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How the Tech Industry in Leeds is Responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic

· Ali Turner · Discussion

Tackling the challenges of lockdown.

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From adapting to remote working to pitching in to help, this is what the city’s tech companies have been up to during the pandemic…

It all happened so fast. One minute it was business as usual, the next, flights were grounded, restaurants were closed and the nation was asked to stay home to protect our NHS and save lives. Life as we knew it ceased and we entered a strange new world. But how have the city’s tech businesses adapted to life in lockdown and what does it mean for the future? Let’s find out…

Adjusting to the new normal

Social

In many ways, the tech industry has been left unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic, but even if business is good, it’s certainly not business as usual. Lockdown has brought a raft of new challenges, not least of all the move to remote working. It happened almost overnight, so even businesses with a well-established flexible working policy were thrown out of whack. Take Social for example. Most of their employees have worked from home at one time or another, but overcoming the practical challenges of everyone doing it, including their clients, has been tricky.

Adapting to kitchen-desks and Zoom meetings is just one part of it. The bigger challenge comes from the ripples of the wider pandemic. How does lockdown affect staff and what does it mean for their clients? It’s given them a renewed focus on wellbeing and forced them to rethink their services, because what worked before COVID-19, won’t necessarily work now.

“There’s been a constant shifting and pivoting to ensure we’re not just trying to plough on and do the same things we were doing before the lockdown happened, that we’re responding,” Pete Wrathmell, Managing Director of Social, explained. “It’s a mindset, a mindset for the leaders within our business and for our staff. We’re asking people to be more flexible, to adapt, to be ready to give new things a try. It’s quite a tiring way of working and it can be pretty draining, but we’ve got to roll with the changes.”

For Data Shed, the impact has been less obvious. As data management specialists, they haven’t felt the same need to adapt their services – their pipeline is full and their team is busy, albeit from home. But navigating the business through the pandemic has been challenging in itself – after all, their decisions don’t just affect the business, they could impact the health of their staff.

“It’s such a huge responsibility, having a team and working out how to be socially responsible for the people around you. My team use public transport, they walk through Leeds – their health is the number one priority,” Anna Sutton, CEO and Co-founder of The Data Shed, told us. “We were looking at the trends coming out of other countries, how horrendous it was, and we were looking at the general messaging coming from the government, and I just didn’t feel like we were moving fast enough.”

She reached out on LinkedIn and found that others were feeling the same way. As the pandemic spread and new measures came into force, a new community emerged – directors and decision-makers came together to share their knowledge and help each other navigate this strange new world, so while COVID-19 may have kept us apart, in a way, it’s also brought us together.

Changing, adapting and growing

Bruntwood Platform

Credit: Ben Blackall

For other businesses, the pandemic has had a more profound impact. EMIS, for example, has played a pivotal role in helping the NHS fight coronavirus. They make technology systems that help join up the NHS. Their software supports frontline NHS services like GP surgeries, community nurses, pharmacies and hospitals – in fact, over 10,000 NHS organisations rely on their systems daily.

In the midst of a pandemic, that’s a big responsibility, and they’ve really stepped up to the mark. Their video consultation software is now available free to 4,000 GP surgeries and 5,000 community pharmacies across England. They’ve also been working with NHS Direct to develop an electronic search tool that gives GPs an up-to-date list of high-risk patients and they’ve launched a new coronavirus hub on patient.info written by doctors.

Lockdown has made their work even more important, so they’ve had to adapt to the challenges of remote working while ramping up their services. “We took a really open approach with our staff,” Suzy Foster, CEO at EMIS Health, explained. “We know some people have families at home and are facing the challenges of balancing working with caring for children for example, so we’re supporting flexible working. Staff wellbeing is so important to me, we’re all in this together so we’re making sure we support each other as well as our customers.”

It’s a stark contrast to Northcoders. They launched their award-winning software development courses five years ago – they now have a 10,000-square-foot campus in the Manchester Technology Centre and a 2,000-square-foot hub in Platform. The reason they need so much space is that they do all their teaching in-person, so when the pandemic hit, they had to act fast to take their entire operation online.

“We’ve always been about getting together in-person,” Chris Hill, CEO of Northcoders, explained. “Obviously that’s now strictly forbidden, so we had to make the decision, probably two or three weeks before the official lockdown happened, to go to an online model.” They were ahead of the curve, so they had time to test remote working before the lockdown officially began, and although they’ve had teething problems, it’s been a huge success.

In fact, they’ve now launched an entirely online course to cater for the growing desire to re-skill as more and more people are furloughed or laid off. It will replace their traditional bootcamps until they’re ready to return to the classroom – and even then, you can expect online learning to remain an important part of their product mix. COVID-19 has forced them to rethink their approach and reinvent their products, but in the end, it’s made them stronger than ever.

Pitching in to help

Bruntwood Platform

Credit: Ben Blackall

One of the most heartening things about lockdown is the way businesses have come together to help each other. Take CPOMS for example. Their software helps schools record concerns about child safeguarding and wellbeing, something that’s even more important now that teachers have to connect with students remotely.

Not only is CPOMS maintaining these services during the lockdown, but they’re also offering them free to all schools who don’t currently have a digital safeguarding system. These schools are using paper records to protect vulnerable students, but teachers may not even be able to access them during lockdown, so this one gesture could make a real difference to children’s lives.

500 schools have already taken them up on the offer. It usually takes two weeks to set up a new school, but they’ve streamlined the process to get them up and running the same day. “We know schools that don’t have an online system are struggling,” Laura Wild, Director of CPOMS, explained. “As a business, we wanted to give something back, so we’ve offered them access to CPOMS free until September and we’re working with authorities, trusts and schools to make sure they’re fully supported.”

Bruntwood Platform

Credit: Ben Blackall

Mixd has done a good deed too. They’re a front-end design agency and they specialise in information services. As a result, they do a lot of work with NHS trusts, CCGs and other medical bodies. When the pandemic hit, they realised their clients would need a way to share essential information about COVID-19, so they created a custom WordPress module for that very purpose – and they gave it away for free.

“It’s something we’ve offered to everyone as a goodwill gesture and we’re doing it all without charge,” Mike Danford, Creative Director at Mixd, told us. “We’re absorbing all our creative time and development time because we saw very early on that we had the ability to do something to help our clients get information out there in an easy, accessible way.”

It’s been a hectic few months. A lot of their scheduled projects have been put on hold because the people running them are practising surgeons who need to be on the frontline. But they’ve also had a flurry of new projects that need to be pushed through fast. And at the same time, they’ve been helping their NHS clients to scale up systems to cope with demand, which in some cases is 150% higher than usual. No rest for the wicked.

Looking to the future

BJSS

Credit: BJSS

Now, as lockdown begins to ease, businesses are looking to the future – but these last few months have changed their outlook and could have a transformational impact on the tech sector as a whole. For Synap, it’s opened up a world of opportunities. Their intelligent online learning platform breaks down long training topics into bite-sized sessions you can do anywhere.

They already work with a string of universities, but the lockdown sent a raft of new clients their way as learning institutions look for ways to fill the gap left by face-to-face lectures and seminars. To meet their short-term needs, Synap cut their contracts down to three months, but it’s also started a conversation about how universities can support students with online resources and that could be a game-changer.

Lockdown has changed their approach to flexible working too. They launched their flexitime policy just before lockdown began, giving staff the freedom to work any time around their core hours of 10am to 4pm. Now they’re going to take that one step further by letting them work remotely. “I’m definitely a lot more open to that now. We’ve done the change management bit, we’ve invested in the tools and built that into the culture, so I wouldn’t want to go fully back to requiring everyone to be in the office now that we’ve done that,” Dr James Gupta, CEO of Synap, explained.

BJSS

Credit: BJSS

Meanwhile, BJSS are focused on recovery – not their own, but rather their clients. You see, they’ve been through this before, or at least a version of it. When the credit crunch hit they were working predominantly in the financial services sector, so it hit them hard. As a result, they diversified, so they now work on everything from healthcare to energy and utilities. With such an eclectic client base, the pandemic hasn’t hit them as hard as it has others, so they’re focusing on supporting their clients through the crisis.

“We’ve built a three-phase strategy called Recover, Regroup, Renew. Over the past couple of months, the economy’s been in a state where everybody’s looking to recover. You’re looking to batten down the hatches and make sure you can operate, make sure you’ve got enough money,” Stuart Bullock, Managing Director of BJSS, explained. “We now feel the economy and most businesses are in the regroup stage, so they’re thinking about what they do now to come out of this. And then post that, they’ll be in a renew phase – what can we do to take advantage of the economy as it is going forward?”

When we do begin to regroup, they’re expecting a technology boom as businesses realised what it can do for them. From server-less computing to hyper automation, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, this is our chance to turn the future into the present – and now, coming out of the lockdown, is the time to do it.