Lockdown II: A tech-powered survival kit

Lockdown II, the sequel, is here. From today, November 5, for at least four weeks those of us in England will once again play hermit to prevent a “medical and moral disaster” for the National Health Service, according to Boris Johnson.

Legally this latest lockdown, designed to halt the spread of the second wave of COVID-19, will last until December 2. But considering the original lockdown lasted from March 23 until restrictions were eased in early July, three-and-a-bit months later, I’m not holding my breath (well, only if I have to take public transport). And that Rishi Sunak has just extended the furlough scheme to March is a telltale sign, methinks.

Without wishing to come across too much like a “prepper” – you know, those people who dash to their underground bunker armed with guns and tins of baked beans at the first hint of the apocalypse – I would like to recommend a handful of products that might help you survive the next month(s) at home. These five objects have certainly supercharged my home-working setup and made the days much more bearable.

Technology has enabled organisations to switch (almost) seamlessly to mass remote working at the drop of a shutter, so it follows that all but one of the items listed below is a new tech product. (As an aside I was amused when Eric Yuan, the now mega-mega-rich Founder and Chief Executive of Zoom, admitted that he, too, suffers from videoconferencing fatigue and, as a tonic, watches The Great British Bake Off. The message is clear: we all need our escape, and especially so in these strange times.)

Xellence wireless noise-cancelling in-ear earphones from X by Kygo (€199 / £180)

Because the first lockdown afforded me the time to further indulge in my new hobby of DJing – which I wrote about for The Arbuturian earlier this year – my music listening has been dialled up quite a few notches. Now, while tapping away at my desk, “working”, I spend many hours a day searching for audio gems to embroider my next mix. However, with family members scuttling around, it can be tricky to focus entirely – on either work or videoconferencing or music listening – without these quite incredible new noise-cancelling earbuds.

I’ve owned many a wireless earbud – including some three-times as expensive – and I’m thrilled to report these are by far the best. For one, they are wireless – no cable around your neck – and as X by Kygo is a dedicated Norwegian headphone specialist with DJ, songwriter and producer Kygo at the helm, the performance is superb. Available in either black or white, they look the business, too. Just in case you need it, the earbuds have a 10-hour battery life, and you can download the X app if you want to personalise the sound further.

OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock (£285)

Granted, a docking station that transforms your laptop into a desktop computer (monitor sold separately), and much more, might not arouse interest in many people. Still, perhaps they haven’t met the right docking station. For OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock has all you could wish for to upgrade your home-working experience – primarily if you work in a creative industry.

Now for the science. The Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock provides lightning-fast 40Gb/s transfer speeds; features a 10Gb Ethernet connection; has three USB ports and frontside CFast 2.0 and SD 4.0 card readers; and with 60W of pass-through charging it will ensure your laptop battery is never empty. It truly is the next level.

Belkin 3-in-1 Wireless Charger (£99.99)

If, like me, most of the devices you own are made by Apple, this multi-charger is a revelation. With Belkin’s new 3-in-1 Wireless Charger you don’t have to root around for your iPhone cable, or try and locate your Apple Watch charger, or remember to power-up your AirPods (but of course, ahem, with your new Xellence earbuds this is a redundant point). This clever bit of kit stands, discretely, on your desk and you can charge your three devices whenever you want – and, indeed, all at the same time.

Oculus Quest 2 (£299) (main picture)

When your work for the day is over, or perhaps just when you want a break and need to get away from it all – without resorting to watching The Great British Bake Off – reach for this. The latest virtual reality headset from market leaders Oculus only launched a couple of weeks ago, and blimey it is sensational. I’ve played around with many a VR headset, but this could – and should – be the one that breaks into the mainstream.

The Oculus Quest 2 is the most advanced, all-in-one VR system currently on the market. Every detail has been designed to make virtual worlds adapt to your movements, enabling you to explore awe-inspiring games and experiences with incredible freedom. Even before I bought any games, I’d walked up Everest, hung out with lion cubs, and danced with a groovy robot. Lockdown II will allow me to spend more time with this fantastic product, and I can’t wait. This VR headset and music will be my escape. And why not, when the tech is increasingly good, and the outside reality is increasingly bad?

One thing to note is that to use this bad boy you will need to link it to your Facebook account, if you have one. (Facebook owns Oculus, in case you didn’t know.)

S6L Brompton Bike (£1,190)

It’s not tech (at least not in the modern sense) but I’m throwing this one in here because it ticks an important box in the lockdown portfolio.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get your hands on a Brompton Bike right now, given the demand for two-wheeled bicycles, but we all know how important exercise is for your physical and mental health, particularly when locked down. Brompton still makes the best folding bikes on the market, and with the Brexit transition period coming to an end on January 1, perhaps you could treat yourself to a Christmas present and buy British?

After all, we’ll probably still be in lockdown when the turkey is carved.

This article first appeared in The Arbuturian in November, 2020

Pandemic pushes long overdue sales rebalancing

The pandemic has jammed the fast-forward button on progress in many industries, mainly for the better. Indeed, concerning the evolution of sales roles, the prevailing feeling is the sudden rebalancing of importance between field and inside sales is long overdue.

The need to sell during COVID-19 has precipitated a doubling down on digital tools within sales organisations and shone a light on the dark arts of those operating in the field. This scrutiny, coupled with the ease of video conferencing and the substantial cost-savings it achieves, has highlighted uncomfortable questions about new and future sales roles, as well as issues around adequate remuneration.

“Traditionally, good salespeople were unmanageable individuals and measured by results,” says Richard Higham, executive director at SalesLevers. “If you were doing a good job, you were bombproof.

“Until a few years ago, inside sales was used for early-stage, low-value transactions and to warm people up before the real heroes [in field sales] would ride out on their Harley-Davidsons to solve the problems.

“But before the coronavirus pandemic, sales organisations had recognised quite a lot of relationships and transactions on a big scale could be managed entirely without meeting people. There was already an increase in transparency with sales roles, as well as a blurring of the edges.”

Digital-first sales strategy

The previous model was forcing cheaper cost of sale towards inside or digital salespeople and higher cost of sales, the big-ticket items, more towards field-based sellers, according to Andrew Hough, chief executive of the Association of Professional Sales.

Now, though, he believes sales teams will neither return to the office nor recommence field-selling until the end of social distancing. Also, the advance and necessary adoption of technology “will allow us to measure things in a more sophisticated way than just first past the post”. Hough adds: “Compensation will become more outcome-based and there will be different ways we measure people.”

What managers value in sales people

This blurring of sales roles is forging a hybridisation of the modern salesperson, says Kathryn Wright, chief sales officer of Upside, a London-based fintech focused on customer engagement.

The role of field sales will be changed forever,” she says. “Technology has enabled us to continue building business relationships and facilitated back-to-back meetings that wouldn’t have been physically possible to achieve before lockdown.”

Dr Peter Colman, partner at consulting firm Simon-Kucher, urges sales teams to become experts at remote selling: “Key and field accounts usually receive close personal attention through the traditional outside sales channel. Sustaining that level of attention is now impossible, which means the mix must change radically in favour of remote sales.”

However, data from growth and sales platform HubSpot shows marketers in the UK are sending 49 per cent more emails than they were before the lockdown, although responses are down by 24 per cent.

Crevan O’Malley, HubSpot’s director of sales in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), argues that while the current circumstances are unquestionably impacting sales roles, the blurring of roles has been coming.

Merging of skills

“Inside and field sales have been converging in successful ways for some time,” he says. “Skills like emotional intelligence and self-awareness have long been key for high-performance field sales teams, and they’re just as important when you ‘go inside’ and adopt a digital-first sales strategy.

“Personalised engagement via digital channels, impactful language and an empathetic tone are key skills that inside sales need to master for high performance. Lasting business relationships can be built ‘remotely’, but what you say, how you engage and how you make people feel matter more than being face to face.”

This chimes with Richard Langham, managing director, EMEA, at Highspot. “Even before the pandemic, ‘spray and pray’ tactics were failing,” he says. “There’s often only a small handful of key, time-poor decision-makers you’re trying to reach. Flooding their inboxes with billions of one-size-fits-all generic emails doesn’t work. Worse, it actively damages the relationship.”

Hence, the skill of using data has engendered greater respect by sales leaders for those in inside sales. “When used properly, the right data, at the right time, helps your sales team earn a more authentic human connection with the person they’re talking to,” says Langham, who has identified a shift from new customer acquisition to customer satisfaction because of the crisis.

Wright, from Upside, says the sales team of tomorrow “will look more like channel managers and customer-success managers”, and believes embracing data and technology is paramount. “With omnichannel marketing, sales teams can see every touchpoint, every video watched, every document opened,” she says. “This provides two opportunities: an accurate cost per action and feedback on what helps the customer to understand the company’s offering.”

Jamie Barlow, managing director at Hyped Marketing, says a 20-80, field-inside sales split is the vision of the future and those who secure sales should be compensated accordingly. With sales roles updating, it’s critical to invest in technology, specifically marketing automation, which enables campaigns to operate autonomously 24 hours a day, Barlow stresses.

“Digital tools allow us to engage on a personal level with hundreds of prospects and help qualify leads,” he says. “We will then take an educated approach as to which point to remove the prospect from the automation programme and engage on a one-to-one level.”

Stephen Corfield, senior vice president and general manager of industry sales for Salesforce in the UK and Ireland, promotes a pairing of “technology with a personal touch”.

“Smart, context-aware customer service will only grow in importance to better serve experiences and value-added interactions,” he says. “The sales team will need to be nimble and wholly data-driven in its approach.”

Evidently, sales roles are transforming fast. And for everyone, aside from field sellers on their Harleys, that’s a good thing.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Sales Performance report in June 2020

Invest in employee training before it’s too late

The nationwide lockdowns, enforced to limit the deadly dissemination of COVID-19, sparked explosions in digital transformation and home-working trends across the globe. Digital transformation, though, is not deployed once: it’s an ongoing strategic campaign.

Technology and people are the two drivers powering successful digital transformation. Yet myopic business leaders, bedazzled by tech, risk forgetting the latter. Investing in staff training is critical. Moreover, it’s a win-win situation.

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Henry Ford, the founder of the eponymous automotive giant and architect of the assembly line technique of mass production, died 73 years ago, but his words live on with matured meaning.

Encouraging employees to re-skill, or up-skill, emphasises a level of care and commitment towards them, at this time of acute vulnerability. If left unchecked, automation advancements and coronavirus’ long shadow are enough to disable anyone’s career. While investment in staff training boosts morale and, in turn, productivity, it also helps better future-proof an organisation and narrows the chasmal skills gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 laid bare the need to learn new talents to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace. Analytical thinking and innovation will be most desired in the 2022 skills outlook; manual dexterity, endurance and precision will be the first shown the door.

Further, the researchers calculated that on average employees will require 101 days of retraining and upskilling from 2018 to 2022 as “emerging skills gaps – both among individual workers and among companies’ senior leadership – may significantly obstruct [organisations’] transformation management”.

MANIFOLD BENEFITS OF INVESTING IN EMPLOYEE TRAINING

“On the one hand, businesses must retain and retrain their workforce to keep up with as well as take advantage of a constant stream of innovations,” says Anthony Tattersall, head of EMEA at online learning platform Coursera, which has generated more than 25 million enrolments since mid-March – a 520 per cent rise from the same period last year. “On the other hand, individuals must keep pace with a constant stream of innovations that hybridise and alter jobs.”

Last year the Office for National Statistics predicted 1.5 million jobs in England are at “high risk of being automated in the future”. Mr Tattersall continues: “Many jobs will slip away, but increased productivity will mean that many more new jobs will replace them – across all industries. These jobs are at risk of going unfilled if we don’t adapt to a new way of thinking about education and learning new skills throughout a lifetime.”

There are manifold benefits of investing in employee training, states Mr Tattersall. Funded learning improves staff engagement and empowerment, and helps facilitate the transition to remote working. It also enhances the emotional wellbeing of employees. “The act of learning helps cope with stress,” he says, noting the average age of a learner on the Coursera enterprise platform globally is 29.

But with business leaders struggling to cope with the onslaught of disruption wrought by COVID-19, is enough being done to protect future careers?

D2L published research in June that showed almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of learning and development (L&D) professionals believe the rise of automation and artificial intelligence is having “a serious effect on their workforce”. While 59 per cent have subsequently evolved their L&D programmes, the same percentage of employees don’t believe these challenges can be met with the current offering.

COLLABORATION AND A CONTINUOUS LEARNING CULTURE

“There is not only a mismatch between employees’ and L&D leaders’ views on the skills crisis,” says Alan Hiddleston, D2L’s director of corporate learning EMEA, “but it would seem that many organisations do not offer engaging learning opportunities that actively encourage personal development and ‘enable’ their workforce to continue to test themselves.

“To deliver effective L&D solutions, there needs to be greater collaboration among departments. Establishing a continuous learning culture is key.”

LinkedIn’s Leading with Learning report, also launched in June, presents a more positive conclusion. Some 76 per cent of L&D professionals in the United Kingdom say that more chief executives are now “actively championing the development of their workforce” since the COVID-19 outbreak – up from 28 per cent in a comparable study conducted in October.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to pause hiring,” says Namrata Murlidhar, director at LinkedIn Learning, “and instead focus on helping their existing employees adapt to the ‘new normal’ and develop skills that will be crucial to future growth.”

So-called MOOCs (massive online course platforms) – including Mr Tattersall’s Coursera and Udemy – have stepped up. “The online learning world is now overflowing with courses on pretty much any topic from a professional or personal standpoint,” says Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist and co-founder of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses. “Cost-effective online training is disrupting the world of education. Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that the e-learning industry would be worth $325 billion by 2025. This is likely to have quadrupled since lockdown.”

Ms Rosewarne urges caution when selecting online courses, as many are scams, but says: “With barriers to entry being low, millions of people across the globe are beginning to share their knowledge with the world. The online learning boom shows that people are thirsty for knowledge.”

RISE OF BLENDED LEARNING FOR A LIFE-JOURNEY

Martin Raymond, co-founder of strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, argues that learning was due a shakeup. “If you could time-port a university professor from the 19th century to today they would think few things have changed,” he says, referencing the youth of students and the hierarchical system. “Prior to COVID-19, this was changing, especially for those in their 50s and 60s, millennials and members of Generation Z.

“We understand that new skills, disciples, and insights are needed to accommodate this multifaceted life-journey we are on. And since universities are still trying to accommodate the single career path, many organisations – recognising that their employees will stay with them, our research shows, for 2.3 years maximum, unless there is a wider prize to be won – are becoming educators in their own right.”

Mr Raymond celebrates the surge of blended learning – “part digital, part remote, part face-to-face” – and traces the trend for lifelong learning back to 2008, and the global financial crash, “when jobs became more precarious”.

It’s a time Lord Jim Knight, chief education and external officer at Tes Global, well remembers. “I was employment minister in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and was part of preventing the scarring effect on young people of long-term unemployment,” the 55-year old says. “Right now, we are in a deeper economic crisis than anything in my lifetime. I hope a similar focus can help this time, but individuals also have a responsibility.”

Can organisations survive if they fail to invest in their staff? “Frankly no, not in the longer term,” continues Lord Knight. “Technological change and globalisation are redefining work and the wider economy constantly. The only answer is more individual and corporate agility – that is only possible through a deep-rooted, lifelong-learning culture.”

Hackathons, brown bag sharing sessions, and “coffee roulette” on Slack have been embraced to improve the learning culture within Tes, and break down siloes, reveals Lord Knight. “Right now people need to feel active and valued, even when isolated,” he adds. “Investing in them through learning and in making it easier to work remotely is just non-negotiable.”

It’s imperative that business leaders heed these lessons, and invest in their employees.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Digital Transformation report in June 2020