Following our Inside the Minds of Business Leaders 2017 events, we asked Caroline Jarrold, Community Affairs Adviser for Jarrold and our regional panel expert at our Norwich event her thoughts on what lies ahead for OMBs.
1. What do you think is the top concern businesses in Norfolk are faced with today and how do you recommend they might overcome it?
Uncertainty over the impact of Brexit is a huge concern for many businesses. As negotiations have continued, and made little progress, that uncertainty has the potential to be more damaging.
One of the major negative consequences so far has been the devaluation of the pound, which has increased input costs for many Norfolk businesses. Businesses in Norfolk tend to trade with the wider region, or the rest of the UK, so are not able to leverage the cheap pound by selling more in foreign markets.
Businesses need to explore ways to increase the proportion of their sales overseas. The Department for International Trade provides free consultations and help for businesses looking to increase their presence in overseas markets.
Given we are likely in for a prolonged period of uncertainty, it is important for businesses not to let that uncertainty lead to negativity and paralysis. Business leaders need to focus on what makes their businesses successful, such as recruiting and retaining the right staff, making and seizing opportunities and investing wisely without over-stretching themselves.
It’s easier said than done but I think the best approach to the current economic conditions is to adopt a positive frame of mind and not talk ourselves into a downturn.
2. How do you think the economic outlook has changed over the past year and do you have any advice for businesses in Norfolk to help them adapt to the current climate?
The performance of many businesses has been better than they might have feared following the Brexit vote. There was an immediate sense of panic in the aftermath of the referendum result but that has subsided as attention has turned to the details of what the UK’s relationship with the EU might look like post March 2019.
On the current information available, it looks as though our disengagement from Europe will take longer than the two-year period specified by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
A transitional period looks quite likely, so there is still much opportunity to take businesses forward during that period whilst keeping abreast of the impact of the negotiations. Businesses may be wary of committing to investment but there are opportunities to gain a competitive advantage if rivals are hesitant and decide to sit on their cash.
3. Recruiting and retaining talent was identified as the principle challenge for Norfolk businesses. What could they be doing to ensure they are able to recruit and retain the right talent?
It has become easier and more acceptable for people to seek alternative employment if they are dissatisfied, which means that employers need to find innovative ways to keep employees engaged.
It is important to get the balance right and ensure that people are paid well but also enjoy their work. This could mean giving people more personal autonomy, such as permitting flexible hours or working from home, or a direct stake in businesses through shares. The problem for rural areas like Norfolk is that offering non-financial benefits, such as flexible working, are hampered by relatively poor infrastructure.
At the same time, employees need to think about organisational culture and how they can acknowledge individuals and their interests. It can be difficult as well as costly to accommodate every individual preference but the other extreme of a one-size-fits-all approach can be more costly in terms of high churn and the associated business disruption and recruitment costs.
4. What would you like to see the Government do to help businesses in Norfolk as we get closer to Brexit?
For rural areas like Norfolk, it is vital that we see continued investment in infrastructure particularly around broadband and mobile phone networks, as well as the key transport projects which are currently under discussion.
I would also like to see investment in the sectors identified within the New Anglia LEP strategy and in ongoing training to improve skills and efficiency. This links back directly to the concerns that Norfolk businesses have recruiting and retaining people and will become more pressing as we leave the EU and freedom of movement is curtailed.
With the right investment, there is no reason why local talent can’t move to fill the skills gap and further development of broadband and mobile phone networks should enable more employers to offer flexible working, thereby helping talent acquisition and retention.