On 28 April this year though, thousands were invited to attend The Good Business Festival in Liverpool – without face coverings or social distancing.
Closely monitoring infection rates after the event found no evidence of any substantial spread of the virus around it – infections remain low, and the pattern of variants is being watched carefully.
So how is it that an event of this scale could take place during the pandemic? And what lessons could HR take back to their businesses from it to inform return to workplace plans?
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Garth Dallas is head of collaborations at The Good Business Festival. He told HR magazine that the collaborative model they use at the company was central to pulling off an event of this scale with such a positive outcome.
“Collaboration is the new competition - business will not, in this environment, survive without it,” he said.
“Gone are the days where you are reluctant to share information, because you believe that that's going to eradicate your competitive advantage.”
Various stakeholders were involved in the festival, including each of the city’s universities, Liverpool City Region, Culture Liverpool and festival partners including Deloitte, Mazars and Patagonia.
With Liverpool having completed the successful trial of mass testing early on in the pandemic, buy-in for the event itself wasn’t an issue.
“The situation required and continues to require that we're bold,” Dallas said.
“We relied on the expertise which we had at our disposal, and we have a community which genuinely came together throughout the pandemic - the business ecosystem. It was so good to see the interaction between the various sectors, private, public, social all coming together, picking up some of those areas that our local government wasn't able to fill.”
Dallas explained that it was about getting the messaging right.
He added: “It was all about communication, getting the message out that The Good Business Festival is about engaging in businesses, at all levels. In fact, in businesses that may not even be in a corporate set up yet.”
Initially, organisers did a stakeholder mapping exercise marking key contributors, such as the Chambers of Commerce, and the formal and informal networks around them.
With collaborators engaged, the relationship between them should steer clear of the transactional he added. Rather than a reciprocal agreement where one business shares in order to gain something from their partner, Dallas said collaboration should be out of solidarity. This is also part of how businesses can become more sustainable.
“At the centre of what we have been doing and continue to do in work with businesses is sending the message that no sustainable business in the 21st century can progress without putting people at the core of its operation,” he said.
“The good business movement is a people-centred movement. It’s about engaging with people and ensuring people within your organisation are completely engaged around what your purpose is.”
Far from simply a HR issue, creating a sense of purpose has to be a global strategy, led from the top for any organisation, he argued.
“What COVID has shown us is that if you look after your people, they will look after your customers. If you look after your customers, you will also look after your bottom line,” he said.
Though it can be challenging for businesses to be “good” in the way Dallas described, he said that all businesses can make a start, no matter their size.
“It’s progress not perfection,” he said.
“We just want businesses to understand what the parameters are, what they can and what they can't do, make priorities, start the process, understanding that there may be trade off.”
Alongside The Good Business Festival, Liverpool City Council was able to host two pilot nightclub nights and a music festival in Sefton Park as part of the UK’s national Events Research Programme (ERP) which aims to inform the government’s decisions on safely lifting restrictions on large-scale events.
After the success of the events, which involved rapid testing before and after, the city’s public health and science teams shared optimism that with the right testing in place, and people encouraged to stay away if they feel unwell, events would be able to reopen.
Dallas added; “If we truly want to get our industry back and want to get out of this pandemic on the front foot, we have to make bold decisions, and Liverpool was quite happy to do that.”