Viewing archives for COVID-19

Bringing the human touch to the online workplace

During COVID and the associated lockdowns, most business interactions were restricted to a few square inches of real-estate on someone’s screen. A CIO I know well said it was the lockdown that made him realise how much he needed interaction with his colleagues to be effective. Indeed, most of us were used to having a presence in the office—walking around, enjoying ad-hoc chats and water-cooler discussions, updating colleagues at the lunch table, whatever. Remote working brought all these spontaneous human interactions to screeching halt and not a lot has replaced them.

Has remote work made us more efficient? I don’t think so, but it has certainly made us think more about communication and how to regain what we’ve lost.

Over the past year, I’ve gathered a number of ways CIOs and CTOs have attempted to resolve some of these issues. Below are four ways that have worked and helped to regain some of the human presence that was lost during lockdown:

1.     The doctor is in. Like Lucy from Peanuts, have a regular conference call planned and in everyone’s diary. When I set these up, attendance varied from none to twenty, but when people did drop by, work was only about 20% of the stuff we nattered about. Also, whilst it was scheduled for thirty minutes, it often went on for significantly longer, indicating that people were eager to engage.

2.     The ‘always-on’ call. Designate a team or an individual to always have a channel open. I’ve done this with outsourced functions, where they can immediately interact with a member of the employed team without having to email or call. It’s particularly useful for agile working with distributed dev teams.

3.     The cafe. There are systems out there now that allow a persistent presence; we’ve been using Kumospace. People pop in whilst doing something else, on the off chance someone else might pop in as well. We also used it recently to provide the much-missed informal chat sessions we normally have at our conference. It was the first time I’ve seen people stick around in a conference call, virtually moving between groups and conversations like in IRL. Some said it was almost as good as the real thing.

4.     The regular update. We suggest to our CIOs and CTOs that they have a regular session in their diary, usually once a week, to catch up with the CEO one-to-one. They should have these meetings even when there’s nothing on the agenda to talk about. I know a CIO who keeps a set of Pictionary cards to hand in case conversation lulls. Even for the CEO, there’s time for a little fun! (It couldn’t hurt to have regular meetings with the rest of the Board as well.)

I am often asked about innovative technology for our new ways of working. I don’t see any game-changing new systems out there; most are simply a version of video conferencing. So we need to make do with what we’ve got. Similarly, none of the above ideas are massively innovative. But with some effort and thought, we can approach, if not replace, the human touch of office life.

Look out for another post on the challenges particular to the hybrid office.

Hybrid Working: The Challenge of the Decade

Hybrid working is the strategic challenge of the decade for mid-market business leaders. Why do I say that?

Business is all about relationships. And in-person, face-to-face contact builds relationships like nothing else. Companies selling engagement apps and collaboration tools say otherwise, but they have a vested interest in their own nonsense.

Since the “war for talent” began — the enormously competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining top talent — we’ve seen that the magic behind great companies is employee engagement. And the hybrid workplace is now a crucial part of that. The winners will be those businesses with a hybrid workplace that attracts and engages the best people.

The pandemic complicated the issue, of course. Many companies are finding that the talent they recruited during the pandemic don’t have the same connection to the company.

The challenge now is to create deep ties, rather than allow loose ties to become normalized. And all of it must be within the hybrid paradigm.

A lack of staff engagement hurts a business. Some surveys suggest 40% of staff globally are considering leaving their current job. In that environment, strategic progress is impossible — simply maintaining stable operations becomes the all-consuming focus.

But as the cliché says, every challenge is an opportunity. This is your chance to redefine where, who, and how you recruit. It’s an opportunity to reconsider which parts of your business are insourced and outsourced. It’s even an opportunity to redefine the processes and systems that your business is built on.

Read our blogpost, The three-step strategy for hybrid working.

In the meantime, you can take smaller, more immediate steps to solidify engagement — and ironically that’s by reinventing face-to-face meetings.

It’s so easy to communicate from home, so an in-person meeting must be something better. Treat each one as a valuable opportunity. Every face-to-face meeting should be as productive, enjoyable, and enriching as possible. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Be considerate with their time. Bear in mind the time, aggravation, and resources consumed in travel to the meeting, as well as the length of the meeting itself.
  2. Bring your A-game. When you’re leading a face-to-face meeting, give it your full effort and attention. Plan ahead. And expect the same of everyone else.
  3. Get everyone involved. Let everyone know what’s expected of them beforehand, and then ensure they all get involved.

Remote engagement requires a more strategic approach. Hybrid environments need efficient systems and operations. Effective outsourcing requires seamless systems integration. And all of the above requires a vision and world-class leadership.

If you want to discuss how this should look for your business, then please get in touch. We’ve been helping mid-market businesses create systems and work environments for new hybrid strategies — I’d be delighted to see how we can help your company.


Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.


A Three-Step Strategy for Hybrid Working

The pandemic took us all by surprise, but we’ve had our eyes on hybrid working for some time.

In 2018, we noticed that while urbanization and commuting remain established “megatrends” across the world, there were signs in both the US and UK that office working was on the wane. To provide some guidance for our clients, we wrote a CEO’s Briefing: How to Make It Work When They Work from Home.

Of course, with the pandemic, this gradual trend became a sudden flip. And what a flip: a US survey from late 2020 reported that the jump in remote-working was from 20% to 71%.

For many companies there was a simple, mass evacuation from the office conducted with little time to plan, and even less time for a strategy. Nevertheless, during the months that followed, people and companies adapted to new ways of working and found ways to cope.

Unlike the rapid flip required by the pandemic, this time there is scope to plan and strategize.

As the pandemic eases, many companies are looking again at office working, home-working and hybrid arrangements. Unlike the rapid flip required by the pandemic, this time there is scope to plan and enact a thought-out strategy.

We propose that your approach should be based on the following steps.

1. Strategize.

Remind your senior leaders of your business objectives and how your business stands out in the market. What makes it special in terms of customers and value? This should drive planning for you and other decision-makers in your organization.

For example, if your market is highly commodified, then of course this is an opportunity to look again at outsourcing to lower costs (or to automate more roles and eliminate some costs altogether).

If your business thrives on creativity, however, we recommend that you bring your people together, because there is no substitute for the spark of brilliant people, in a room, face-to-face.

If you are competing to recruit rare talent, then perhaps home or hybrid working allows you to recruit more easily — to cast the net wider and to offer a better package than your competitors.

If you emphasize great service, then think about what your customers want, rather than what you want.

2. Segment.

Your plans for home, office or hybrid working should be rooted in the job profiles within your company. Not all office jobs have the same profile and needs; what makes sense for a credit control assistant may not make sense for a product designer.

Consider the job in terms of:

Your adoption of home, office or hybrid working should be based on the needs of the job rather than the department or seniority.

3. Optimize.

It’s easy to do hybrid working badly. Meetings where half the team are in the office and half are remote can easily leave the remote workers feeling excluded. Getting the best from all your people requires more deliberate communications and inclusion; even more clarity on roles, processes and controls; and investment in technology that supports hybrid working patterns.

In particular:

Need help with your hybrid working strategy? Get in touch.

One of our colleagues remarked that the pandemic was the first time that communication with his offshore providers had actually worked well, because they were equals in video meetings rather than side-lined. This anecdote shows how easily we can get it wrong and lose so much of what people have to offer.

But when done right, hybrid working offers the opportunity to attract the best, to lower costs, and to reduce the impact on the environment. We have a unique opportunity right now to improve service to our customers and increase productivity and job satisfaction. Let’s make the most of it.

Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

New Client Innovations

I recently held a (virtual) discussion with some of our Principals to discuss how clients are innovating for the post-Covid world.

Many of our clients are preparing for new opportunities as they expect a rapid recovery. Many also expect their competitors to suffer cash shortages, supply-chain disruption, and operational issues that will offer opportunities to seize market share.

To be frank, customers facing long waits or poor support will vote with their feet, and our clients are rightly looking to take advantage.

Let’s discuss what specific steps our clients our taking, and what our Principals had to say, and see if there are ideas for your own company.

How They’re Getting Ready

There are two specific areas in which Principals are helping clients:

  1. Creating new online routes to market
  2. Preparing internal operations for expansion.

These changes are challenging. Reorganization and new projects are difficult during the best of times; the current background of uncertainty is a further complication. Many clients aim to complete these changes while downsizing.

According to Freeman Clarke Principal Pete Taylor, “Three clients are preparing for growth by investing heavily in automation and integration, while making significant headcount reductions at the same time.”

Look Before You Leap

For many clients who were previously wholesalers, moving to online B2C raises critical challenges. They have to understand a new range of marketing, technical, and fulfilment issues; in addition, most companies now have to make delicate judgements about market positioning and how this would affect existing retail relationships.

Thus shifting to B2C isn’t always the smart move. One client working in household accessories modelled the impact of creating a direct-to-consumer online channel. The model helped them conclude two things: first that they would be cannibalizing existing business; and second that the small shipment sizes and customer service overheads would slash their margins. They scrapped the B2C idea.

“After a lot of discussion and analysis, we decided to focus on improving the B2B channel rather than taking a serious risk with the B2C channel,” explained Freeman Clarke Principal Phil Tottie.

But If It Looks Good, Leap Away

For other wholesalers, shifting to B2C made business sense, and they launched new brands to take their products directly to consumers who now prefer to shop from home. Such businesses basically need to become online retailers, and we adapted their front end accordingly.

For example, one client used to provide health monitoring equipment to medical professionals. Covid-19, however, brought about a strong consumer desire for self-monitoring. Our client re-engineered the product and service to supply directly to the public.

“The new approach is cheaper and better for all concerned,” said Freeman Clarke Principal Alex Hudson. “It was always possible in theory, but we’ve taken the opportunity to make it happen.”

For clients in B2B supply chains, we saw a further opportunity to create online offerings for their existing business clients who ordered by email or phone. In many cases the websites were previously simply online brochures; it was time to create an actual portal for online ordering.

Of course all such changes create new challenges. But they offer the huge benefits of reduced processing costs, fewer errors, and tighter integration of delivery tracking and payment processing. They free up staff to focus on developing accounts rather than just taking phone orders.

Internal Operations: Reporting Is Key

When our clients prepare for a significant increase in business, the first and most pressing concern is availability of up-to-date, accurate information for management.

“The leaders simply need to know what’s going on so they can react quickly,” says Pete Taylor, Principal, Freeman Clarke.

In these cases, the immediate focus is on streamlining data flows and automating reports. Of course this means looking upstream: we first have to ensure clear processes and accurate data management. But it’s necessary work that leads to better management.

Internal Operations: Using the Time Wisely

In many sectors, our clients have seen a slowdown, but they expect business to bounce back. So there has been a real drive to complete back-office projects, which, at normal times, would take a back seat.

It’s clear that some companies will struggle operationally or will suffer cash shortages. In such cases, we help our clients invest in new technology and enact process improvements to ensure their service remains outstanding—and that they will be ready for new opportunities when they emerge.

As ever, these improvements projects are difficult. But they are absolutely achievable when we have a clear vision of the business objectives:

“Central to a particular project was to look again at the structure of the product list and bills of materials,” Principal Dave Martin said. “By driving to the heart of the matter we were able to reduce the complexity by orders of magnitude.”

Important Work at an Important Time

In some markets—for example, medical research and health equipment—there has been huge growth, and our clients have pivoted to engage with these opportunities. But the pressures on staff have sometimes been very great.

“It’s been critical to keep facilities running smoothly in order that the drug research and development efforts can continue uninterrupted. It’s important commercially for the client, and these efforts are genuinely important to us all,” said Dave Martin.

Clear Winners and Losers

In so many areas of the mid-market, we are seeing very clear winners and losers emerge. Of course, sectors like travel are suffering due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. But most consumer and business demand is ready to resume as soon as restrictions allow.

Resumption of demand, however, doesn’t mean “business as usual.” All the Principals in our discussion expressed a similar idea: Whether it’s B2B or B2C, consumers are very willing to switch to new buying channels, to new suppliers and to new products.

Thus ambitious companies looking to seize these opportunities must have a flexible, dependable infrastructure in place—and to know when an opportunity may not be best for your company.


Need help? Many CEOs work with Freeman Clarke because we take on uncomfortable changes and challenges with reassurance and guidance. Transformational change requires experienced and expert IT leadership.

Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Centre which includes all content related to this topic.

Using technology in Wholesale and Distribution: Getting the Basics Right

This is a time of extraordinary change for the market. Of course, the pandemic has brought about incredible shifts in how we do business. But technology advancements, customer expectations and regulatory requirements have been accelerating regardless.

From what we’ve seen at Freeman Clarke, the changes have been particularly challenging in the wholesale and distribution sectors. There are just so many associated services as logistics, transport, storage and 3PL, each with its own complications and disruptions.

Margins remain tight. Yet the range of services you need to offer is increasingly broad: customers want ever-higher quality and seek specialist support across the entire supply chain.

It is possible to prosper. But only for the most competitive, well-run and efficient companies.

Growing Expectations

Warehousing and distribution have always been hugely competitive, low-margin sectors. Now the rise of ecommerce has set new standards in B2C parcel delivery standards that we are seeing reflected across the entire market. There are ever-increasing demands in terms of information, timeliness, reliability and cost.

Service level agreements (SLA) also have rising demands as B2C ecommerce has redefined market expectations. The challenge with SLAs is partly adherence and partly demonstrating adherence.

At the same time regulatory requirements have grown more complex:

For mid-market businesses, all of these expectations are not matched by generous budgets! New technology can solve all of the above issues, but the investment costs can be high.

Mid-market wholesalers and distributors can absolutely meet or even exceed customer expectations and external requirements. They just have to be incredibly strategic about technology. They need systems that guarantee ROI. They must select the best and most cost-effective suppliers, negotiate the best possible deals, and ensure that their investments deliver real financial benefits.

Start by Getting the technology Basics Right

For ambitious mid-market companies, technology is central to success in this tough environment. So then how does a mid-market company on a limited budget use technology to drive growth and customer satisfaction?

The answer is straightforward: get the basics right. If the technology agenda is submerged in day-to-day problems, there is little time to talk about vision!

What follows if a brief list of priorities:

  1. Ownership. technology needs a senior leader who can set strategy, be part of the business decision-making, and maintain a coherent vision for the future. Without clear ownership, expect problems.
  2. Infrastructure. Identify a sensible and appropriate configuration based on your business; don’t assume everything will be solved with off-the-shelf products. Remember that infrastructure includes hardware desktop computers, mobile devices, factory-floor devices, etc. Modern infrastructure is cloud-based, so insist upon reliable connectivity and security.
  3. Security. Cyber security is a rising problem, and it won’t go away. Make sure that you have right security protocols in place and that your staff has been properly trained. Remember that good habits start at the top: is your CFO scribbling passwords on Post-Its?
  4. Disaster planning. Disaster recovery and business continuity plans must be rehearsed and ready to go at short notice. Make sure that everybody knows who is in charge of what!
  5. Reporting. Accurate, timely reporting must be available so that managers and executives can understand what’s going on, what’s working and what’s not.
  6. Suppliers. Go through the entire list and ensure that you are getting the service you paid for and that the pricing still makes sense. Make sure that your staff is trained in external systems and understands how to tackle problems. Third-party transport management or warehouse management systems can be effective, though the quality of support and customization varies between suppliers. Are they still worth your time and money?
  7. Integration. The wholesale and distribution sector typically have multiple internal and external systems. Are all your systems effectively integrated? Meaning, is there minimal manual effort? Is anybody rekeying? Is data available to dashboards so managers can run the business hour by hour?
  8. Negotiate. When dealing with external suppliers, make sure that at every point you have the right price and service level for your company.

Once Again: Cost-Effectiveness and Ownership

Yes, we said that already. But it bears repeating. If you want to use IT to succeed in your sector, you must identify who is responsible for each and every IT project. Be very clear about who is tracking its implementation and outcome so that the benefits are realized.

And at every step, you need a focused financial argument to ensure that every single project is cost-justified before it gets authorized.

The Future is More technology

We don’t see warehousing and distribution as getting simpler, in fact, we’re seeing every indication it will become more sophisticated and demanding. We’ll see more AI for route-planning, more chatbots for customer services. Autonomous delivery is just a matter of time.

Some of these technologies will be costly, and mergers will likely put a further squeeze on mid-tier players. But the best companies will prosper. In our experience, the best the companies are the ones with their IT clearly wedded to business goals, the ones using IT to reduce costs, improve service and to focus (or create!) their own points-of-difference.

To find out more about how we could add value to your business, Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Business after COVID-19: What’s the New Normal?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic world event. It is already causing widespread societal and economic change.

Even if lockdowns are relaxed over the coming weeks, we will have to face COVID-19 for many more months. And new ways to live and work will have become entirely normalized by the time this pandemic is behind us.

It’s reasonable to ask ourselves what these changes may be and what they will mean to our businesses.

Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

How technology Can Help Your Food & Beverage Business Grow

The Food & Beverage sector is experiencing a major surge. The best performers are seeing strong demand and solid cash flows — and a real opportunity to scale up significantly in the coming months.

This can be a permanent change. If they do it right, Food & Beverage companies will see a consistent increase in market profile, profits, and company value.

But it won’t stick unless they get their IT right. If your Food & Beverage company is to grow and thrive, you need to improve IT, systems and digital strategies.

In our experience, there are 5 areas to focus on:

  1. Streamline processes.
    Often this means simply ensuring that existing ERP systems are fully exploited:
    a. Reduce time wasted on manual processes like rekeying and tinkering in Excel
    b. Rollout unused or underused features (you may already have paid for!)
    c. Retrain staff to ensure technology is properly used and processes followed
  2. Reduce product wastage – especially for perishables.
    But maintain quality and quick response to retail demand by:
    a. Improving demand forecasting and business intelligence
    b. Enabling intelligent trend analysis
    c. Efficiently controlling inventory, production, and warehousing processes
    d. Utilising AI and machine-learning where practical
  3. Take an agile approach to online direct-to-customer sales.
    Focus on flexibility and foresight:
    a. Look for simple, low-cost entry points, perhaps based on Amazon as well as your own website, with minimal capital outlay
    b. When cost-effective, integrate to ERP system to minimize rekeying and to provide accurate stock availability
    c. Create a roadmap for warehousing and delivery options as the online business grows
  4. Optimize promotions and ramp up marketing.
    Improve promotion ROI and establish brand with:
    a. Wider use of marketing tools like social media and an email database
    b. Better analysis tools to optimize planning, execution and analysis of promotions (investments in retail price reductions)
    c. Improved integration and sharing between technology and marketing
    d. Well-implemented CRM and data-driven marketing systems
  5. Seize new opportunities.
    Keep testing new products and new markets!
    a. Combine new and existing data to identify capacity and market demands
    b. Combine costs and sales forecasts to model ROI

Our Principals are often asked to help scale up companies in the food and beverage sector, they’ve got the commercial and technology experience to help your company grow. If you’d like to know more about what we do, or even if you just have questions about Food & Beverage and IT, get in touch!

17 Critical Cybersecurity Questions to Ask Your IT Team

Suddenly the office is closed, and everyone’s working from home.

The IT team is coping, but you’ve got nagging doubts about cybersecurity. You ask the IT team a few questions, but the answers seem to be in a different language!

Well, you should be concerned. Criminals are ramping up their activities because systems are more vulnerable when people work from home.

But there’s no need for panic. Most cyberattacks are successful simply because basic steps haven’t been taken.

Here is a simple checklist to ask the person in charge of IT. The answers should all be YES!

Protect your data

1. Do we know for sure that our backups are working?
2. Does data stored on a home user’s drive get backed up?
3. Does our central data storage have versioning?
4. Do we have a Data Loss Prevention system running?

Protect your remote devices

5. Do we have multi-factor authentication set up for our systems?
6. Will our anti-virus, anti-malware and patching tools automatically update for home users?
7. Has everyone who’s working from home signed a communications and internet usage policy?
8. Have we given cybersecurity training to the team within the last six months?
9. Are our legal policies appropriate for people working remotely and at home?


To continue reading, download the article above.

Visit our Cybersecurity and our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic knowledge centers, which have more useful content related to this topic.


COVID-19: Navigating Urgent Operational Challenges

For every business, the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge to the wellbeing and safety of their people.

For some businesses it’s also a new strategic opportunity. People’s needs, lifestyles and habits have had to change and some of these changes will be permanent. Services, products and markets will be reinvented and some companies can take advantage of these changes for their long-term benefit.

But for some companies, this is a time of urgent operational challenge. For these companies maintaining basic business operations is a huge concern. The key areas of focus right now are:

  1. Getting staff working effectively from home. People may be connected but that’s not the same as effective. For example, making business processes work may need new collaboration tools, video software and introduction of e-signing of contracts. Collaboration, efficiency and smooth operations require good technology and also positive leadership. Managers need to be coached and led through this change.
  2. Relocating operations and supply chains. Interruptions, transport restrictions and lock downs are requiring companies to move entire operations or change suppliers. These changes require leaders and managers with vision as well as strong knowledge of the operational and technical details.
  3. Reprioritizing IT plans and renegotiating with suppliers. Many companies need to bring forward cloud migrations, new cyber-security or connectivity projects. Leaders need a simple IT strategy and the ability to challenge existing assumptions. Many suppliers and customers are pulling together and sharing the burden but there may be a need for tough conversations. Some companies will need to renegotiate and to protect their cash.

It’s unclear when business will return to normal, but it’s likely that normal will be different to what it used to be! IT, systems and digital will be more core to business success than ever before.

Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.


IT during COVID-19: Changing Suppliers, Renegotiating Contracts, and Managing Cash

Visit our Hybrid Working & Post-Pandemic Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

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Graeme Freeman
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