In this article, Klaus Allion, managing director at ANT Telecom, focuses on the productivity lapse faced in UK industry, and the barriers to automation that could unlock productivity.
The Coronavirus crisis has been a catalyst for change for the UK’s rate of innovation and productivity. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen numerous examples of businesses coming together to innovate for the greater good, such as AstraZeneca and Oxford University joining forces to work on a vaccine and Apple and Google partnering to track Coronavirus exposure.
We’ve also witnessed industry sectors rapidly adapting in order to keep the lights on, for example, hospitality businesses shifting to become retailers and stocking grocery essentials to help the local community. More than two-thirds of companies have shifted over 75% of their workforce to work remotely during the crisis – and many are maintaining productivity levels at the same time – so it’s clear that most businesses are doing all they can to adapt and thrive during the crisis, though they may not have been prepared at the start.
Adversity typically fosters innovation and productivity, and this current ‘wartime’ effort has clearly demonstrated how flexible and innovative UK businesses truly are. Yet the UK’s productivity has stagnated since the financial crisis of 2008, failing to recover as it should, with the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane calling it the “single most pressing issue” for the UK economy prior to the pandemic.
Coronavirus has inspired much greater business to business collaboration to fuel innovation and productivity, not just in the fight against Covid-19 but to get the economy moving again. But should it really have taken a global pandemic to get the UK’s economy up and running once more?
Gaps in innovation
Coronavirus has shone a bright spotlight on the gaps in UK technology innovation. But many of the applications that have been so urgently needed during these times have been needed for decades. For example, automation within manufacturing environments can aid social distancing requirements on the factory floor, as well as unlocking significant productivity gains. With earlier investment in the technology, businesses could have been better prepared for the pandemic and having less staff on site, while also leveraging productivity gains a long time ago.
One of the barriers to automation in recent times has been the reluctance to introduce technology that replaces a worker’s role. The UK’s lockdown disrupted every part of both daily life and the economy, with clinically vulnerable individuals forced to shield and many non-essential businesses closing their doors. These measures meant that many organisations couldn’t rely on the existing workforce to continue operations as close to normal as possible, but in response, the crisis forced the hand of many organisations to adapt their businesses accordingly.
Technology to adapt
Now that lockdown measures are being eased, businesses can think about bringing more staff back to work. But what about future operations? What happens in the event of a second wave or a future pandemic? With social distancing in some form likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, what does that mean for businesses in a practical sense, and how could this affect productivity?
In many cases, roles that previously required two employees, some delivery roles for example, have been adapted for just a single worker. While this can help with creating a Covid-secure workplace, it also increases the number of lone workers which presents its own challenges. How can you ensure the safety of lone workers when they operate without colleague supervision? How can you maintain or improve productivity levels with a dispersed workforce operating independently? Companies need to deploy technology solutions, such as integrated lone worker and communication devices – for example, Push to Talk over Cellular (PoC) or Digital Radio – to ensure that all employees are connected. This is imperative for ensuring team morale, welfare, mental and physical health and personal safety.
There is a wealth of technology that can help businesses to adapt in the post-Covid world. For example, temperature monitoring camera solutions, the use of AI and cameras to detect how many people are congregating at once or check if masks are being worn, touch-free sign-in devices etc.. As innovation thrives through different stakeholders and businesses working together, technology will play an ever-increasing role in keeping staff and customers safe, and allowing businesses to thrive.
With less resources available due to social distancing, more home working, redundancies and the need for companies to become more efficient to be competitive – the need to automate processes should help the UK to bridge the productivity gap. Solutions, such as wireless sensor technology using IoT and AI are easy to implement and will offer immediate efficiency gains to organisations. Wireless temperature monitoring for fridges in hospitality, for example, provides managers the visibility to see their assets in full and it provides the blueprint for proactive and corrective adjustments. Parameters can be set, and if assets go above or below these thresholds an alarm will be activated by the sensors to ensure the problem is visible straight away, before it becomes costly.
Innovation to fuel the economy
Furthermore, for those businesses who are beginning to start opening again, particularly within the hospitality industry, ensuring potential customers feel assured that the right technology solutions are in place to minimise risk of potential infection can only enhance the appeal factor. A recent study that assessed how comfortable people would feel returning to public places post lockdown found that 57% feel uncomfortable returning to restaurants, and 58% uneasy about visiting coffee shops. If businesses are to recover from the fallout of Covid-19, investing in solutions for both psychological and physical reassurance, like those of the temperature monitoring scanners, is a small price to pay.
It’s crucial that this business collaboration continues beyond Covid-19 relief efforts. British businesses have shown that when the opportunity is presented, they can swiftly adapt and meet the requirements. Take the Ventilator Challenge as an example; a rapid creation of a consortium of UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses tasked with producing medical ventilators for the UK. Without this effort, the NHS could have been overwhelmed through lack of urgent ventilators required to save lives. Innovation such as this clearly demonstrates the ingenuity, flexibility and adaptability that exists to boost the UK’s productivity and fuel the economy.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but no one could foresee the widespread disruption caused as a result of Coronavirus. It’s clear that we must do all we can to get the economy going again, encourage more collaboration between businesses, both private and public sector, and achieve more transparency about opportunities and challenges to showcase the vast opportunities for innovation. We know things won’t go back to ‘normal’ – now is the time for industries and public services to come together, communicate effectively and create an agile culture with a progressive attitude. Let’s not wait for the next wave or pandemic to inspire the nation to drive the economy forward.