At the end of the 16th century, merchants in the French City of Marseille were engaged in a critical quarrel with the port authorities. They decided to form an organisation so they could speak with one voice and met up in a room, in French a “chambre”, and so the Chamber of Commerce was born.
More than 400 years on and the Chamber name is known around the world, helping businesspeople get to know one another, to pass on information and make sure their views are heard in the corridors of power. The current crisis has once again illustrated the far sightedness of those French traders because they created a foundation from which we still benefit today.
Whilst our members have not been able to meet face to face, we have been keeping in touch through video conferencing and passing on relevant information as things have developed, sometimes fairly quickly. These meetings have been invaluable, not only for keeping people in touch, but in allowing an exchange of experiences across a variety of sectors. That’s allowed me to constructively feed the views of members into conversations about how the local economy develops in the future.
We’ve also helped influence national policy. For example, members raised the issue of needing an element of flexibility in the furlough scheme. We fed that in, via our colleagues in Business West, through to the British Chambers of Commerce, who were able to make the case directly with Government ministers, and lo and behold, greater flexibility was agreed.
There are many unknowns for business but we do know we will be facing a range of new challenges, many of which will involve the treatment of employees. For example, if more working from home becomes the long-term norm, what do you do for staff who find that difficult, either because of their domestic circumstances or because they struggle with isolation? How do you maintain team spirit and create the sort of situations where people bounce thoughts around and come up with fresh, creative ideas?
Doubtless there will be many more issues that will test the ingenuity of our local business community, but I have every confidence that by sharing experiences and new best practices we can continue to enjoy sustainable economic growth which will benefit all.
By the way, as part of the larger Business West group, our members have been able to contribute to a new portal on the website www.tradingthroughcoronavirus.co.uk which continues to provide all the latest information that businesses need to know about.