With networking events cancelled, many offices closed, and face-to-face meetings discouraged, video conferencing has slotted into our lives to connect us to our colleagues, clients and customers. While many of us have felt distant from the teams and people we have worked with, Zoom, Teams, Hangouts and FaceTime have been utilised in new ways to help keep us in touch.
unLTD’s Dan Laver shares his own experiences and learns how technology has enabled some local businesses not just to communicate between themselves but to reach out across the world and discover new ways of working that are here to stay
unLTD head of sales, Dan Laver
I hate Zoom. There, I said it.
That’s not some strange brand loyalty to Google, Apple or Microsoft. Zoom is actually my software of choice, but I hate it in the same way that I hate my internet provider every time Netflix freezes during Rick & Morty and my washing machine, every time I overload it and it refuses to complete the spin cycle.
The truth is, that I resent Zoom. Overnight, about a year ago, much of what I love about my job got stripped away and I’m one of those people who has never settled in to ‘the new normal’. I want the old normal back, thanks and Zoom is my constant reminder that it isn’t here yet and might not be for some time.
Networking events were very much my bread and butter. I have often been chided by my peers as the guy who turns up at the opening of an envelope/door/jar of beetroot and it’s true that not only did I find them one of the best routes for meeting new potential customers, but I genuinely enjoyed them. Most of them, anyway. The ones that started at 6:30am were probably a bit too much.
That enjoyment never really came from being given the opportunity to sell my wares Dragons Den style for 90 seconds while we were waiting for the bacon butties, but from the chance to really get to know the people I was meeting. I miss really getting to know people. The catch-ups by the coffee jug where someone lets me know why the bloke in accounts got the hump with them and how they finally managed to close the deal that they’ve been working on for the last month or two.
I’ve met some great people on Zoom, I admit it. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of the events that I’ve attended, even if I’ve slightly regretted being quite so honest to Andy Hanselman when he asks me to rate how I’m feeling out of ten, forgetting over 30 people were listening to my rant!
It’s also been very handy to sit in my conservatory and catch up with Sophie Conboy at Connect Yorkshire rather than driving to Leeds and the benefits of dressing formally above the waist only are an unexpected pleasure.
But I still loathe Zoom. And that’s because I miss everyone. And I hope that soon, we can meet up and gossip by the coffee jug while we wait for that bacon buttie.
Stefan Tobler, founder And Other Stories
As COVID-19 hit in 2020, we saw larger publishers becoming risk-averse (as they were ten years ago in the last recession), and so we had an opportunity to grow that was too good to miss.
For almost all our ten years of existence, we’ve published most of our books in the US as well as the UK, with separate sales and publicity campaigns in each territory. It’s always a thrill when one has taken off and become a word-of-mouth and sales success through our work there. We put ‘New York’ on our books along with Sheffield (our home) and London (where we have a publicity outpost), but we kept active in the US mainly through a lot of transatlantic trips by me from Manchester airport. It was not great to head off for weeks and leave my wife to hold the fort alone with our little pre-schoolers, and it was certainly not playing our part to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2020 it became clear that no one is going to care if you actually rent some overpriced, underheated Brooklyn office space. As long you have a team of US-based staff, you have a US office. And if you have the right people, people take you seriously. In some ways, the post-COVID landscape is much more of a meritocracy and benefits businesses like ours who are not based in the mega-cities.
So, what did we do? We expanded our US office – quickly recruited three of the most respected people in the industry (in editorial, publicity and bookseller outreach), people who we’d heard had had the bad luck to fall foul of pandemic redundancies. And now that we are all used to working remotely, we could choose the best candidates, not the ones who happen to live in one location. Our US publicist lives in Brooklyn (handy, for sure), but our editor is in upstate New York and our outreach person in Chicago. By comparison, last year, we failed to recruit for a senior role in Sheffield because there are not yet many publishing folk here. In future, we may find it easier to recruit, if we are less set on the person relocating here. (Hard as it is to imagine anyone struggling to relocate!)
And what has our expanded US office meant? The industry considers us part of the US publishing community now. This is already growing sales in the US for us. And even once all the COVID restrictions pass, I’m not going to burn through carbon and money with the transatlantic flights. I know my US colleagues will do a great job and I can stay home.
We’re also using the changes of 2020 to re-evaluate how worthwhile different projects have been and to cut anything that isn’t adequately repaying our time and financial commitment. It’s like a year-long spring clean, and actually, it feels great.
One thing is for sure though, we’ll always be committed to growing our publishing work in Sheffield, away from the metropolitan centres. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
Nisha Kotecha and Alex Swallow, Social Good Sheffield
Social Good Sheffield is a meetup for people in the Sheffield area who are involved in social good in some way – perhaps they volunteer at, or work for, a charity, social enterprise or social business. Pre-pandemic, we used to meet at a city centre pub.
Having online meetups has been a lovely way to keep our networks connected. It has lifted our collective spirits during this difficult time to hear inspiring stories of all the ways the Sheffield community has come together and made a difference.
The three biggest things we’ve learned about online meetups are:
- It is important to try to involve everyone as fully as possible. At our physical meetups, people could circulate and meet each other and come and go as they pleased. So for example, people could just introduce themselves as and when and if they only wanted to stay for a quick drink, that was fine. The dynamics of online are different, so we have introductions at the beginning and we try to get as many people talking as possible so everyone gets something out of it before they leave.
- Planning things out beforehand is more important when you are dealing with things online. For example, for in-person events we might be chatting to people and then we’ll go to order a drink at the bar and in that bit of time on our own we can think things like ‘Ah I must introduce X person to Y person’ or ‘I wonder if Z person is having a good time?’. With online meetups you are less likely to have those little breaks, so pre-planning helps.
- Online meetups do have their advantages and it is good to focus on those. It can be easier to get people together and it is much easier to share resources with the whole group. Focusing on the positive aspects of online, rather than having the constant feeling that we’d rather be in the pub (even if we sometimes miss it!) helps us all.
Chris Wood business development executive, OVO Spaces
Zoom, the platform unknown to so many in 2019, should look at creating an annual award for the most used phrase, and if so, the winner for 2020 would without a doubt be ‘you’re on mute’.
For me, Zoom is something I knew I had to get used to and learn about with me starting out in a new business development role for OVO Spaces in September 2020. I wanted to attend networking events and build relationships with businesses around the Sheffield City Region but with the country being in a pandemic I knew face-to-face wasn’t going to be possible, so remembering I wasn’t on mute when speaking and understanding virtual backgrounds instead of having my kitchen units or bedroom wardrobes on show it was.
Over the past five or six months I have attended many different networking events online across the South Yorkshire region which, if it wasn’t for online platforms such as Zoom, just wouldn’t have been able to go ahead. From a personal view, I can’t wait for the ‘old’ normality to come back and we can be back networking and having meetings face-to-face, especially with us being in an industry where those conversations can benefit our company much more than being online.
Doing so much work online and asking for Zoom links instead of ‘which pub shall we go to for lunch’ actually made me think a few months ago ‘will people even recognise me on behalf of OVO when we get back face to face?’ Well, a few weeks ago this only went and happened as I’d bumped into someone in real life – at a social distance! – who I’d only ever met on Zoom and they said ‘Chris, you’re a lot taller than I thought from Zoom’.
The likes of Zoom and Teams and their platforms might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ll always be grateful for them giving me the opportunity to meet many different people such as Dan Laver, businesses such as unLTD, becoming a part of networking groups that moved online such as 3D Connect with Andy Hanselman and Jill White, and I will still continue to do so until it’s safe for everyone to go back face-to-face.
What do the following have in common?
- £2,600 raised for Weston Park Cancer Charity
- Amazing insights from some of the region’s most successful leaders including Arnie Singh of City Taxis, Amanda Holmes of Dransfield Properties, Dave Capper of Westfield Health, Julie Dalton of Gullivers Valley, Marie Cooper of CBE+ and Simon Biltcliffe of Webmart.
- Local young hero Captain Tobias being donated a super tricycle for his fundraising adventures from a very generous local business, Jiraffe.
- A new van for the wonderful charity Grimm & Co.
- Insights into the revolutionary new tourist attraction, Gullivers at Rother Valley
- People signing up for online beer festivals inspired by entrepreneur Fraser Doherty.
They were just some of the outcomes of our online 3D Connect events over the past year that have had lots of local business leaders learning together, exchanging ideas, suggestions, sharing and solving problems, supporting each other, and doing business together.
Yes, like all networking events, Zoom can have some vocal, hard sell, and, dare we say, opinionated people. It can also be a great source of stimulation, innovation, challenge, learning and fun – provided, of course, you attend the right events!
We’ve worked hard to ensure our 3D Connect events have done this by transferring what works well at our monthly face-to-face gatherings onto Zoom. That includes ‘participation’ (no two-minute pitches, but updates on how things are going and how people are feeling), sharing of ideas and experiences. As well as the names mentioned earlier, we’ve had some amazing insights from successful leaders from businesses such as 3 Squared, Airship, Jessica Flynn Design, HLM Architects, Glu Recruit, Razor, BHP, Bhayani HR, Resolve IT and SCCCC.
A real success factor has been the honesty of people sharing their challenges and issues as well as their successes. Other things people tell us they like? Interacting, having ‘fun’, whether that’s quizzes and the banter between participants, or making it focused and relevant, and keeping it ‘short and sweet’ – 9.00 am to 10.30am and then it’s back to work!
So, yes, our monthly 3D Connect Zoom sessions have been a real success story and we’ve had some fantastic experiences, even having treats delivered on one occasion by the City Grab team. But…we can’t wait to get to see everyone back face-to-face as soon as possible!