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Businesses set back 18 months by COVID

UK organisations anticipate that it will take 18 months to fully recover from the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures, with small businesses leading the way back to “normal”.

A survey of business leaders and managers by The Open University has found that SMEs expect to recover to their pre-COVID status in 15 months, with larger organisations trailing behind by a further 6 months1.

While 71 per cent of organisations across all sectors have been severely affected by the pandemic, it is those businesses that have invested in training during lockdown that expect to recover more quickly2.

In an attempt to get to grips with socially distanced, digitally-delivered business models, two thirds (67%) of organisations report that learning opportunities have been crucial to enabling their workforce to remain agile throughout the pandemic.

One in five (22%) have embraced technology to meet new business challenges and are now looking for the skills to harness them effectively. As a result, 40 per cent of leaders expect to rely on their employees’ digital capabilities more heavily than before as they adjust to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

Yet one in three (33%) organisations plan to let go of furloughed workers or make other redundancies as pressures to recover mount, but this in turn is creating further skills gaps, as one in five (22%) report that redundant workers will be replaced with new talent offering more valuable skills, talent that could be developed from within.  

One in six (17%) plan to re-model their organisation, driving the value of “soft” skills that could be developed through work-based learning such as communication, problem solving and critical thinking skywards3.

The Open University is urging employers to think ahead and invest in the re-training of workers whose roles have become redundant to fill future skills gaps and re-channel employees.


John D’Arcy, National Director of The Open University in Ireland added: “The business landscape has changed almost beyond recognition in the last three months. While some leaders will be tempted to replace employees who don’t appear to have the skills required for a post-COVID world, this new data shows that those who have invested in the development of their staff during lockdown are in fact more confident about their recovery.  

“More so than ever before, the nation’s workforce needs to be agile, and this should be reflected in the training it receives. The time to invest in skills is now. With the Northern Ireland approaching deep recession and the economic uncertainty that this will bring, comprehensive and continuous learning is key to adapting to the ‘new normal’ and embracing the challenges that lie ahead.”


The Open University has recently partnered with Invest Northern Ireland to provide free learning support to businesses in Northern Ireland through a business learning hub on and would encourage any businesses who are seeking help and advice on how to train workers for the future to get in touch at



The Open University commissioned PCP Research to interview 400 UK business leaders between 3-9 June 2020 split evenly between SMEs and large businesses, with representative samples across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

1 UK businesses expect to recover from coronavirus 17.82 months on average (1 year 5 months), SMEs 14.86 months and large businesses 20.82 months (1 year 3 months and 1 year 9 months respectively)

2 68 per cent of businesses that are confident about their recovery have invested in skills during lockdown, 53% of those who are not confident about their recovery have not invested in skills during lockdown

3 Business leaders report that their organisation will rely more heavily on “soft” skills (34%), problem solving (33%) and critical thinking (30%) as a result of coronavirus

For media enquiries:

Contact Christine Murphy

Communications Manager
Tel 028 9053 6219