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The Pandemic & Me: Opencast Software

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

This week in our The Pandemic & Me series, we’re talking to Mike O’Brien, Co Founder and Co Chair of Opencast Software, an enterprise IT consultancy headquartered in Newcastle upon Tyne. Opencast works with large government and financial clients across the globe to transform their operations and processes through tech innovation. The company employs over 120 people with offices in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

For those not familiar with the role of a Co Chair, for Opencast, it means Mike is responsible for ensuring the culture and values of the company remain alive and intact as the business scales, as well as bringing in new clients and supporting the growing management team.

Footprints Consulting: Have you had to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Mike O’Brien: Yes, and then some! We’ve now got 120 staff all working from home and we had two different scenarios to adapt from. Some went from our office to home and others went from clients’ offices to home. They both brought different challenges.

The pandemic meant our clients also had to adapt to home working and seeing as they are big banks, government departments and the NHS, this has been challenging for some more than others. It’s been astonishing to see how quickly organisations without a heritage of remote and home working have stepped up and “made it happen.” We’ve had to hire more people to cope with the huge demand for new government services being built and deployed in record timescales.

The whole hiring process from interviews to onboarding had to be conducted online and when you get into the nuances of delivering equipment from computers to desk chairs and introducing and welcoming people to a team remotely, you realise how important human interaction is and what we take for granted.

We’ve really had to look at what we’re doing engagement wise and make concerted efforts to ensure we keep in contact with staff and that no one feels neglected or isolated.

FC: Has it affected staff motivation or morale being at home?

MOB: We continually look at different ways of keeping morale up and the team together. We have different groups on Teams where people can follow their interests, sharing Spotify playlists and reading recommendations, for instance. And when we do company announcements or group sessions we try to make them more engaging and interactive with video interviews rather than adopting the usual lecture style presentation.

The difficult balance is creating initiatives that are authentic and not cringey! Plus, there are many different personality types to consider, which makes some more suited to home working than others, so we need to be mindful of that.

What has really made a big difference is the whole team has stepped up to play their part. Everyone recognises their responsibility to check in on their team and colleagues, which has produced all sorts of fantastic side projects, from the sublime to the ridiculous!

FC: How have you maintained effective communication with staff and clients?

MOB: Seeing as we can’t pop into clients’ offices anymore or grab a quick coffee, we, like the whole world, have tried to reproduce our comms and processes online. We used a lot of these tools before but our reliance on them now has stepped up significantly.

Zoom, Teams, Miro and Webex (yes, really) are some of the main ones that spring to mind. As well as newsletters and online Town Halls. We’ve seen attendance shoot up for the latter and we’ve found that save for no face to face meetings, client communication has, in some situations, become better. I think seeing people more relaxed in their own environment may have broken down corporate barriers and is allowing for different sorts of conversations.

Interestingly, we found that hand delivering office equipment, company handbooks or treats, made a huge difference. I think it’s the acknowledgement of the extra effort and a small amount of human interaction (from a safe distance, of course) really means a lot to people when that part of our lives has been restricted.

FC: Has your attitude towards how you work changed in any way?

MOB: We’ve always been distributed as a business so we have always had to ask ourselves how we keep people engaged. However, the pandemic has definitely made us focus on it more. We can't just talk about it now, action is needed. The importance of connecting and communicating has been brought to the forefront and people’s personal situations and how it affects their work. Work-life balance is really being discussed now. I like that this has been highlighted. The work that people are actually producing is the focus now, not just how long they are in the office.

FC: Do you think it’ll change the way you or we do business in the future?

MOB: Yes, to some extent. I think people will start travelling again as we’re social beings but potentially less than before, especially as it has been proven that we can all work and be productive online. Also, our travel and expenses budget was £0 in 2020 - which was an unexpected bonus!

We’ll be looking to find the balance between keeping the office environment and spirit that you get from face to face interactions and allowing people to work from home too. I think how we address opening offices in different cities will be done differently too. How do you put your company stamp on it if you’re hot desking? Will we need to cite office locations if it won’t matter any more?

Something that we won’t know the effect of for a while yet will be the impact on business development. We’ve all had to get used to meeting people online and building those relationships virtually. The serendipitous meetings and relationship building from those meetings take time so we won’t know the impact on sales pipelines for a couple of years, which will be another challenge to address.

FC: Do you think the tech industry was already well equipped to cope with a national lockdown and to conduct business fairly normally from home?

MOB: Yes, mostly. For some people and businesses, being mobile, online and / or working remotely was relatively normal but for some, it was a massive shock.

The technology industry has been saying to businesses for years that they need better digital systems and it was something that was always de-prioritised. Now, it is at the forefront.

Even the technology industry hasn’t escaped it fully though. International companies, for instance, will have had the challenge of some countries not having the infrastructure to work from home.

However, in general, the shift to a heavy reliance on technology to function in the pandemic has been good for the industry as a whole.

FC: How have you coped with the cross over of business and personal life?

MOB: The first lockdown was definitely easier. Going out for bike rides in the summer and sitting out in the garden working was certainly better. Winter lockdown is harder. It feels like there isn’t much of an incentive to break now so we’re doing longer work days again.

Previously, when you worked from home you’d do longer hours without a break but those days were generally more unusual, they’re now pretty much all the time, with no other outlet, which can take its toll.

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

MOB: I knew I’d miss going to see live music, restaurants and coffee shops but what I didn’t realise was that I would miss the benefits of the commute. Not the commute itself but being able to ease into or wind down from the day. Reading a book or listening to a podcast, for instance. You’d also occasionally bump into people you hadn’t seen in a while or meet new people, which made life a lot more interesting.

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

MOB: I definitely won’t go back to working in the office every day. So many hours are wasted commuting (and not just for work but personal life too).

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

MOB: If you can, it’s worth investing in your business to give yourself the best chance to cope with what will come next. Have a plan because we can’t assume it will ever flick back to what it was before. We don’t know what’s going to happen so making positive proactive decisions to put yourself into a better position is the best advice I can give.

There are a lot of opportunities out there, you just have to spot them and pivot accordingly.

FC: How do you stay motivated at work? Do you have a strict routine or break when you need to?

MOB: It’s difficult to insert routines into a day when each one is different so I try to insert flexible mini routines. Like, going to the bakery or for a bike ride or breaking to play the guitar to switch off for a bit. It’s not at the same time and not everyday but is a concerted effort to get away from my desk.

My back has definitely got worse since being at home so that’s forcing me to get up and move around too!

FC: Has the pandemic brought any unexpected opportunities for Opencast?

MOB: Definitely for us. At the start of lockdown, we were disaster planning, thinking that our banking and government clients might significantly decrease capacity but it’s been the opposite. Once everyone realised they could run operations remotely, all the work we had put into making systems better came to the forefront. Things started happening much quicker and this triggered further work as our clients realised what could be done in a short space of time. This then resulted in a bump in recruitment for us, so we’ve been incredibly lucky.

FC: With so much uncertainty still 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 if so, what does that look like for Opencast?

MOB: Yes absolutely. Taking positive action is so important right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we can’t sit around waiting for someone to make a decision for us.

We’ll be looking at creating a hybrid model between office and home working and experimenting with our adaptability to create an effective working model in the “new norm”. Feedback from staff and clients is going to be crucial to finding the right balance.

It will stretch people’s ability to be agile but we can’t hide in a cave waiting for the storm to pass, we need to put our raincoats on and get moving!

FC: Is there anything about running a business that you just don’t think can be done online?

MOB: Most things can be done online but definitely not exclusively, which is why we think that hybrid form is the best way forward. Business development and collaborative working can function online but benefits hugely from face to face. Plus, as humans we do need to see other people.

FC: Are you feeling optimistic about the future or are you weary of the pitfalls?

MOB: There are definitely some unknowns sitting out there but I also know that technology can provide the solution to a lot of those issues.

I am worried about maintaining our strong business culture and keeping engagement up and what the knock on effect of people not seeing each other overtime will be. Plus, I’m looking at how future recruitment will be affected by students not having in-person classes. Maybe they’ll be more prepared for the “new normal” but only time will tell.

So, I’d say I’m optimistic but cautious. Humans are really good at adapting to change so it’ll be interesting.

FC: What’s next for Opencast?

MOB: We’ll be continuing to grow the business as the value of using technology well has been brought to the forefront in the pandemic, so there are plenty of opportunities across all markets.

We’ll continue developing a good culture, which is attractive for our staff and we’ll work really hard to ensure we maintain it as we grow.

We’ll continue to push hard on our agenda to “build IT right” and ensure User Centred Design is always at the heart of what we do for our clients. If you aren’t trying to build the right services that perform effectively for the people who use them, there’s something wrong!

Thanks Mike. Great to hear about your prioritisation of staff engagement and well being. Shows the importance of soft skills in the c-suite to embedding values and a good business culture. Looking forward to seeing how it develops.

More businesses will be giving their take on what to do during challenging times and what they've done to ensure success as The Pandemic & Me Series continues, watch this space.

How are you adapting to the new normal? Are you taking positive action to get moving? Let us know in the comments.

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