Stock words and phrases from the 2020 lexicon include the new normal, unprecedented, post-pandemic. No amount of strategic planning, risk management, business continuity, or scenario planning could have predicted the dramatic and radical impact of COVID-19 on organisations of all sizes, sectors and locations.
What will be the legacy of COVID-19 for business and innovation? Shakespeare cautions against prediction: “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.” The more modest ambition here is to identify some of the key trends for the future of business and innovation, drawn from conversations with some of NUI Galway’s world-learning alumni and thought leaders, in Ireland and abroad.
Change in where and how we work is one of the biggest disruptions from COVID-19. NUI Galway’s Whitaker Institute and Western Development Commission national remote working surveys in April and October 2020 found that the vast majority of employees who can work remotely want to continue to do so, for some or all of the time.
Brenda Romero, CEO of Romero Games -
What does this mean for the modern workplace? Organisations are planning for hybrid and blended workplace models. Brenda Romero, CEO of Romero Games says: “I think our experience of remote working since the pandemic is going to change everything – it’s going to change the way we live, where we live, where we work and how we work. It’s opened up the hiring pool because it is no longer about if someone is willing to move to a specific location. It’s about asking if you are willing to work during these hours and work with this team?”
Dorothy Creaven, VP and Managing Director of Rent the Runway and NUI Galway BEng graduate (2000) also predicts a blended model. “So I think a hybrid model is where we’ll be going in the future to be spending half our time working from home where we can concentrate and get really into some deep work, while also balancing it with working from a workplace where we get to hang out with our colleagues and do creative things.”
A key projection is that offices will be repurposed for collaborative and team-based activities with individual work being done remotely. Brian Hanly, Chief Customer Officer with Emergn, and NUI Galway BComm graduate (1994) says “the future workplace will be about purposeful colocation. So you need to go to a workplace for a reason, like to run your workshop or maybe work with some of the younger folks that are coming in”.
Predictions of the demise of the office are challenged by Danny McCoy, CEO of Ibec. “The blended office, I think that will occur. But I don’t think it’ll occur on the scale of being a new normal. I fully anticipate that we will have a significant return to office and office environments for a whole host of reasons. Very often, it’s social, not just in terms of collegiality and camaraderie. I think the death of the office has been way over exaggerated”.
COVID-19 of itself is not causing significant change but has acted as a catalyst for trends that were already happening in business and innovation. Adrian Jones, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs in New York City and NUI Galway BA graduate (1986) believes that “the lasting change over the next several years is going to come down to an acceleration of trends that were playing out before we came to 2020. They just picked up pace in 2020, and are going to continue.” Danny McCoy supports this view, “I think signs of the future workplace were already evident, such as greater use of robotics, tech and AI. But in the more social aspects, I think the individualism that the Western world has experienced over the last 30 years, it’s now being rolled back, and we’re seeing collectivism beginning to emerge”.
COVID-19 has quickened the pace of change for some global business trends. It has also highlighted the fact that many organisations are more agile and adaptable than previously thought, for example, moving hundreds or thousands of employees to remote working, effectively overnight, with little or no previous experience of such change. Organisations have managed this gargantuan challenge and done so quite effectively.
Innovation and creativity will continue to underpin organisational and national economic success. “You’ve got to see greater focus on creativity and innovation within companies. There’s no question about it, both offensively and defensively”, argues Adrian Jones. Speaking of her own business, Dorothy Creaven says, “Innovation will continue to be of importance to everybody in Rent the Runway. And it’s the reason we started the company in the first place; sustainability and the circular economy is at the forefront of everything we do. Continually finding ways to innovate, either through tech or otherwise is, is going to be a big part of how we see the business growing in the future”.
Predictions for the national and global economy are quite positive, notwithstanding the challenges that lie ahead. Brexit looms large as a significant extraneous factor that will impact many Irish businesses in 2021 and beyond. Brian Hanly concludes, “Brexit is obviously not positive, but it is manageable. So we should look at where we can potentially gain, that is key. I think we can win more FDI where Britain may have won it in the past and I think we’ll be in a quite strong position. We can win some of the UK-based financial services and FinTech. Companies will want English speaking location options.” Adrian Jones is upbeat about future growth in the US economy. “The predictions are for very unusually high growth levels in 2021, and again in 2022. And that’s about recovery. That’s what we expect, certainly, as we go through the year, as we plan today for 2021 with all of the companies that we’re working with”.
In the Irish economic context, Danny McCoy foresees economic growth but warns about the impact of lockdowns. “2021 is likely to be a really strong year of growth. But when you get down to the more sectoral micro level, while many businesses will survive COVID-19, far too many may not make it through, that could make it through if we had a more enlightened approach, based on what we’ve learned from the last nine months – and not such dramatic shutdowns.”
NUI Galway’s Strategy 2025 identifies openness as a core value and expresses a vision to be a University for the public good – highlighting the critical importance of both expertise and a collaborative approach. Dorothy Creaven draws attention to synergies between the University and her business: “one of the reasons we set up here in Galway was access to talent and the closeness and proximity to NUI Galway.”
NUI Galway and the School of Business and Economics look forward to enhancing and extending collaboration and engagement opportunities with businesses and external stakeholders in our region and beyond, reflecting our commitment to the public good.