Have we seen true digital transformation in recent months? Opinions differ.
For some businesses, remote working has constituted a significant change to their normal operations. Yet others view the institution of laptops and video calls as a poor imitation of forward-thinking digital business.
Whatever side of the debate you fall on, our digital economy will be crucial over the next few months as we chart a course through uncertainty and economic slowdown. To explore what this might look like we have to consider the future of work, the return (or not) to offices, and the role of technology in our businesses and society.
Lockdown: a history
For Phil Kemp, CEO, Bruntwood SciTech, reflections on the coronavirus lockdown concern the actions of both Bruntwood SciTech as a business, and those of the companies which are part of its network of innovation districts. As with organisations nationwide, many decisions had to be made in a short space of time.
“In lockdown, our initial focus was on looking after our employees and our customers, many of whom were on the front line,” he says. “We also had to address the needs of our employees who were working from home, and we then had the difficult decision of whether or not to furlough people in roles which could not be done remotely.”
While most tech businesses could maintain operations remotely, staying away from their offices, Bruntwood SciTech saw an uptick in demand around the life sciences sector.
“Our life sciences customers need access to labs so can’t work from home,” Kemp says. “Lab based companies were therefore coming to us asking for more space due to increased demand for their products and services. Alderley Park was also home to one of the national testing centres for covid-19, so we had to meet these additional needs very quickly.”
Returning to work
With the easing of lockdown restrictions came the hybrid world we now find ourselves in, with businesses varying in their attitudes to returning to the workplace. If we’re all in this for the long term, as seems likely, then what does a return to work look like?
“When we were planning for the return to the workplace,” Kemp says, “we had a few key questions. How quickly would our customers want or need to return? What do we need to do to make them safe? Do we need to completely redesign our offices, or can we take simpler steps such as removing furniture and closing meeting rooms?”
The return to the workplace probably hasn’t happened as quickly for digital and tech businesses as everybody thought. Whether due to hesitancy around the virus, or the new found joy of working from home, Kemp doesn’t believe we will see a large scale return to offices until September, and some clients are even looking as far ahead as January. Official government lockdown or no, this will have wide reaching consequences for our cities.
“We are trying to encourage people to come back and use their workspace. Our business is largely in cities. There’s an interconnectedness there between our business, the businesses we support, and the businesses in our local regions. If we’re all working remotely, the companies that prop up our cities’ economies will become unsustainable.”
For even the most analogue of companies, covid-19 has been a wake up call to the need to adapt to digital business. It has been, and will continue to be, a huge catalyst for change.
“One of the common things I hear is that people do genuinely want to invest more in digital,” Kemp says. “These are businesses that aren’t necessarily based around digital or tech, but post-covid they are looking at a hybrid of people working at home and in the office. However, this is digital transformation at a very basic level.”
One of the common things I hear is that people do genuinely want to invest more in digital
“All the big companies are talking about investing heavily in digital transformation. I’ve not seen that yet, but I’ve seen the smaller things. For example, the coffee shops incorporating transmitters on the table, the bars using QR codes and the restaurants using digital ordering and payment systems – these are all neat little solutions.”
Whilst there may be a lot of uncertainty ahead, hope can be found in the resilience and adaptability of UK businesses. Changing attitudes around digital in the wider public are an opportunity for technology businesses to reach new audiences, and for historically tech averse organisations to get up to speed.
This is a belief shared by government, who made a pledge to increase public R&D investment to £22bn per year by 2024.
“The economic recovery should be driven by life sciences and tech businesses,” Kemp says. “That requires public and private sector investment. We want the government to continue to stick to its investment promise, and to channel that into life sciences and tech.”
“These sectors have been very resilient during the crisis – we’ve seen huge disruption in the likes of the airline industry, for example, but tech is strong. It has been needed to support everybody working from home but also socially. As an example, streaming platforms have seen growth throughout lockdown as we have kept ourselves entertained at home.”
For Kemp, our competitiveness as a country in the future will lie in the strength of our technology sector. This requires an understanding of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to do things differently – and better.
This requires an understanding of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to do things differently – and better
“These situations always create opportunities,” he says. “Some people react well, and businesses are born out of what appear to be black days, but I think they are actually a real feeding ground for innovation. This can be both businesses starting up from scratch or those which begin to do innovative things to adapt and thrive.”
Research and Insights Manager
Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.