The way that Swindon businesses quickly embraced technological solutions to weather the coronavirus storm was the topic of conversation at the launch of a week-long conference for the digi-tech sector.
Organisers of the TechSwindon Summit – which itself pivoted from a two-day physical conference to a week of interactive events reaching a global audience – invited a panel of speakers from an array of Swindon businesses to launch the conference.
The roundtable event explored how their organisations had been forced to change the way they work in light of the global pandemic.
And despite the short-term impact on the nation’s workforce and economy, all of the panellists had identified both business opportunities and positive cultural changes either sparked or accelerated by the pandemic.
Chairing the panel, Paddy Bradley, chief executive of the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership, saw opportunities for the Wiltshire area’s burgeoning cybersecurity industry – which he described as a “massive, growing sector” – as employees embraced home working.
“Faced with a problem, businesses find a solution – and Swindon and Wiltshire businesses are very good at that,” he noted.
Nationwide Building Society, which has its headquarters in Swindon, is one such business to have embraced remote working with 13,000 of its 17,000 employees across the UK now working from home, said Tomas Foreman, marketing planning and content manager.
But while the society was an early adopter of online banking, and its customers are used to managing their finances on computers or phones, it also made a pre-pandemic commitment to retaining physical branches while high street banks were closing theirs.
The 600 branch network, he said, ensured customers who were unable to bank online could still access services.
Meanwhile, automated chatbots were helping customers with basic enquiries, freeing up the time of call centre staff to deal with ore complex issues, he added.
Peter Allen, general manager of pharmaceutical company Catalent – which has put Swindon at the forefront of coronavirus drug research – explained how remote working had allowed the firm to move some its 775 staff away from its 250,000 sq ft facility, creating more space for physical distancing for colleagues who needed to continue working in laboratory and manufacturing settings.
The firm provided workers with popup desks and equipment and “put an enormous amount of effort into connectivity,” he said.
And with the curtilage closed to visitors, potential customers and auditors had been given virtual tours of the facility with Google Glass. In this way the company continues to attract new customers.
With concerns for younger people – especially around access to education and training and their future job prospects – continuing to dominate the news agenda, Shahina Johnson MBE, chief executive of Create Studios, said the outlook for digital natives in a digital economy was positive.
“Digital media is growing at three times the rate of any other sector in the country at the moment,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago a film editing suite was the size of a small room. Now it’s on a laptop. Young people now have the means of production.”
Create Studios’ job now, she said, was to help them to create meaningful content and provide them with the tools and skills to find meaningful jobs in the sector.
For Ailsa Kennedy-Ballard, head of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Future Programmes at UK Research and Innovation, remote working could have a positive impact on working parents and carers.
Employees, she said, could take their children to school and be at their desk in time for a 9.30 meeting.
There was general agreement that home working had been a positive experience for most workers – with Swindon’s more affordable housing well-placed to offer indoor and outdoor space – although the panellists acknowledged that some younger workers found themselves in cramped accommodation, while other workers were missing the social interaction of the office.
Effective communication from managers to their staff is vital, the panellists agreed. “Untethered kites” would not help businesses, said Ailsa. Putting “virtual arms” around colleagues who are struggling is important, said Peter.
And blended, flexible working and shared spaces would all be a feature of the future workplace, while augmented reality will shape the future of employee interactions, the panellists predicted.
TechSwindon was launched in 2019, at an event by Switch on to Swindon, the town’s place marketing network, to celebrate and showcase Swindon as the place to start and grow a tech start-up or base an existing business.
Already, 10,000 people work in tech jobs locally, and the Summit is also a showcase of the breadth of activity in Swindon.
The TechSwindon Summit is billed as a call to action to focus on innovation and how tech can support economic recovery in 2021.
TechSwindon runs regular seminars, workshops and networking events to support the town’s tech community throughout the year – virtually, and physically when restrictions allow.