chest’ to make sure you can see through these troubled waters – and in such cases you may need around 3-9 months of cover. If you have a funding gap, then identify what is the shortfall and have a plan for bridging this gap. Without a plan nothing will happen, and your business may be put at risk. Being agile in decision making and incorporate some or all these recommendations in your plan will give your business every chance success. Whilst there are no guarantees of success, failure to act now may result in your business being ravaged by our post Covid and Brexit world.

Act now and do not procrastinate.

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The Future of the Office

The Covid-19 pandemic has by enforcing a global working from home experiment accelerated long-term underlying trends in several areas, e.g. hot-desking, flexible hours, and use of technology to enable working from home.

One of these is rethinking how and where we work and the idea that work must be tied to an office. Many businesses are now fundamentally asking ‘Why do we go to the office?’ and therefore ‘What is the office for?’ 

In this article I will review some of the latest thinking on the future of the office and highlight why this is a critical time to review what space you need to operate effectively and how this space is organised. 

Whilst this article principally focuses on the traditional office environment, we should also not lose sight of the fact that the pandemic has also had dramatic knock-on effects in manufacturing environments. That, however, will be the theme for a follow-up article next week – for the time being let’s look at how the ‘traditional office’ environment will be affected. 

Working from Home – The Good News

Before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom had been that offices were critical to productivity, culture, and winning the war for talent. Companies competed intensely for prime office space in major urban centres around the world and concentrated on solutions that were seen to promote collaboration. Densification (e.g. a term commonly used by planners, designers and developers to describe an increasing density of people living in urban areas), open-office designs, hoteling, and co-working were the typical battle cries.

According to McKinsey research, 80 percent of people questioned report that they enjoy working from home. Forty-one percent say that they are more productive than they had been before and 28 percent that they are as productive. Many employees liberated from long commutes and travel have found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and decided that they prefer to work from home rather than the office. Many companies think they can access new pools of talent with fewer locational constraints, adopt innovative processes to boost productivity, create an even stronger culture, and significantly reduce real-estate costs.

According to a survey which took data from 1.5 million sources by global commercial real estate company, Cushman & Wakefield, around 72pc of staff expected their companies to embrace flexible working after the lockdown lifts.

Facing a sudden need to cut costs, chief executives have indicated in recent days that their property portfolios look like good places to start given the ease with which their companies have adapted to remote set-ups. 

“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” said Jes Staley of Barclays. “Maybe we don't need all the offices that we currently have around the world,” mused Mondelez’s Dirk van de Put, while Sergio Ermotti said UBS was already thinking about moving out of expensive city-centre offices.

The video-conferencing service Zoom has seen its corporate subscriber numbers grow more than 350%. Cloud companies are falling over themselves to tell people “See, we told you so! The cloud works!”.

The technology is fast and (mostly) secure. For too many years SME business owners ignored these powerful technologies that would have allowed their employees more flexibility. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve learned that, assuming a relatively new computer and a relatively decent broadband connection, most office workers can get much of their jobs done from their home offices. And, depending on the person, potentially be more productive.

Many chief executives also seem not to miss the office.

“I have been so much more connected to 20,000 employees in the last six weeks than I have in the last six months thanks to the technology we are using,” said Jim Collins, of biotech and agriculture group Corteva.

Even Sir Martin Sorrell, the 75-year-old advertising boss who runs S4 Capital, said he had found working from home “energising”, and expected it to herald a “permanent change” to his working practices. The former WPP chief executive has already started ending leases at some sites. 

“I spend around £35m on property in a year,” he said. “I’d much rather invest that in people than expensive offices.”

What would a return to the office environment look like?

Most bosses and property owners say their immediate preoccupation is how to get workers back safely. But in the short term it is already very clear that the need for social distancing will reverse commercial real estate’s “densification” trend, which for years saw more people crammed into smaller spaces.

“Our customers with dense layouts are removing workstations and will return to work in a less dense environment,” said Owen Thomas, Chief Executive of Boston Properties, who predicted that some clients could even need more space as a result!

Office density is perhaps the biggest challenge for businesses returning to work. As fewer people can be in an office at any one time, companies will need to deploy rotas, explains Rosie Haslem, director at London-based design and research studio Spacelab. “In the shorter term for the return to work, we will need to ensure people can socially distance. This can be achieved through both management of people – such as flexible hours and rotas for how many people come into the office each day – and management of space, including reconfiguration or removal of desks and the closure of certain communal spaces. These things are low-cost ways of getting people back into work, quickly. Investment in technology to assist in the management of people flow and space occupancy, and to enable things to be ‘contactless’ may indeed follow – but arguably this is just an acceleration of pre-existing property technology trends.” 

Hygiene measures such as enhanced cleaning, for example, are relatively inexpensive to put into place. In contrast, there is a growing consensus among many architects that ventilation will be a major theme. Today, many offices recycle the air in the buildings, unlike in say operating theatres where fresh air is provided. Employee welfare measures, such as improved air quality, are going to be more important in the future.

Others worry that offices, particularly skyscrapers, are simply incompatible with government guidelines for combating Covid-19. 

“Moving 5,500 people vertically is a big challenge with current social distancing measures,” said Adam Goldin, head of UK business for CC Land, which owns the “Cheesegrater” tower in the City of London. “How do we support tenants to social distance in a 46-storey building? We’re working with all our tenants to support them as they start to return to work, but I don’t think any building has enough lifts to take one at a time.”

It would appear from all the evidence presented so far that the “traditional office” has had its day. But as we will see in the next section there is not a ‘One Size Fits All’ solution … and in any case there is no such thing as the “traditional office”. The office has always evolved to meet ever changing requirements and will continue to do so going forward.

The Case for the Office

Over the past decade many big companies reversed their work-from-home policies to get people back into the office and talking face to face

It should be recognized that this remote work craze isn’t new. The internet has been around for a while. And over the past decade big companies like Yahoo, IBM, Aetna, Best Buy and many others reversed their work-from-home policies to get people back into the office and talking face to face. They realised the cost of keeping these workers away from each other far exceeded the savings they were reaping on rent and utilities. They realised that people need human contact to get things done. Real, live, face-to-face human contact.

The office should be a place we choose to come to for activities that are better done in person such as building relationships, brainstorming, learning, mentoring, as well as personal conversations. 

In addition, more than half of younger workers are said to be struggling with working from home, given they are less likely to have the space to work in and are unable to socialise as much.

Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land

“There is a danger of groupthink,” he warned. “You have to bear in mind that there are some people struggling to juggle childcare or home schooling with their day job, and more junior colleagues who are sharing flats who think this is nothing short of a nightmare.”

Flexibility and choice will be key as we move forward into the next normal.

Prior to taking medium or long-term decisions about office space requirements, it’s important to find out from employees how and where they want to work. While some of us have the benefit of a functional home office, this is not the case for most. For those who do not have the space or a conducive environment at home to work it will be impossible to work as productively as they can from an office. 

Not all remote working is created equal.

‘Work-from-Home’ policies need balance. There must be physical presence. You need to see that worker and that worker needs to see you and his or her colleagues. You can’t create a team when everyone’s completely virtual. Something is missing. Human contact is missing. Technology just can’t replace that.

The Way Forward

The reality is that both sides of the argument are probably right. 

Every company and its culture are different, and so are the circumstances of every individual employee. Many have enjoyed this new experience; others are exhausted by it. The productivity of the employees who do many kinds of jobs has increased; for others it has declined. Many forms of virtual collaboration are working well; others are not. 

The four key steps that businesses should consider when reimagining how their workplaces may look in the future are described below:

1. Reconstruct how work is done

Companies should identify the most important processes for each major business, geography, and function, and reinvent them completely, often with involvement by employees. For both processes and cultural practices, it is all too tempting to revert to what was in place before the pandemic. To resist this temptation, businesses could start by assuming that processes will be reconstructed digitally and put the burden of proof on those who argue for a return to purely physical pre–COVID-19 legacy processes. 

2. Decide ‘people to work’ or ‘work to people’

In the past couple of years, the competition for talent has been fiercer than ever. At the same time, some groups of talent are less willing to relocate to their employers’ locations than they had been in the past. In fact, talented people could live in locations of their choice, which may have a lower cost of living and proximity to people and places they love. A monthly trip to headquarters or a meeting with colleagues at a shared destination may suffice. This approach could be a winning proposition for both employers and employees, with profound effects on the quality of talent a company can access.

3. Redesign the workplace to support business priorities

Companies could create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely. If the primary purpose of an organization’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, for example, should 80 percent of the office be devoted to collaboration rooms? 

To maintain productivity, collaboration, and learning and to preserve the corporate culture, the boundaries between being physically in the office and out of the office must collapse. For example, in-office video conferencing can no longer involve a group of people staring at one another around a table while others watch from a screen on the side, without being able to participate effectively. 

4. Resize the footprint creatively

A transformational approach to reinventing offices will be necessary. Instead of adjusting the existing footprint incrementally, companies should take a fresh look at how much and where space is required and how it fosters desired outcomes for collaboration, productivity, culture, and the work experience. That kind of approach will also involve questioning where offices should be located. 

These changes may not only improve how work is done but also lead to savings. Rent, capital costs, facilities operations, maintenance, and management make property the largest cost category outside of labour. The value at stake is significant. Over time, some businesses could reduce their property costs by 30 percent. 

Those that shift to a fully virtual model could almost eliminate these costs. Both could also increase their business resilience and reduce their level of risk by having employees work in many different locations.

Now is the time

As employers around the world experiment with bringing their employees back to offices, business owners must act now to ensure that when they return, workplaces are both productive and safe.

Businesses must also use this moment to break from the inertia of the past by dispensing with suboptimal old habits and systems. A well-planned return to offices can use this moment to reinvent their role and create a better experience for talent, improve collaboration and productivity, and reduce costs. That kind of change will require transformational thinking grounded in facts. 

Ultimately, the aim of this reinvention will be what good businesses have always wanted: a safe environment where people can enjoy their work, collaborate with their colleagues, and achieve the objectives of their companies.

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Mindful Leadership

When leading your teams through times of tumultuous change such as dealing with Covid-19, one of the most powerful methodologies at your disposal is free to use and always available. Mindful leadership is a practical, proven way to make sure your people feel supported amidst a storm of uncertainty. When they do, you’ll have the best chance of navigating the new normal.

So, let’s explore the benefits of mindfulness and how this could benefit our leadership skills.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating awareness so that you can be responsive rather than reactive. It’s about being fully present with what’s happening now so that you can navigate life with a sense of calm and clarity.

Consider there are two main functions our brains perform during mindful meditation:

  • The generation of thoughts, feelings and emotions – these are transient and can change from one moment to the next;
  • The observation of information, data and feedback without judgment, evaluation or criticism, or without even trying to make sense of it.

We learn to listen to and accept the thoughts and feelings that arise within us. By practicing this technique, you put yourself back in the pilot seat.

Why Mindfulness is Important

Understanding why the brain thinks and reacts certain ways to different situations can help owners take greater control of the myriad of stressful moments that arise when running a business.
Since everyone is looking for some type of competitive advantage in their marketplace, perhaps getting to know our own brains and coaching them to work for us is the greatest advantage yet.

Here are a few ways that mindfulness can take your business to the next level:

  • Lowers your stress levels;
  • Makes you more empathetic to the needs of your employees and your clients;
  • It can improve your self-confidence, helping you with decision making; 
  • It can help you be more creative; and
  • It can heighten productivity.

As business leaders, we now have an empirically tested tool which better equips us to navigate emotionally and mentally any stormy waters that might lie ahead.

You’ll not only leap leagues ahead of your competition, but you’ll also move faster and further toward your chosen goals.

Don’t just take my word for it ….

Mindfulness is finally starting to receive recognition for its effectiveness in creating a peak performance mindset. Widely used by elite athletes, it is increasingly being adopted by business leaders as a contemplation skill to increase resilience, reduce stress, and regain clarity and focus. You strengthen your capacity to face adversity with greater mental composure and emotional stability.
In recent years, mindfulness has become a staple of mental health and wellness in corporations such as Spotify, Google, Goldman Sachs, and others.

There’s a reason companies are including this as a requirement for their teams: it works, in various ways for different participants.

How can Mindful Leadership help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the government has unveiled its lockdown easing strategy week by week, business leaders have moved through several different stages at lightning speed. First, there was the immediate need to assess the commercial impact of the pandemic. Then the urgency of getting teams up and running remotely. Fast forward just a few weeks and all eyes are on the road to recovery.

Before your business regroups to figure out what that looks like and how to make it happen, – pause for a moment. Remember that this economic downturn is also a human crisis. Now, more than ever before, all the plans that make so much sense on paper must consider the wellbeing of your people. To put it bluntly, if they don’t, they’re not going to work.

In all the countless conversations I have had about lockdown with clients, family, and friends one consistent thread is emerging. Lockdown has been a time for reflecting on what’s important, realigning our values and reassessing our priorities.

People first (Because let’s face it, what is any business without people?)

We are all in recovery right now. We’re all making decisions about what the new normal will be and how it will unfold, in both a business and a personal sense. For leaders, many of these decisions are tough ones. And they are being made against a backdrop of deep urgency to get the business moving forward.

The go-to response to this can be fast, process-led solutions to drive profits. But the smartest solutions go beyond the obvious to the real bottom line of the business: its people.

It’s not rocket science. But it will fuel your recovery.

So, lead mindfully. Focus on the human recovery in your business as lockdown eases. It’s not complicated; it’s a combination of common sense and compassion – and it’s cost-free. Here are three key things to keep in mind:

Be present; in each moment, be fully with what’s happening. When you say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s the family?’, don’t just throw it out there before moving swiftly on to talk about productivity. Listen, really listen, to the answer. Give it your full attention. Having a genuine interest in your people’s lives has always been helpful. Now it’s essential to getting the business moving forward through open, honest, conversations.

Be inclusive; your own perspective is just that. Seeing things only from this viewpoint can get you stuck in habitual responses. And if leaders stay stuck in habitual responses, so will the organisation. As Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ Get everyone involved in planning the road ahead; make them a team of critical friends who will challenge you in order to move things from good to great.

Be decisive; sometimes, decisions come easily. -we just know. Other times we feel pressured to decide at all costs. However you can’t think yourself into a decision when you don’t know the answer yet. So, tune into your innate wisdom. When do your best ideas come? I wouldn’t mind betting it’s out of the blue – when you’re on a run, in the shower, or talking with friends. Sometimes looking away from the need to decide can bring the decision to you.

These things may seem obvious. Common sense is not always common practice in the race to get back up and running.

Consistently anchoring your leadership approach in these universal human traits will go a long way to supporting your teams’ recovery.

By investing in their trust, wellbeing and commitment, you will be investing directly in your future.

Dealing with considerable uncertainty at the present may need a different approach. Also, be mindful if you do need help to get there.

To instill these into your own business, talk to your local ICON advisor today.

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COVID-19 Building Business Resilience

When news of COVID-19 spread, companies began considering how it would affect supply chain access, product launches, employee well-being and business continuity and their financial survival. But many failed to consider the importance of a resilient business model.

Business resilience is often missing from traditional business continuity plans. Companies plan for disruptions to resources and processes, but don’t recognise that business models can be just as big a threat to continuity of operations. The key is to ensure that your business model is as resilient to outside disruptions as the rest of the business.

Companies need to look critically at their current business practice to ensure that they are robust enough to ensure their ongoing operations.

ICON recommends a five-phase approach to ensuring business resilience.

Phase 1: Define the current business model

Start by identifying the core customer base that is essential to the business and its core needs. Then expand that thinking to value propositions, capabilities and financial models. For example:

  • Customers: Who are the key customers?
  • Value Proposition: What do we offer to fulfil their key needs?
  • Capabilities: What partners are needed to deliver the value propositions?
  • Financial Models: What financial models do we use for our core customers? 

Phase 2: Identify uncertainties

Gather a diverse group of people from across your business to help you identify uncertainties that are the most likely to be detrimental to the business. This is not an exact science, and the format can vary, but the goal should be to identify potential disruptions of known COVID-19 factors.

For example, for a retail store, this would include scenarios in which fewer customers can come into the store or where customers don’t want to have physical contact with employees during payment.

Phase 3: Assess the impact

Once you’ve identified the uncertainties, consider how each one would impact the business. A Business Impact Analysis is a separate framework outside of business model resilience that consists of six parts:

  • Developing impact categories
  • Developing impact time frames
  • Defining cyclical impacts
  • Defining business impact scales and scoring
  • Weighting impact parameters
  • Identifying and assessing risk dependencies

Phase 4: Design changes

Consider what would need to change to address potential impacts. Don’t be discouraged at this point by feasibility. Record any potential solutions and assess them later. For example, when governments close physical spaces or people aren’t willing to come into a brick-and-mortar retail shop, the potential impact is high. A change strategy would focus on changing how the business uses the physical space.

In China, retailers converted areas of stores into warehouses and distribution centres. This both limits the impact of the closed physical stores and increases storage and operations for online retail. For IT, the challenge would be supporting increases in e-commerce solutions. Establishing plans for such changes in advance is vital to organisations, where quick reactions and flexibility make a huge difference.

Phase 5: Execute changes

Ultimately, decisions will be made by the senior leadership team, but phases 1 through 4 of scenario planning will act as essential input for those decisions. Ensure all your staff are kept aware of changes. This will help achieve business and IT alignment and result in speedy delivery and results.

As the phases of the COVID-19 pandemic progress, invest your lessons learned back into the enterprise to reset strategy and build resilience.


We would recommend that business leaders view their pandemic response in three phases. The duration of each phase will vary by industry and enterprise — and even by business unit, product or service. The phases are defined primarily by what’s happening at each stage:

Immediate actions focused on keeping people safe and essential business functions operating. This relatively short period is marked by high effort and potentially chaotic activity. Key activities:

  • Temporary fixes to stop the bleeding.

This phase was described in more detail in the recent article ‘Returning to Work After Lockdown – A Programme for Safe Return’.

More organised/coordinated effort to stabilise operations. Medium duration. Key activities:

  • Create a plan to restore a scalable state.
  • Identify capabilities you need to strengthen, rework, reopen, rehire, re-budget, resupply.

Extended period marked by strategic, durable execution across the company. Key activities:

  • Learn to conduct operations processes and workflows in new, repeatable, scalable ways.
  • Use lessons learned and emergent patterns from prior phases to help guide and inform future decision making.

As you weed out weaknesses in your business and operating models, you will be better positioned to weather the next disruption.

That’s especially important now. The overriding imperative is to absorb lessons learned quickly and build sustainable changes into business and operating models.
But first, you need to determine exactly where and how the crisis has stretched and broken your existing models — and where the risks and opportunities lie as a result.
It is also a good time to be self-critical about the skills and resources you need to do this successfully. If you don’t feel that you have the necessary expertise in-house to carry out this analysis, then now would be a good time to get in outside help. 

ICON can support you in terms of helping you identify significant uncertainties and evaluate them in terms of their importance to the future of your business.

We can also work with you to make strategic planning a continual activity so that your business is much more resilient and better placed to any future challenges.

Here are just a few examples of areas where you could look to diversify:

  • Diversify supply chain:
  • Build-up subscription business models, e.g. monthly paid maintenance plan, or payments into wine club;
  • Speed up credit control – invoice faster;
  • Move production more towards a ‘just-in-time’ model;
  • Move to direct to customer;
  • Deliver contactless commerce;
  • Focus on the best-selling and most profitable sales items;
  • Optimise pricing;
  • Build dynamic feedback loops for optimisation;
  • Use digital technology where possible; and
  • Drive up automation.

Reset for a sustainable future

The most plausible post-pandemic pathways are typically described as rescale, reinvent, return, reduce and retire.

For some, the pandemic has stressed business and operating models to the point of breaking. Companies will ultimately reduce or retire those activities permanently. This could include subcontracting some business activities or removing a product or service entirely. In some cases, retirement is long overdue.

Some organisations may reset by reinventing themselves for the long term. Likely examples are manufacturers that have switched production facilities to create new product suites, or retailers that have found new ways to reach customers who can’t visit their physical locations.

This crisis has created an opportunity to reset some of your goals and ambitions; it’s time to ask: “As we recover from this crisis, do we want to be different — and if so, how?”

Your first step is to contact your Icon advisor – all businesses are different. 

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COVID is driving exit strategy centre stage

Having a successful exit strategy ensures a business owner can sell their ownership in a company to investors or another company for a profit. At ICON Business Solutions we see many business owners fail to plan for exit and continue working into their late sixties and seventies which runs the risk of ill health and potentially the business being sold for little value. The outbreak of Covid-19 may now force companies to review what their exit strategy may be, or in some cases to start to put one in place.

The reality is that no business owner starts a business with failure in mind. The fact is that only half of all small businesses employing people survive for more than 5 years, and Covid-19 will only exacerbate this trend. Whilst most business owners may try to focus on survival, it may also be time to consider what will happen if your business fails. If this is likely, then having a realistic exit plan in the event that your business is unsustainable is imperative. This will not only help you to maximise any potential return, and to minimise loss. It will ensure you also stay in control which will help you to minimise any potential stress and anxiety.

In setting out the exit plan, the key questions to ask are:

  • How will you extract funds from the business?
  • What will be the value on exit?

The main requirement is to have a plan. For example, if you are selling to an investor you must be able to demonstrate how they can achieve a return, and all of this needs to be worked through over time. Set out below are the main exit options to consider.

Your employees may want to take your company over. You may offer them profit share and buy-out options to acquire your shareholding over time. This is a quick and easy option, but you will need to ensure your team can sustain and grow the company, otherwise this option may prove fruitless.

Is there a family member that can take over the reins? If this is the case, you can involve them now and help them in the transition providing they prove capable. If not, you may still be able to revert to one of the other options for exit.

These two options may provide a route for you to have a ‘cash cow’. If your business is stable with a steady revenue base with little or no debt, you may be able to use one of these 2 options to find people to run the business for you and which will provide you with a regular return.

Are there competitors or ‘associated’ businesses that may benefit from acquiring your company i.e. a merger. Otherwise, are you aware of potential buyers who may have more skills and interest on the operational side of the business and can scale it.

This will only be an option for a relatively small number of companies and specific advice will need to be sought if this is a realistic option.

The next set of options are relevant if you feel you may be unable to trade through over the short term.

If your business is clearly insolvent, a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) is often the best way forward. This offers you protection from legal action against your outstanding debts, giving you the breathing space to negotiate arrangements with your creditors and if necessary consolidate your borrowing. In this situation, your creditors will receive at least part of what they are owed, whilst you avoid an insolvent liquidation or administration and retain control of your business – meaning you have the chance to turn it around and get it back on its feet.

In this scenario you can sell off all your assets, get the money and hope you can cover your debts and have something left over. However, this is only feasible if you have significant business assets, and the liquidation process will need to be funded by you.

If you have no other options, you will have to file for bankruptcy. Some assets can be protected when you do so, so this won’t be a total loss, but bankruptcy does have serious implications and can affect the way you live for several years.

In summary, the main benefits of having a good exit plan is it will help you to maximise your return on your investment. With financial impact of Covid-19 on business, this may now mean you may need to consider extracting yourself from your business at least cost and financial exposure.

Don’t wait until you get into trouble to think about an exit. Think about it nowCall your nearest ICON Advisor who can assess your options with you.

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Returning to Work After Lockdown: A Programme for Safe Return

With organisations preparing to see more and more staff returning to their places of work over the coming weeks, many questions have been raised about how to make offices, shops, factories, and construction sites safer from the threat of an invisible virus.

Leadership teams, HR, Health & Safety, and FM teams will need to work closely together to prepare buildings ready for reoccupation within the limits set by social distancing imperatives and help their organisations adjust, at pace, to a new set of operating norms. This kind of change programme requires professional leadership and represents a great opportunity for HR and FM to demonstrate the ‘added value’ they offer in bringing together the space, culture and technology aspects of workplace into a workplace strategy which can enable organisations and individuals to remain productive.

The immediate concern is the return of people to the building and this first stage may require several iterations, very likely in parallel with evolving social distancing measures, before you can plan for longer term ‘normality’. However, it is key to understand that you will need to plan for change over time.

In recent press and TV interviews with several CEOs it was clear that their biggest concern was the health and wellbeing of their staff, and their families, in relation to COVID-19. They didn't want their employees back at work until they could guarantee this.
This, I’m sure, will resonate strongly with other business leaders. We need to be able to work to sustain a business, and for many, this will require a return to the workplace. However, before going back we need to consider managing risk, uncertainty and ensure a safe and healthy environment.
Each business will need to consider how they will return to work, and we should consider the following model to help us manage uncertainty and minimise harm.

You must make sure that your risk assessment for your business addresses the risks of COVID-19. It is about identifying sensible measures to control the risks in your workplace. Your risk assessment will help you decide whether you have done everything you need to. This is a 5-step process to safer working together:

  1. You have carried out a COVID-19 Risk Assessment and have shared the results with the people who work in your organisation. You have also ensured as a leadership team you have budgeted for the additional activities arising from this risk assessment:
  2. You have cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with government/NHS guidance;
  3. You have taken all reasonable steps to help people work from home;
  4. You have taken all reasonable steps to maintain a 2m distance in the workplace; and
  5. Where people cannot be 2m apart, you have done everything practical to manage the transmission risk.

The guidance below will provide a useful framework for bringing your staff back to work safely.

The return to work protocol recommended is based on a “Prepare, Inform, Prevent, Recover (PIPR) Approach”.  To assist you in your planning we have developed the following guidance using this PIPR framework.

Get ready to return to work and identify your return to work plan. This should include the following:

  • Leadership team discuss and agree the business return to work programme and the budgets needed to deliver this programme;
  • Plan to prepare your building for occupancy;
  • Arrange to conduct a preoccupancy inspection and arrange a pre-occupancy deep cleaning programme;
  • Train your FM and cleaning teams on good hygiene matters and establish a daily cleaning schedule;
  • Review any service which may present a health issue and establish how you can minimise risk; and
  • Test all emergency and life safety systems.

Consulting with staff to seek their thoughts and ideas.  By having an input from them from the beginning staff will feel valued and they will be more likely to buy-in to any changes that the business decides to implement. Jointly agree who will return to work and consider the following:

  • Workplace distancing and space availability;
  • Work routines to achieve workplace distancing;
  • Vulnerable or at-risk staff;
  • Staff who have child or care responsibilities; and
  • Travel arrangements to, where possible, reduce the need for public transport.

Establish workspace distancing protocols based on Government advice. This should be considered for the following:

  • Staggered arrival and departure;
  • Building entrance and/or exit protocols;
  • Workspace;
  • Pantries and any space where food is prepared and eaten;
  • Meetings internal;
  • Meetings with clients; and
  • Security and Emergency arrangements.

You also need to consider the consequences of increased anxiety caused by the return to work which may lead to people behaving out of character in the workplace.  Consider what resources you have available for people to access to support their mental and physical wellbeing to support them with managing the pressures that they may feel at different points.

And importantly, establish a protocol to respond to expected spikes in the outbreak. This will ensure a quick response if you need to send your team home, you can do this effectively without disruption to service.

Establish a return to work program and establish who will communicate with staff. The more senior the person, the better.
Arrange a welcome back to work program for staff and managers, to inform them of the ‘new' workplace protocols. This includes:

  • Workplace distancing protocol and building cleaning arrangements;
  • Travel and arrival arrangements;
    • This is particularly important for those who cycle to work or use changing facilities;
  • Relaxation of car share program, if in place;
  • Follow Government advice on use of public transport;
  • Working arrangements including breaks;
  • Seating arrangements;
  • Workstation health and hygiene requirements;
  • Eating and drinking and use of fridges for personal food;
  • Ill-health reporting and staff support program;
  • End of day protocols, where an alternative team may be working on site;
  • Travel to and from client sites or meetings; and
  • Vehicle hygiene requirements and checks.

And keep reinforcing your health and hygiene messages as ultimately, they will keep people healthy and safe. A simple way to do this is to utilise e-learning.

Ensure that health and hygiene is managed and maintained by:

  • Identifying key touch points in the workplace and providing appropriate sanitation stations to allow hands to be cleaned;
  • Washroom cleanliness;
  • Determining cleaning frequencies which need to consider an initial clean of surfaces and HVAC system;
  • Cleaning to consider core activities and staff provided with appropriate PPE and be visible to staff during the working day;
  • Ensuring statutory testing is undertaken safely;
  • Reviewing:
    • Food preparation and server areas to ensure workspace distancing can be maintained;
    • Deliveries;
    • Waste Arrangements included specific arrangements for PPE worn by cleaners and FM Staff;
    • Cycle to work arrangements and changing facilities where provided; and
  • Reinforcement of workplace distancing protocols.

The business recovery is a key stage. Leaders should monitor the effectiveness of the return to work program to ensure that it remains effective and is supporting those who have returned to work. It can also be used to restore confidence in the business.

Review lessons learnt from the outbreak and ask for feedback. Critique what you've learnt and use this to improve.

Review and update your Business Continuity Plan. Most organisations will have had their plan activated by the outbreak so we would encourage you to learn from this.

Finally, review what you've learnt from the period people have been working from home. Are there positives to be had? We believe that lockdown has reconnected families and given people time look at what's important to them, so it might be time to look at how teams work in a different way!

The importance of getting the return to work right after lockdown simply cannot be underestimated. The consequences of getting it wrong could cause major legal and reputational issues for business leaders.

Remember any changes that you decide to make are likely to require consultation and may involve a change to terms and conditions. Use the opportunity to speak to staff and listen to their ideas before making any final decisions. Approach any changes carefully and seek input from HR about the risks and implications.

In terms of enforcement, the HSE previously announced that it will continue to investigate reported concerns from the workforce or the public where people are being exposed to risks from work activities.

Infringement is a criminal offence and a successful prosecution may result in an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment. Directors are personally liable, and can be disqualified, for the health and safety failures of their company where the failures occur through the director's consent or neglect. This is the case even where no harm results from the offence – there only needs to be a risk of harm.

In addition to criminal sanctions, breaches of health and safety law also expose employers to negligence claims brought by employees or other affected third parties. While such claims may be difficult for employees to bring given the difficulties that surround causation (i.e. showing that they caught the virus at work), the reputational damage associated with defending such a claim is likely to be significant.

However, by meeting your responsibilities under health and safety laws by putting such a PIPR-type plan into place will have made significant steps to protect the health and wellbeing of your employees, and considerably reduce the risk of being found negligent in any civil action.

The following additional links provide useful information in several key areas:

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM)

Building Maintenance

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

UK Government (GOV.UK)

This Article was jointly prepared by Neil Niblock at Icon, and also Rachael Norrington at Face3face HR / 07568 336341 /

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Time Is Now To Get Back In The Driving Seat Of Your Business

Time Is Now To Get Back In The Driving Seat Of Your Business!

The global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a shock wave across the business community as companies try to survive and deal with the fall out. Nearly all industry sectors are reporting a significant decline in sales, with some, such as the retail and hospitality, facing a complete closure. Many business owners have reacted with a ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ response in coping with the fall out.

Those in ‘flight’ mode have already exited, or are in the process of exiting, their businesses. The retail sector in particular has been hit very hard with several well-known brand names going into administration, e.g. Victoria’s Secret, Laura Ashley, Oasis, and Debenhams.

Those in ‘fight’ mode are sourcing bridging finance through the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan (CBIL) or Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) until business picks back up. But the timing of any potential recovery is uncertain as companies start to lay off significant swathes of their workforces, thereby removing further potential consumer demand from the system. Notable examples are British Airways (12,000 staff), BP (10,000 staff), Virgin Atlantic (3,000 staff). Other lay-offs have still to be announced and the timing of these will further erode business confidence.

Building business resilience is now the key to survival for any business. Building resilience will enable them to rapidly adapt and respond to COVID-19, safeguard people and assets, while maintaining continuous business operations. In the face of a crisis or economic slowdown, it will be the resilient companies that ride out uncertainty instead of being overpowered by it. The key to building business resilience is to get back in the driving seat of your business by getting control of your finance function.  We have detailed below some useful tips and suggestions to help you do this.

First stage to building business resilience
The first key to building business reliance is to get control of your cash flow. Poor cash flow is a primary driver for business failure, as an owner / director / manager of a small or medium sized enterprise (SME) are you in control of your finance function? Do you have robust systems and process in place to review progress? Do you know what sort of management accounting you need, if any? These are critical questions that need to be answered if you are to succeed.

SMEs make up 99.9% by number of all businesses in the UK. And 95% by number of all businesses employ 9 people or less (micro-businesses).

A recent Open University (OU) study found that many owners of SMEs are either not aware or not convinced of the usefulness of management accounting for control and decision-making purposes. In support of this finding, a United Nations report showed that improved financial information would help SME owners manage their businesses better and also access finance more easily.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) found that “Many businesses do not have adequate systems for identifying the amounts of profit or loss generated by different products and services, or even by the business as a whole, yet this information is absolutely essential if the business is to grow stronger”.

Break-even analysis, business ratios, budgets and discounted cash flow, are just some of the methods which can be used to set realistic financial targets and also to monitor progress against those targets. These tools are readily available and can be easily built into a financial model on a spreadsheet using your laptop.

This is of critical importance to plan for the repayment of Covid 19 loans – otherwise you may simply just be delaying the inevitable tough decision of considering business closure.

What are the key management accounting tools are we considering here?
The OU study included;

  • Costing of products and services
  • Breakeven analysis
  • Working capital measures
  • Budgetary planning and control
  • Cost / profit centres
  • Decision support tools such as
    • Payback
    • ROI
    • Marginal Costing
    • Contribution Analysis

The OU study reviewed seven small (turnover between £750k and £5.3m) and four medium (£7m – £23m) sized businesses and found that all the businesses analysed used costing, breakeven analysis and working capital measures. However, the small businesses rarely used any of the other tools listed above. None of the seven businesses selected used any of the decision support tools.

As a result, the study showed that decision making in SMEs is typically down to the owner’s intuition or “gut-feel”. This is somewhat inevitable as the uncertainty around future cash flows render any formal management accounting tools, which rely such forecasts to operate, completely useless – and we would predict that this degree of uncertainty will be even greater in the current tough market conditions.

The OU study included few, if any, micro businesses which make up most the UK’s enterprises. Our experience in this sector suggests that the use of the management accounting tools is much less widespread. Very often the only management accounting “tool” is the bank statement.  It is evident from these studies that appropriate financial management systems are essential to the success of any business.

Budgeting and Planning – why?
It is imperative to put together a business and financial plan (going forward three or five years) whatever the size of your venture. You should do this to plan how you can navigate through the next 12-24 months – and you achieve this by preparing a business plan.

Your business plan should include details of markets served by the business, history, management, product lines, production costs, future plans, etc. The plan will include a projected profit and loss account, cash flow and a balance sheet. Understanding what drives cash flows is vital for any business plan.

Budgets are normally used internally to help the owner run the business, monitor its progress and develop action plans to achieve objectives. Budgets usually contain the same basic information as plans, i.e. forecast of profitability, cash flow and financial position. However, budgets usually deal in shorter timescales and can be broken down into weekly, monthly or quarterly periods. Targets should also be set for the business and these should aim to beat the budget levels.

Management accounting information is compared with the budget to monitor progress and to decide if changes in planned actions are required. A comparison of performance figures with budget, together with key ratios, is often a primary source of information for the effective running of a business. This enables the owner to get a better understanding of the enterprise and establish where he needs to focus his time. Such understanding will also help convince a lender that you know what makes your business tick and they will be more inclined to help finance your venture.

Decision Support Tools
The SME owner typically relies on experience and ‘gut feel’ when arriving at financial decisions on funding or investments. As with budgeting and planning, putting a formal case together to check the owner’s “gut-feel” provides a framework for measuring what future options may bring.

For example, take this simple payback model;

Period                       Project                                               Actual
                Cash out   Cash In    Cum net         Cash out    Cash In   Cum net

    0           -£5,000                        -£5,000          -£6,250                         -£6,250
    1                                £250       -£4,750                                       0      -£6,250
    2                             £3,500       -£1,250                              £3,000      -£3,250
    3                             £3,500        £2,250                              £2,750         -£500
    4                             £3,500        £5,750                              £3,000       £2,500
   Payback (periods)                      2.4                                                       3.2

In this example, before the expenditure is committed the owner can establish whether the projected payback is satisfactory. If not, he should explore other options – which can include doing nothing. If the payback is satisfactory, the investment is approved, and actual performance should be measured against the project. If necessary corrective actions will be taken and lessons learned for future investments.

In our example measuring the actual performance tells us:

  • We have spent more than we planned;
  • Cash coming in as a result of the expenditure is delayed;
  • Less cash is received than expected;
  • Hence, payback is longer than projected at the start.

This is a simple example and in reality, any forecast will be different from actual results. However, the more such techniques are used the better the understanding of cash flows in the business. Future decision making will start to be based on knowledge rather than just intuition – however good that might be!

If you don’t think you have proper control of your finance function, maybe it’s time to get help as your business may be at risk, as this is the first stage in building business resilience. In such uncertain times, establishing a financial plan is the first step to ensuring your business survival and potential to thrive into the future.

Is it time for change?

Speak to your local ICON advisor – it will cost you nothing to grab a coffee and to get a better idea of where *you* can change

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GDPR – why it is (and isn’t) scary

We have all heard about the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and all the massive fines and additional overheads this will bring to businesses. Looking behind the scary headlines – what is it all about, and should we be worried?

The existing data protection laws and regulations were created in the 1990s. and a lot has changed since then. Can you remember back to what “data protection” was back in the 1990s? Bear in mind that these regulations would have been built up over a few years, so in reality, they date back even further than that.

We are now creating enormous amounts of digital information each minute of every day and the previous laws that govern our personal info are quite frankly no longer fit for purpose.

GDPR is actually what the existing regulations would have been if the technology was there at the time.

The new regulations will come into force on May 25 2018. Whether we are in the EU or not, the UK government has started that UK law will intend to be as comprehensive moving forwards (but there will be some minor exceptions or alterations, as already allowed in the EU directive). It will change how businesses and public sector organisations can handle the information of all their customers.

Once GDPR becomes law in the UK it will not be managed by the government, however it will be enforced by the existing Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The GDPR states smaller offences could result in fines of up to €10 million or two per cent of a firm's global turnover (whichever is greater). Those with more serious consequences can have fines of up to €20 million or four per cent of a firm's global turnover (whichever is greater). These are considerably larger than the £500,000 penalty the ICO can currently wield.

It you thought that the ICO would “wield a light touch” then remember one thing – the ICO is designed to be SELF FUNDED. That means it will not receive any government funds going forward. All the expenses and costs of the organisation are to be met with the fines if can collect.

You should expect some highly public fines across the board very early on in the process.

The draft regulations have spawned a raft of GDPR experts who want to help businesses prepare for the changes GDPR will bring – at a price, and with additional services or software to help you as well.

What is talked about less however it that as businesses, we should all be doing the bulk of what is required already under the 1998 Date Protection Act.

Elizabeth Denham, the UK's information commissioner (in charge of data protection enforcement), says she is frustrated by the amount of “scaremongering” around the potential impact for businesses. “The GDPR is a step change for data protection,” she says. “It's still an evolution, not a revolution”. For businesses and organisations already complying with existing data protection laws the new regulation is only a “step change”.

It should be noted that whilst the ICO has the power to conduct criminal investigations and issue fines, it is also providing organisations with huge amounts of guidance about how to comply with GDPR.

Much of this guidance is checking you are doing things correctly under the existing rules, and having a plan to ensure that you can meet the new requirements as soon, and as comprehensively, as possible.

Once the fines start to roll in – you can be sure that those businesses and organisations without any plan will be hit hard.

So what we want to say is this – GDPR is business as usual in that you need good solid procedures, and that even at this very late stage, there is a lot of advice out there for you to make sure you are well on the way to compliance before the end of May.

You should utilise external guidance where required, but also make good use of the available information freely being provided by the ICO.

Some very useful links in this regard are:

12 Step ICO guide to GDPR

The ICO Guide to GDPR

The full (very long) regulation (if you have insomnia) 

Finally – if you want more assistance on how this fits in with your business as a whole and the impacts on growth – speak to your local ICON advisor – it will cost you nothing to grab a coffee and see what you may need to be doing.

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