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The Pandemic & Me: North East Fund

In this edition we are catching up with Andrew Gibson, External Engagement Officer at the North East Fund. The company responsible for the £120m investment programme available to SMEs across the North East. The team’s mission is to stimulate business creation, private investment and entrepreneurialism in the region.

Andrew’s role sees him looking after 4 local authorities (County Durham, North Tyneside, Gateshead and Newcastle, which he shares with his colleague, James) where he helps to raise awareness of the schemes and funds available to businesses and connect people with the right resources to support business growth.

Footprints Consulting: How have you had to adapt to Covid-19 pandemic?

Andrew Gibson: Operationally, we’re all working from home. It wasn’t too much of a change as I always worked quite remotely anyway because I was usually at meetings or events. So it was a fairly easy and smooth process to transition to full time home working.

The bit that’s been the most challenging for me has been the removal of face to face networking. I know a lot of people hate that side of business but I love it! Online isn’t the same and can produce quite a sterile environment so that’s been difficult for me, personally.

Having said that, thank God we have access to technology that still allows connections with people. It’s not the same as face to face, not as relaxed or natural but at least it means we can keep in touch.

FC: How are you dealing with communications remotely both as a team and with clients? Has there been anything that has been particularly different or difficult and how have you overcome that as a business?

AG: Internally, we’re quite a small team, and many of us live by ourselves, so the comms side of home work has been vitally important to make sure people don’t feel isolated. As well as weekly online meetings, we have a whatsapp group and have tried to open up those communication lines to encourage more of a feeling of connection.

We also have socials online and have tried to get to know each other better. We’ve probably got together more on Zoom than we did socially prior to the pandemic and there no issues getting taxis!

Looking back, the pandemic has probably helped us connect better. Being a small, mostly remote team, finding a time to socialise was quite difficult to organise with everyone's busy calendars. We’ve probably seen more of each other and got to know each other much better now that out of the office meeting have been taken away from us.

Clients-wise, at the beginning of the pandemic, I transferred my usual face to face drop in clinics to online and that worked really well. Although, it also meant I was extremely busy over the summer helping business understand government grants and initiatives and which ones they were eligible for.

I found I was able to see a lot more people because I wasn’t travelling anymore and could allocate back to back slots to help businesses navigate these challenging times.

FC: What changes have you seen businesses making since the pandemic?

AG: What has stood out the most for me, is how quickly and efficiently businesses have adapted to dealing with the challenges and situation of the pandemic. Especially business that would traditionally deal face to face with customers. Their agility to pivot so rapidly is inspiring.

We still completed 100 investments in 2020. That shows the resilience of businesses and innovation in the region. It has been great to see all the changes businesses have made and are making and I think a lot will stick with these changes even when we go back to normal.

FC: Has it changed the way you do business?

AG: Yes! I really miss networking so I can’t wait to get back to that but I will definitely adopt a hybrid model, where I can do online clinics. I can see and support so many more people that way but I will also need to escape these four walls so I will need to get out too!

FC: How are you coping with the cross over of business and personal life?

AG: In the summer, I was so busy that home and work life became very blurred. I worked in the evenings and on weekends because I felt guilty if I wasn’t helping people through this unprecedented time but that meant I had no breaks. Now that everyone is familiar operating from home and more comfortable with the situation it has eased but I have had to be a lot more rigid with a routine and to make sure there is a proper stop to the working day.

FC: How do you stay motivated working from home?

AG: I never sit still for a phone call. In lockdown, I’ve been doing laps of the house when on the phone! It’s been good for me to not be chained to the desk and actually move about during the day.

I love my job and helping businesses and business owners really keeps me motivated. These people need our help and I can make a difference so as long as I give myself structure to the day and work to deadlines, I don’t burn out and can support our clients effectively.

For me, it’s about shaping my day to “real life” (or life as before) where you work during the day and “go home” at night. Blurring home and work took its toll so putting those restrictions in place keeps me motivated during office hours and relaxed on personal time.

FC: What have you surprisingly missed about “the old ways”?

AG: Well I knew I would miss networking. It’s not for everyone but it’s my favourite part of my job and I miss those events.

I also miss getting an holistic perspective and understanding of businesses, particularly as marketplaces change so quickly. This usually involves seeing the premises, being on site, gathering information that comes out during a casual chat; all the informal transactions that reveal so much of a heart and soul of a business. And all of which can’t be replicated online.

FC: Is there anything you wouldn’t go back to?

AG: Yes. I won’t go back to travelling to every meeting and making every meeting face to face. So much time is wasted commuting between meetings. Time which I would rather spend helping more businesses. I will have discovery meetings online first and then go and see them to take things further, if appropriate. Providing online initial meetings and drop in clinics will save so much time and mean we can help more people quicker.

FC: What advice can you give other businesses right now?

AG: Stay focused on what you’re looking to achieve. Review your original plan and aims before the pandemic and stay focussed on that. The path might change but as long as you keep focused on that end goal, you’ll do well.

FC: Is there anything that happens in an office that you just don’t think can be replicated online?

AG: From an internal business point of view, there isn’t anything we haven’t been able to transfer. Even quarterly board meetings or advisory meetings have been easily moved online.

From an attitude perspective, as consumers, supporting local businesses rather than the big nationals is going to be so important for the region’s recovery. Of course, the bigger shops are more convenient to navigate and buy from but buying a lamp from a local furniture store as opposed to John Lewis will make a huge difference to the local economy.

When people start businesses they’re so passionate about them, have saved up and sacrificed so much to get it off the ground, that if we can, we need to make an effort to look for them and support them with our custom. It’s not charity - you were already looking for that product and it will help them survive.

FC: Has the pandemic brought any unexpected opportunities?

AG: Personally, it meant I could spend more time talking and reconnecting with friends near and far.

Professionally, we’re seeing new businesses starting up or people thinking about starting up. The region isn’t sitting in a pandemic doom and gloom, it’s making something positive out of an awful situation for so many. It’s been fantastic to talk and advise so many people who have dug in, focused themselves and it’ll be great for the region and its regrowth.

FC: With still so much uncertainty on the way we’re going to come out of Lockdowns and Tiered systems, do you think we have to find the “new normal” and what does that look like for you?

AG: We’ve been living the “new normal” already! It might be that we’re in it for another 3 months or 3 years, we just don’t know, so we have to keep going as it is for now. Everyday is the new normal, we just have to deal with it as it comes.

I hope after going through this experience together, people will be a lot kinder. Less judgemental and more forgiving of personal circumstances. It was quite easy to separate work from home life before but now we get an insight into everyone’s everyday struggles and we all have work/home crossover. We’ve humanised each other again and I think that’s a good lesson.

FC: Are you feeling optimistic about the future or are you concerned about the pitfalls of uncertainty both through the pandemic and Brexit?

AG: Definitely optimistic. We’re all striving to achieve the most normal that we can to get back to how we were. It isn’t all doom and gloom, there have been positives. I believe we’ll do better when we come out of it. It’s shown people strength and what we’re actually capable of. It’s helped people form stronger connections with colleagues, friends and family and their businesses and that will stand us in good stead going forward.

FC: What’s next for the NEF?

AG: We’ve got a little over 2 years left of the EU funds and the appetite for investment is certainly still there and businesses have been strong. In 2020 we made 100 investments raising over £50m both from us and leveraging other investors. This shows you how solid businesses still are.

We’ll also be dealing with a lot of businesses in a year’s time, who started during the pandemic and who will be looking for investment to grow, which is a big positive to come out of a challenging time.

Thanks Andrew. Great to hear that the region is still pushing innovation and progress despite the challenges we have faced. Looking forward to seeing more successes as this year continues. Hopefully see you at a face to face networking event soon!

At that's a wrap for the Pandemic & Me Series. What are your key lessons for succeeding in challenging times? Perhaps you have some thoughts on "the new normal" or top tips for staying motivated while working from home. Let us know in the comments.

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