The First Lockdown - All Stop
In the initial lockdown last March, business slowed very rapidly. Companies reported expected projects and investments were being put on hold, with clients and customers battening down the hatches. This meant that many members' plans for expansion and recruitment were also postponed, with 44% saying they would have made redundancies were it not for the furlough scheme.
Not surprisingly, freelancers were by far the hardest hit both through a sudden lack of client activity and because government support packages were either underwhelming or non-existent. 71% of those freelancers who responded to our first lockdown survey lost work. Most digital companies moved their staff to remote working at speed, with 44% operating fully remotely and 54% working in a hybrid style.
Summer / Autumn - Stop, Get Ready, Go.
From May until the autumn of 2020, we could see businesses falling into one of 3 broad categories.
Some were in a near-permanent triage state, purely focussed on survival. These tended to be those companies or freelancers whose clients or focus was providing services to sectors that were severely disrupted by covid, like events, hospitality, travel and certain types of retailer.
Others were working to pivot, to redefine their customers, or their products and services, or their structures and their methods of operating. Often this involved revising the way they engage with their customers to make it more purely digital or online.
Finally, others found themselves in a growth mode. For these companies, the changes in the way many of us were now socially interacting benefitted their existing products and services. One significant example of that is the region’s games studios. We have a well-developed games cluster in this region, with over 75 studios including Creative Assembly and Unity who alone employ over 1,000 local people between them. Reports show that gaming on all platforms (console, PC and mobile) significantly increased across 2020, both in terms of amount of time and the number of people playing. Games companies confirmed that they were seeing a corresponding growth in revenues.
Others also reporting increased sales to us include local edtech and e-learning companies, and digital marketers.
We have some evidence that some digital businesses moved from one of these categories to another during this period. For instance, digital marketers moving from triage to growth as some erstwhile non-digital businesses suddenly recognised the need to sell and promote themselves across digital platforms either in a new or expanded way.
The last set of responses we have received has covered the period from late October to the present.
Here a complex picture of businesses re-calibrating how they operate is beginning to emerge. No more so than in the issue of remote working and workspaces. As I highlighted above, as a response to the March lockdown, the overwhelming majority of our members moved to a remote (or primarily remote) working model. At that time, around 25% of digital businesses told us they were contemplating sustaining that model and closing their office or studio permanently. Another 30% told us that only the fact that they were tied into leases with their landlords stopped them from considering that option.
It is clear that since then, whilst remote working is still seen as having real tangible benefits, the challenges around remote working have also become much more apparent. People’s homes are not necessarily set up as offices, and often lack the privacy, connectivity, or levels of comfort that productive work activity requires. Additionally, a company’s workspace is not just a place where people labour, it’s also somewhere that people share information and intelligence in an ad hoc and informal way, build new relationships, and engage with and energise the company culture.
We have all experienced the enormous strengths that on-line meetings on Zoom, Teams, Meet, etc can bring. Clearly, they are more likely to start on time and, when well managed, can usually address the point of the meeting more quickly. One survey respondent also mentioned the way that they can help reduce workplace hierarchies, allowing space to new voices and perspectives. However, feedback is that they are less successful than physical engagement when the task requires creativity or new thinking, a core element to any sustainable digital business.
That does not mean that businesses profess to becoming disenchanted in enabling and supporting remote working going forward, but more now say they need to marry that with physical engagement.
This may not require the same spaces they inhabited pre-covid though. Many respondents talk about needing less workspace, or different kinds of workspace, allowing staff to sometimes work away from home (in part for the sake of their mental wellbeing) and to deliver the collective activities involved in a business. A number suggested the solution would be to be able to access some kind of ‘business hotel’ that could provide those opportunities on a service-led basis.
Like its impact on the retail sector, covid here seems to have accelerated existing trends to shared workspaces and flexible work patterns, and overlay them with new technologies, rather than just kick start new ones.
If you are interested in the physical, mental, technical and financial aspects of having staff remote working, we have a series of recorded talks that might help you.
In my next blog, I will detail how we have been taking all this information and member feedback and communicating them to national and local government and policymakers.