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[Guest Blog] Don’t settle for survive – how to thrive post Covid. By Stephen Kelly, Chair of Tech Nation

Stephen Kelly

July 10, 2020

Don’t settle for survive – how to thrive post Covid

The impact of the Covid-19 crisis has reverberated around the world; for people, for governments and for businesses.  But as we start to emerge from the very darkest period of the crisis, accepting that we have many more challenges ahead, it’s time to turn to the things that governments and businesses need to do to create the best possible future for their people.  

Stephen Kelly, chair of Tech Nation and a UK-based executive with a long history of working within the technology industry, offers three key areas that he believes UK businesses – and then the UK government – must focus on getting right if the UK is to thrive post-Covid.

1)     Business

Customer intimacy needs to remain front and centre

I’ve been incredibly impressed with how well so many businesses responded to the immediate challenges brought about by the impact of Covid.  Cash was managed really well.  Short term plans to pivot strategies were introduced.  Business models were re-evaluated.  The result was that, overall, the negative impact of Covid has perhaps been a little less than our worst fears.  And for many companies they have used the crisis to double down on customer comms.  In a world where we are conducting business at senior levels from living space to living space (and where we accept the sight of a Chief Executive’s children wandering in the background when having a video call), the opportunity to foster customer intimacy, and from there loyalty, has never been greater.  Businesses have seized on this to build authentic relationships with customers which I sense are going to endure.  I’d urge this trend to continue.  As we come out of Lockdown, look for ways to maintain this intimacy and don’t revert to formality again. 

Employee engagement will drive productivity

I’m proud of the way so many businesses in the technology sector that I inhabit have really focused on the wellbeing of their people through this crisis.  They’ve been flexible in allowing their people to work in ways that fit their personal needs, have checked in on mental well-being regularly, instigated new ways to bring teams together (although perhaps the ‘virtual quiz’ is now waning in popularity!) and in doing so seen the dividend of increased productivity.  I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from many of the CEOs I engage with that their people, while obviously challenged by different working conditions, have responded magnificently, driving up their own productivity and effectiveness.  While some of this may be based on eliminating the wasted time of commuting, what this increased productivity does point to is the value of being flexible with employees in terms of approaches to working.  So, going forward, companies need to hold fast to this approach; talk to your employees, understand how they want to work in the future and then build strategies to support them.

Digital by default is here to stay

I mentioned earlier that, for many businesses, the Covid crisis has meant a re-evaluation of business models.  As part of this process, the pivot to Digital has been pronounced.  From customer comms and service, to marketing and sales, ‘Digital First’ has become the new reality.  And it’s true that those companies that have embraced the Digital First approach earliest and with the greatest vigour are reaping the richest harvest now in terms of business momentum.  I’d urge all businesses to accept the Digital First reality and act on it now.  The world is not changing back to what it was.  A line has been crossed in terms of digital delivery and execution and it’s time to determine how your business can truly respond. 

2)     Government

Encourage and accelerate the shift to Digital First by being a vocal proponent of the opportunity

At the start of the year, who would have imagined that Joe Wicks would be teaching millions of our children physical fitness in their homes or that grandparents in their 80s would be hosting virtual get-togethers with their extended families?  Out of the Covid crisis, our population has adapted so well to the constraints it has created, but they have adapted first and foremost via their use of digital technologies.  Government needs to truly recognise this and provide a narrative that supports this shift by putting our digital future at the heart of its strategy.  With a predicted 50% of jobs being in the digital and creative services by 2030, and with digital businesses growing at 6 times the rate of a traditional business, it is time for the government to be bold in ‘banging the drum’ for all things digital. 

Provide the funds required to fuel innovation

The government has already been proactive in looking to support digital innovation and start-ups with initiatives such as the Future Fund during Covid.  And with the OECD stating that the UK is the number one place in the world to start a business, we have a platform for exciting momentum with digital start-ups.  Now is the time for the government to provide confidence and clarity by declaring that there will be no change to government funding and incentive policy for the lifetime of this Parliament.  This would instil huge confidence from both home grown and overseas investors and entrepreneurs that the UK is the right place to bring ideas and innovation to life.  By providing funding, and by becoming shareholders in so many young digital companies, I’m sure the government’s investment will bear fruit.  But I’d argue for patience – shareholder value will be delivered in time! 

Encourage the skills that the Digital Economy requires

If Capital will grease the wheels of the Digital First revolution, then skills will be the engine.  With digital companies paying more than £10,000 more in salary than traditional companies, having the right skills is also rewarding for employees and for the Government in increased tax take.  With so many potential job losses on the horizon, particularly in hospitality and leisure where many young people work, the government needs to step in and create quick start training that allows people to shift their skills to areas such as coding, digital and innovation so that they are equipped for the future (which, by the way, is here now!).  Without a steady supply of talent, the businesses that will drive our recovery will be starved of the very thing that they need to grow; human resource.  Given the UK is ranked number one or number two in so many tech sectors (think FinTech or Healthtech) failure to grasp the opportunity for further growth due to lack of skills would be the very definition of an ‘own goal’.

I’m an optimist.  I believe that the future can always be better than the past.  And while the Covid crisis has been a relentlessly horrendous experience for so many of us, with a devastatingly high death rate, I truly believe that out of adversity can come triumph.  Now is the time for our companies and our government to be bold, to embrace the shifts that have happened over the past six months and really accelerate towards a truly inclusive ‘digital first’ future.  By doing so, I’m certain we will all benefit and we can move from the current phase of ‘survive’ to a world where we can thrive.

Stephen Kelly was appointed Chair of Tech Nation in June 2020. 

As a CEO and director, Stephen has extensive experience of turning around and scaling technology companies, from established technology companies like Oracle and Sage in the UK to growing a Silicon Valley startup into a publicly listed company.  He is unique as a CEO who grew NASDAQ, FTSE100 and FTSE250 companies. 

Stephen has also worked in the UK Government, firstly as COO overseeing digital transformation and latterly as the Prime Minister’s Business Ambassador for technology. 

He is an established investor and mentor with many further digital businesses and entrepreneurs and brings to the role extensive chairing and non-executive experience.

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