Digital, Creative and Tech expert Sarah Novotny pinpoints how business in the sector can bounce back from the setbacks of the last 12 months.
This article originally appeared on Prolific North.
Everyone’s individual experiences of the last 12 months will have been different, but one word that could safely be applied to us all is ‘turbulence’.
Our personal and professional lives have been thrown into chaos by a global pandemic and the lockdown restrictions that came with it. And even as we tentatively emerge into a new way of living and working, we need to reflect on what we’ve been through and how it should influence what comes next.
This is especially important for small businesses, where staff have been scattered away from the office for months, adapting to this ‘new normal’. Many companies have suffered economic losses and seen staff furloughed. At GC Business Growth Hub, we’ve been working with SMEs that have experienced all of this and much more.
So how can businesses bounce back from these setbacks and trauma to sustain a positive culture? Together with clients, the Hub’s specialist Digital, Creative and Tech (DCT) team has provided some suggestions:
1. Leaders need to create time to think about culture and productivity
Lockdowns have meant we’ve had to reshape the way we work and, for many DCT businesses, this has been a good opportunity to revisit processes or develop new ones. As a result, productivity has often been maintained or even improved.
However, a lot of people have found themselves running at 100 miles an hour, and this has left no space for the reshaping of the culture, which we’re now realising is creating problems, with motivation down and wellbeing suffering.
Now’s the time to start the conversation about the ‘new’ culture. It’s this that will keep the talent in place and productivity levels high, even in uncertain times.
There’s been a big divide between those businesses that were ready and had the right level of trust in their staff, and those which faced a steep learning curve. The Hub’s advisors are helping businesses to put in place mechanisms where managers can feel secure and build a sense of trust that results in improved culture and productivity.
2. Support your colleagues and encourage them to support each other
Throughout COVID-19, it’s been important for companies to support their staff both professionally and personally – whether that’s ensuring they have the tools to do their jobs from home, sharing guidance on how to keep safe, or providing access to mental health and wellbeing resources.
Susanna Lawson, CEO and co-founder of OneFile (pictured below), says that transparency is an essential part of a supportive workplace culture. “I’ve been very honest from the start, admitting that I couldn’t predict the impact of COVID on our business, saying that we just needed to keep on supporting our customers and delivering the best we can.
“I think staff needed that honesty, because saying anything else wouldn’t be authentic and they would recognise that. I’ve had times when it’s affected my mental health, with all the uncertainty COVID has brought to our work and personal lives, and I’ve been honest about that, letting them know that if I have those times it’s ok for them to feel that way too.”
3. Bring people together to collaborate
Working remotely during a pandemic is a lonely experience for many people, even more so for those who have been furloughed and are away from the business for an extended period of time. Whatever your current office or remote situation, building a positive culture means bringing these people back together through collaboration.
This could be in the form of projects they need to work on in teams, or by pairing people up across the business for information sharing or mentoring, to spread awareness and help colleagues to bond.
For OneFile, technology has helped with collaboration and has a role to play beyond COVID. “I don’t know how we’d have coped without Teams and Zoom, but we’re also using Miro, a collaborative online platform,” said Susanna. “We learned about growth sprints from GC Business Growth Hub. These used to take place in an office with post-its all over the wall, so now we use Miro for doing all of that virtually.
“The teams that hadn’t run growth sprints before COVID have been using it now and it’s been brilliant and really collaborative, even in a remote setting. We’ve also used Monday.com as project management software and that helped a lot when we were going through an audit recently. These are tools that have supported us through COVID, but will also be essential to our business post-pandemic for the way they enable us to work together."
4. Be creative: come up with flexible ways to improve the culture
One of the positives that workers have been able to take away from the current situation is the increased flexibility that remote working offers, allowing them to shape their jobs around their lives rather than the other way around. This shouldn’t be a door that swings shut with the return of ‘normality’. Engage with your staff and empower them to play a role in determining what flexibility will look like.
For Susanna, last year saw an acceleration of existing plans for more flexible working and the cultural changes that come along with that: “One thing that had been on my radar was looking at bank holidays for things like Easter and Christmas, where the company shuts down and people have to take time off regardless of whether they celebrate those holidays.
“They then have to use their own annual leave to celebrate holidays like Eid. It used to really upset me, but we had the issue of lone working in the office on those days if they weren’t geared up to work from home. Now, of course, everyone is able to work from home, so we’re looking at bringing in flexible bank holidays this year, giving people the freedom to take off the days that suit them, not just the days that we’ve always taken off.”
5. Have an office space that is fit for purpose
Arguments continue to rage on social media about whether the office is dead or not. That decision comes down to individual businesses, of course, but one thing we’ve learned is that the office shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Increased flexibility also means giving staff the chance to work where they can be most productive, which in turn means refocusing what an office space is for. How can you set up your workspace to be a place for collaboration and innovation, rather than just a place to work nine-to-five?
We’re talking to a lot of businesses who are indicating that whenever they can start to return to the office, their staff will be having a ‘two days in, two days out, one day to choose’ routine, with teams agreeing one day when they will all be there to collaborate. Businesses need to be specific about where and when this collaboration happens.
6. Find out what your staff value
It may well have been March 2020 since you last physically saw most of your employees. The world of work and their lives have changed immeasurably since then, so what they would value in a work culture may be noticeably different from what they might have said before. Engaging colleagues with every change you make, asking their opinion and implementing as many of their requests as you can, will show that you value their input and their happiness.
7. Have clear responsibilities and career paths
Because of the way we are working now, things have become more transactional, with jobs and projects being briefed directly over Zoom or Teams. This means that other people can’t just drift into projects, because they might not be aware that they are happening. There’s no opportunity for that kind of spontaneity and ‘watercooler’ chat, which can be limiting for staff in terms of their career advancement – this is also affected by being physically separated from line managers and leadership team.
Therefore, responsibilities and career paths need to be very clearly discussed and mapped out, even more so than before. This is one area that the Hub’s advisors are supporting business leaders with.
Find out more: High-impact support for Digital, Creative and Tech businesses in Greater Manchester.
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Sarah Novotny, Head of Digital, Creative and Tech Sector Business Support
Sarah is passionate about bringing effective business growth strategies to the community behind Greater Manchester’s digital, creative and tech sector.
With almost a decade of experience in growing teams and businesses, Sarah strives to bring improvement by connecting creative minds and establishing environments which accelerate growth
Sarah brings an international perspective and is well known for her straight to the point way of approaching business support. She has worked with teams in blue chips, Scaleups, SMEs and Startups, and prides herself in bringing learnings around strategy, sales, innovation, pricing and productization from all these adventures into an ambition to interlink and align industry needs with the GM sector support offering.
Sarah leads several programmes for the GC Business Growth Hub including Greater Connected, Exceed and the Creative Scale-Up Programme which are delivered to the Greater Manchester digital, creative and tech sector network.