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Lockdown: a catalyst for change?

 

Gill Hall, Managing Partner at Square One Law LLP talks tech, talent and team spirit in the latest of our Chamber Partners blogs.

The current lockdown period has undoubtedly accelerated broader appreciation of the benefits of remote and flexible working, but management teams are also experiencing its challenges and limits. We’re in the middle of an experiment where spare rooms (if you have one) are being turned into home offices and our days are now spent in Zoom chats and on Microsoft Teams in virtual, rather than physical, proximity with our colleagues.

Cloud computing has offered advanced online security and given location and device independence so the trend towards flexible working had already gained some momentum in recent years. The forward looking companies who have been embracing this new way of working have invested heavily into digital technologies and were able to seamlessly start homeworking when the government announced lockdown, whereas those that didn’t plan ahead and invest, were initially left struggling.

Attracting talent to the North East has always been a challenge, but better technology and widespread appreciation that the workplace is rapidly changing from the traditional model, has made it easier for people to move north and most HR professionals will tell you that flexible working and home-life balance are high on applicants’ lists of requirements. If more jobs can be done remotely in the future, then this opens new possibilities for businesses as they become less restricted by their geographical location and the talent pool becomes more mobile and flexible.

Since lockdown, many detractors of remote working have been converted by an acceptance that productivity is not compromised and overheads are actually reduced. This is fine for office workers, but we have to remember that a large number of businesses cannot be done from home – you can’t build cars, manufacture goods, build infrastructure projects, farm our food or care for people.

As a law firm, our main concern with home working is security of information and data. Organisations that use a device-led IT model, where work and sensitive data is often held on devices, like laptops, tablets and smartphones, often the employee’s own, expose themselves to cyber criminals.

At Square One Law, technology, supporting high levels of service delivery, has been the cornerstone of our strategy, so we are now seeing the benefit of having heavily invested in new, secure cloud-based Microsoft technologies that allow us to work in a more flexible, efficient and responsive way. This has been demonstrated by our ability to react quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, remain fully operational with our whole team working remotely, maintain high levels of service to clients and also, just before lockdown, integrate a new partner in Leeds, Matthew Thompson, who has been supported by the Newcastle team to deliver a seamless service.

Ultimately, we’ve all realised that while we can work from home, we do also enjoy our work lives and being part of a professional team. Being in physical isolation for three months has highlighted a yearning for the sense of collective spirit and shared endeavour that is created by being in close proximity to colleagues at a shared workspace. As humans we enjoy being part of a community and the sense of belonging that being part of a team provides. So, I anticipate that, while remote and flexible working will become more prevalent, we will value, and actively engineer, opportunities for group interaction and social activity. The Zoom quizzes and bingo nights will live on after lockdown!

There is a real opportunity for the North East with our low cost of living, developed infrastructure and accessibility to major hubs to attract new businesses to the area who will no longer be deterred by worries about unavailability of talent and resources. However, there is a concern that in order to flourish, the region needs to have a better digital infrastructure with good levels of accessibility to that infrastructure. 5G will undoubtedly play a key part in unlocking the accessibility problem, but developing our digital infrastructure should remain high on the local agenda when lobbying government for the much-needed support in the levelling up programme that has been promised. Those who do not regularly use digital technologies and those who do not have access to tech equipment must not be forgotten either. I believe there is some ’pre-work’ necessary to ensure that as much of our society as possible are digitally enabled – from those in rural areas where connectivity may be poor, to the elderly who perhaps have never had the opportunity to develop the skills and those in deprived areas who have limited resources and tech spend is not a priority.

The North East already has a strong digital sector which could be utilised to deliver skills training and develop enabling technologies that would address some of the challenges around creating an inclusive, digitally enabled society. The people within our digital businesses are highly skilled and creating some truly inspirational and cutting-edge products and services. We need more joined up thinking and collaborative working between local government, the digital sector and the broader business community. I believe this should be focussed in part on developing digital awareness – making the interface between business and the digital sector seamless so that business can easily access and understand the technologies that may be available to solve business problems or assist in the development of better products and services.

This will partly require some digital businesses to adapt their approach away from being tech providers to business solutions advisers, demystifying and simplifying ‘tech talk’ that bamboozles many non-techies, and working on solving business problems through tech rather than selling tech for tech’s sake. Business owners also need to embrace digital, take the time to understand it and give it the prominence it deserves on an organisational level by ensuring digital representation at board level (and acknowledging that IT is not the same as digital!) and at a project level by considering ‘is there a digital solution?’ at the outset.

We have well developed clusters in our region already – that which is centred on the BOHO area of Middlesbrough is a good example. At the heart of that cluster is Digital City, pioneered by Teesside University and with a remit to drive innovation and growth of digital business with a further £250m funding recently announced. The interweaving of support provided by Digital City with business and academia is one of our region’s success stories and can provide a template for the roll out of similar clusters elsewhere.

I may be biased, but I really do believe that we have the passion and the energy, the talent and the skill in this region to be leaders in the digital economy – and if the government’s levelling up agenda brings all that is promised including a robust digital infrastructure, there will be nothing to stop us!


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