December 12, 2023

Britain’s Triple Whammy for the Holidays

Strikes, snow, and the flu are creating unusual disruptions at a key time for businesses.

Year-end goals are always top of mind for corporate leaders come December. But this year, unusual disruptions are coming down the pike—three of them, in fact—that could put the economic brakes on. 

The first is a series of rolling strikes by unionized train conductors, who plan to disrupt commuter and vacation travel on a significant scale. There is also a high probability that Britain gets hit with more snow—also a known interrupter—than usual due to the impact of the El Niño weather system, according to the UK Met Office. Then there is a brutal winter cold virus, which its victims say lasts for weeks, and which is taking a tour around the country.

Separately, none of these events would necessarily disrupt the country’s business operations, but experts say that all of them in combination could strand an unusually high number of workers at home. Some firms are already working on high-level contingency plans. “It’s likely to hammer productivity and hurt GDP,” says Ben Angold, EMEA lead for Korn Ferry’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing business.

Concerns about the so-called British bug— which experts say may or may not be related to the COVID-19 virus—partly date back to changed attitudes towards viruses since 2020. “I see a lot less willingness to travel if you are even a little sick,” says Angold. And companies are increasingly saying ‘stay home’ to ill employees.

How these challenges will impact business depends on the sector, says Jaime Maxwell-Grant, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s UK & Ireland Consulting business. “Not all companies run with people working from home,” he says, and highlights entertainment, the restaurant trade, and factories, all of which need people on-site. Then there are financial companies, which are experiencing their own dilemma. They have been leaders in demanding people return to the office, and it isn't clear whether they will bend. “Are they going to be flexible in these circumstances?” Maxwell-Grant asks. Overall, there is some good news, because many companies learned how to operate with remote workers during the pandemic and can implement the same routine again. “There’s a well-greased pathway for many firms,” he says. 

Experts say smart firms are already making sure that executives who may need to work from home have suitable equipment. For those who need to be in the office, business leaders can choose to provide private transport. “Some organizations have laid on coaches in the past,” says Donna Herdsman, head of diversity, equity and inclusion for Korn Ferry EMEA. Such plans are suitable only for healthy employees, of course, so firms may want to prioritize what work is essential and what can be left until later. “You have to act quickly,” she says. 

In case of a major disruption, some firms may also consider setting up a work hub—aka a temporary office space—close to where the majority of people live, so they can work collaboratively in person, Herdsman says. Always go for the maximum, she says. “Then, if a percentage of the employees cannot get there, you can still operate the business effectively.”


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