Tuesday April 28, 2020
Have we reached the tipping point?
Last week Westminster for the first time in in its history conducted PMQs differently. The MPs were a little slower than the rest of the UK at adopting video conferencing, but despite this, perhaps Westminster is a good case study from which we can learn from.
Despite the PM confirming that there would be no immediate changes to lockdown restrictions, I’ve been asked several times how I think COVID-19 will change what Eagle Labs (and other incubator and co-working spaces) do medium to long term.
Since social restrictions were announced all of our 25 co-working spaces have temporarily closed and we've switched to alternative ways to help the start-up ecosystem. Eagle Labs, and others like them, have introduced a range of webinars and virtual events, we’ve shifted our learning programmes to online delivery and all of our support and mentors are using video conferencing. We’re not changing what we do, but how we do it. This is a notable shift for us, our ethos has always centred on bringing people together in the physical environment.
And while Westminster may seem a strange comparison with Eagle Labs, I think there's some patterns that read across into the tech ecosystem.
MPs have had to stay home, like the rest of us, away from the hustle and bustle of their London "head office". Last week the MPs used Zoom for PMQs (ironic given the security concerns), and immediately gone were the commons chamber shenanigans; what we saw was notably different; a serious, less raucous affair, where words appeared more objective than ever, as the impact of body language, emotion and rhetoric possibly reduced. Whether that last sentence is true, my reading of PMQs suggested there was no dilution of constitutional effectiveness. Just a different approach. But what about the various committees, meetings and back room negotiations? From what I can tell they’re also using Zoom and like many large multinational corporates, managing to keep their business going without the need for a head office.
So what’s the tenuous link between MPs and Eagle Labs?
I’ve seen some extraordinarily positive things come out of Eagle Lab remote and virtual working.
Collaboration across virtual teams and across multiple organisations hasn’t diminished from what I’ve seen. On the contrary, Eagle Labs have positively experienced new opportunities; we’re working with UCL, Edinburgh Uni and Codebase on a Healthtech response initiative. This continues to present interesting opportunities to work with others (large and small) as we assess the innovative ideas that could help the NHS. We’ve also seen first-hand the collaboration going on cross industry to prepare lending and funding schemes to support businesses of all sizes. These things are highly complex yet have been developed across many organisations and all remotely. Earlier this week I talked to a partner who runs an innovation centre who believes his projects have actually gained momentum since the change of working. I believe the common thread across these three examples is an acute focus on a target or outcome.
What is more difficult is the reduced social fluidity from co-locating with others which in turn impacts spontaneity of discussions and prevents those serendipitous opportunities. It’s also much more difficult to get access to quick and ad hoc support if you’re not in the same location as someone who you know is typically super busy (or just difficult to get hold of). And depending on your home arrangements, there can be negative consequences from a lack of social interaction, fun and sense of community.
So when the fog lifts, what will revert to type and what will change medium to longer term? My guess is that this depends on the pace of restrictions lifting as I assume that the longer this continues, the more normalised remote and virtual working becomes and, possibly, the greater the long term impact from social distancing will be.
SARs, the closest comparison I have of a modern day pandemic, lasted around 8 months (at peak). And whilst the countries impacted like Hong Kong don't immediately appear to have different working practices vs. the Western world (who haven't previously experienced this type of virus), if you look closely enough (via Google for me) there appear some differences engrained in their society.
The sacrifice medical workers made is still, and rightly so, revered by the Hong Kong public. They also celebrate the resilience of city to bounce back. The population remains very health and hygiene aware and see it as their civic responsibility to take public health recommendations seriously. The wearing of face masks, you may have noticed, is quite common. Interestingly the scars of the ongoing meticulous public cleaning are there to be seen in elevators all around the city.
For several years now the technology to enable remote and virtual working has been available to use but it hasn't yet created a step change in way we have worked. People have preferred co-working and co-location – doing things “face to face”.
So is this the societal tipping point that will dramatically change things? The technology has existed for a while but arguably it hasn’t really had a real problem to solve. Now we may have a real use case.
When social restrictions relax and we are free to head back to cities and co-location and co-working, will people return to their previous ways or will they stay working remotely?
What is clear is that the individual circumstances will play an extremely prominent role. With a possible vaccine not being available for a reported 12-18 months, those deemed vulnerable, or who have family and friends in this category, may have ongoing restrictions which means that they choose to stay remotely connected. Even those who choose to co-work, a proportion will be thinking differently about their proximity to others and other hygiene factors that they may not have considered previously.
So what does this mean for Eagle Labs?
I feel the social characteristics of the start-up ecosystem will for the foreseeable future have a need for physical spaces to meet, to learn, exchange ideas and to share a beer, wine, or a soft drink. Over the last 5-10 years co-working spaces have proven critical for startups and their teams to co-locate, to collaborate with likeminded businesses and to quickly learn from others. And Eagle Labs are committed to continue to offer this across the UK.
However, remote working and physical networks are not mutually exclusive. We don’t need to choose one or the other, in fact as we move forward I think there will be a need for both, and I believe there is an opportunity for greater innovation in technologies that allow the effective mixing and collaboration of the two cohorts: those who prefer to co-work and those who choose to work remotely. Our development roadmap will certainly contain a blend of the virtual, digital and physical and we’ll be watching carefully for how we can best continue to support our members and the broader tech ecosystem.
Final thoughts. Positive things have result from this crisis. Not least that an entire generation, if my parents and in-laws are anything to go by, have been able to adopt video calling to stay in touch. And perhaps more seriously, a bunch of corporate senior execs may now question the expense and overheads of their head offices.