Enterprise in a changing world: How Leeds Beckett's Business Centres are supporting SMEs through the storm
07 October 2020
George Lancaster and Jesse Stott are Coordinators at Leeds Beckett University's Leeds and Halifax University Business Centres (UBCs).
COVID-19 has hit the local business sector hard this year, and the UBCs - which provide flexible office services, meeting space, training and mentoring, as well as specialist university facilities and expertise - have committed to new ways of providing support and advocacy.
Across the region, businesses from bars to tech firms are finding new solutions to help them survive what is an undeniably challenging time, with rapidly changing updates on how businesses can open and trade.
What this means for the future of businesses in Leeds, Halifax and Wakefield - where the UBCs are based - will depend on support systems like Leeds Beckett's. We talked to George and Jesse, respectively Leeds Beckett's UBC Leeds Coordinator and UBC Halifax Coordinator, about how organisations like theirs can ensure the future success of British business.
Leeds Beckett University and local businesses
"Research is by its very nature often at the forefront of innovation, discovering new methods or avenues to improve current techniques," began Lancaster. "This creates a natural cohesion with business and is at the forefront of why Leeds Beckett University has had a business incubator running in some form for the last 20 years.
"We've run a number of successful Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, a government-funded programme aimed at helping businesses develop and gain competitive advantage through university research and the help of a highly-skilled graduate or student who is temporarily embedded within the business."
The UBCs were set up to support Leeds Beckett's wider objective of aiding the growth of the local economy. Lancaster said: "With the opening of our University Business Centres in Wakefield and Halifax - as well as our long running Leeds centre - we are actively trying to encourage business growth in these areas with our support, whilst offering a front door into the University and all the specific expertise we can offer...
"It has the dual benefit of growing businesses in these areas and providing local job opportunities for our students and graduates from these locations, with direct relationships resulting in businesses hiring Leeds Beckett students."
How to cope in a post-COVID environment
SMEs certainly have a lot to think about as we tackle the pandemic - particularly with constantly-updated guidance on whether staff can and should work from home. Asked how SMEs can cope in this atmosphere, Jesse Stott (pictured) said they need to "Give thought now to simplifying processes, and getting the team fully used to online platforms.
"Introduce a mixed home-working mixed office-based week soonest to strengthen bonds, whilst keeping home working desirable, trusted and productive; invest in equipment that means your team can work anywhere and ensure support is given too; [and] support team members who may need help or investment to set up safe and comfortable home offices with adequate and secure connectivity. Stay positive, be kind to yourselves, vocalise any concerns or issues and ask for help."
And when it comes to technology, "Skype, Teams, and Zoom are the businessperson or employee’s friend. Learn to love these tools and use them! It won’t make actual in-person meetings any less needed, just fewer."
Business leaders also need to "Encourage and foster flexibility in terms of working hours," said Stott - "it’s hard to work from home and it may be that employees who are productive in the office 9am to 5pm find it impossible to focus during business hours at home. Productivity and people, not presenteeism!"
The challenges thrown up in 2020 are manifold, so conversation turned to the many new and difficult situations presenting themselves to the UBCs and associated businesses this year - and how they might be solved.
The first challenge has been adjusting to providing business support remotely, and the content of that support for quickly changing demands. Lancaster said: "Given the demands COVID-19 placed on businesses, we had to adjust our support to provide help where it was needed most urgently. Additionally, to flip this support virtually whilst still having value to businesses was a sharp learning curve. Our Accelerator course ran in conjunction with Ad:Venture was originally planned as workshops but we had to switch to online and in an easily accessible format in a short space of time."
The second - changing office requirements. "We're predicting that larger companies are going to need less physical space than before, keeping smaller offices in city centres as a central meeting point for colleagues, allowing them to offer a mix of home and office working before making any long term commitments to home or office working only. The majority of businesses I have spoken with enjoy the balance of both and see this as the perfect set up for work-life balance.
"Lastly," said Lancaster, "and this may be more of a personal opinion from my experiences, but I have noticed that businesses are a lot more resilient than they give themselves credit for. I have seen a number of businesses pivot their business to the changing consumer demands.
"For example, Euroventure - who've been supported by us with varying levels of input over the last eight years - work in the travel industry, primarily in Europe, and as a result were heavily affected by COVID-19. They've switched up their offer to a UK market and are making great waves on the back of the ‘staycation’ popularity."
The future of work and the local economy
And how will Leeds Beckett adapt how it supports businesses through virtual events, training and support in the coming months? Lancaster said: "As touched upon, we have moved what was going to be a series of workshops into online content, [and] added to this content with some advice on dealing with issues specific to COVID-19.
"Our Business School at Leeds Beckett University is running the Small Business Leadership Programme, which is designed and delivered by a consortium of Business Schools who are accredited by the Small Business Charter. Consisting of eight live weekly webinars and weekly peer-to-peer group sessions, it will help SMEs develop their potential for future growth and productivity.
"Specifically, at our business centres we are adapting our spaces where applicable to reflect what we are seeing in the marketplace, which is smaller more adaptable offices spaces rather than large open plan spaces. Businesses appear to be consolidating their offices to offer a smaller central meeting point. Our business mentor appointments that we offer to our customers have moved online and more regular where required."
Looking beyond the walls of the UBC, "It is clear the retail and hospitality sector cannot survive in Leeds with current footfall at 20% of normal levels," according to Lancaster.
"It is expected that within the next four months over 80 stores in the city may close as the furlough scheme unwinds. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out - will the retail and hospitality sector adapt to changing consumer behaviour, with a rise in virtual-only presence, or will businesses adapt to return to a semblance of how we used to behave?
"It is clear the government are trying to encourage this, with the priority of keeping the retail and hospitality sector going, to which there has been some backlash to say the least! I predict this will lead to greater footfall and emphasis on local high streets in suburbs, as more people look to get out of the house in their local area - which in the end city centres will have to try and replicate, offering more residential property in comparison to retail space than currently is the case."
The Leeds Beckett UBCs work with a range of inspirational businesses, and while at the moment things look dark, we end on something of a positive note. George told me about one success story and future player in the form of AND Digital, and highlighted how new opportunities are making themselves available for innovation and success in the digital world.
"It almost goes without saying but tech was already on a huge rise in Leeds... Halifax also has a thriving tech scene. AND Digital have been a resident of our centre at Halifax for a year now.
"With lockdown forcing all businesses to be online, the need for tech solutions is only going to increase. This is evidenced perfectly by the amount of businesses in hospitality that had to scramble to offer online solutions for bookings, data collection and customer loyalty programmes.
"I’m sure many of these businesses had ideas about bringing in digital solutions, but this has been expedited by demand."