From education to employment

The Rise of Digital: The most significant change to the way we work in living memory

Ayden Sims MIEP, Director of Business Development at Maximus UK.

Reflections of Business Development Director @AydenSims… 

The last few months have had a profound impact on everything we do, so I wanted to share a few of my own observations in the context of my role leading the growth effort at Maximus, one of the largest providers of employment support services to government in the UK. 

I have focused my thoughts on what I see as being central to many of my experiences of late – remote working and the use of digital.

The scale of the move to remote/virtual activity has been the most significant change to the way we work in living memory.

This clearly isn’t unique to Business Development, as it is something, I know huge swathes of society are currently dealing with, but in the context of how we have historically operated, has been a significant shift.

Here are 3 key areas of consideration based on my experience, which I feel will have long lasting implications:

1. Embracing Change

I have always embraced digital technologies, I saw virtual meetings as a secondary option to getting together in person. The current pandemic has made me think differently, to the point that I don’t really ever see us going back. The fact that everyone was in the same position has helped to force the agenda. Rather than me trying to convince the team that this is something we should try to do more of, it was through necessity that everyone embraced the approach, set up their home working environment as best they could and got up to speed with Zoom (other video calling options are available!).

This move to digital has been hugely positive for many, including myself. No more do I need to be out of the house at 4am to get the early morning train to London for a meeting, but can now join from the relative comfort of my home office, having  walked my children to school, something that would have been inconceivable in days past. Most meetings can now occur effectively remotely, with the team joining from home and contributing to any discussion that is needed. However, there are still times when, in the middle of a bid, it would be useful to come together ‘in-real-life’. Video calling is no substitute for a good in-person workshop when you need to thrash out the principles of an approach or do some detailed storyboarding with a large group of people. This is something I certainly missed during a recent complex bid, and with it looking unlikely that we will be back into the office any time soon, is something we are going to need to consider more pro-actively as we plan future projects and collaboration – Video calls work well, but a 4 hour workshop to thrash out a complex problem may need a different approach.

2. Managing the Intensity

The use of digital has certainly helped remove seemingly unnecessary or inefficient activities such as travel but has brought with it other challenges. Travelling to the office or from one face-to-face meeting and the next, whether it be by train, car or other means, forced periods of down-time between sessions. I used this time to contemplate more important strategic aspects of a bid or respond to emails or cover off other actions on the to-do list. Removing the need to travel combined with the relative ease of setting up video calls, means the prevalence of meetings has increased, with one video call seemingly flowing straight into the next. Before you know it, the whole day has flown by, having barely left my chair and with my to-do list barely touched.

So, working late into the night and weekends to catch-up have become increasingly common, blurring the line between home and work and making it difficult to switch off. This is a highly inefficient way to operate, as whilst it may be sustainable over short periods of intensive bidding, it is not something that can be managed over a longer term and may degrade the quality of the team’s work. So, it’s critical that we all take a more proactive approach to managing this intensity and protecting thinking space, or risk burning ourselves and our teams out. This could include setting aside time on certain days each week which, while it may initially feel like an inefficient use of time, should actually lead to us being far more productive. We also need to be more considerate in the creation of meetings, to confirm it’s definitely needed, the attendees are all essential and the outcomes well defined. This is not a new discipline by any means but is one that I feel is much easier to overlook when you aren’t asking people to travel hundreds of miles to attend. Finally, as leaders, its essential we understand the pressures we are putting on our teams and managing that ask.

3. Missing that Watercooler

The final area for consideration as we all work increasingly remotely, and the thing that caught me most by surprise, was the lost value of just being around my team and other colleagues. When taken in isolation, those micro-interactions as you make a cup of tea in the kitchen or pass each other in the office don’t seem like much, but they are actually hugely significant, both in terms of team productivity and wellbeing.

Within Business Development, I don’t think I had appreciated just how much is achieved through having a brief conversation in the office. Being able to have a chat with the finance team to understand what a particular cost line means, or sitting down with the bid writers to check how they were feeling about a particular response were great ways of covering relatively small items off quickly, but which are no longer available to us in the same way. Quick calls or instant messages are a reasonable substitute but are easier to dismiss and never quite feel like an adequate alternative.

Most significant for me, is the lack of opportunity to decompress as a team. After a tough bid, sharing thoughts over a coffee in the morning or over a beer in the pub at the end of the day, was a great way to collectively come together as a group and re-establish bonds, as well as informally think about things we could do differently moving forward. This option disappeared overnight and is the most difficult thing to ‘engineer’ into this new world of remote working.

We have tried to come up with solutions to this, such as setting up calls at the end of the day to give people space to just generally catch up, but it does feel like the element that may take the longest for us to nail down an adequate solution and ensure that cohesion, which is so desperately needed for any high functioning team, is not lost.

We need to adjust our thinking to suit ‘The Future’

Whilst the future and how things may look for teams remains opaque, the one consistent truth that it feels we can all get behind, is that things will be different so we need to adjust our thinking to suit.

In summary, I believe we need to:

  1. Stop thinking about ‘interim’ or ‘short-term’ solutions in light of the current situation, and plan for long-term change. Only by embracing the situation and developing sustainable strategies to enable teams to engage in digital working, in the same way we would consider the requirements of working from an office, will it allow us to embed robust solutions that create the right conditions for success – however you measure it.
  2. Maintain discipline in how we structure our working days and engage with colleagues. Protect your thinking space, consider meeting etiquette and establish collective ‘ground rules’ that everyone can get behind. This will avoid burnout and ensure a respectful and resilient team.
  3. Find ways to maintain those social interactions. As human beings, we are naturally social animals but over the course of a busy day, it’s easy to see those less ‘productive’ areas as the first to cut. In reality, with the fine margins we are all working to, it’s those engagements that can make the difference between winning or losing. A team that is effectively engaged will want to go the extra mile, not because ‘the business’ asks them to, but because they want to do what they can for their colleagues. Technology and working as dispersed teams are going to have long lasting and significant impacts on the way Business Development and bidding process are run in the future. The opportunities afforded by the use of digital tools are extensive, and I am extremely excited to see how this develops into the future. However, it’s critical that we retain our focus not just on the tools that aid ‘the bid’, but on those that aid ‘the people’, as they are our best assets.  

Ayden Sims MIEP is the Director of Business Development at Maximus UK.

Ayden is responsible for setting the strategy and driving commercial growth for the business. A medically retired Pilot in the RAF, Ayden has spent over a decade in the sector in a variety of roles, aiming to support others that have experienced disruption in their lives. Ayden has held a role as Board Member of the IEP for the last 3 years and is Chair of Governors at an ‘Outstanding’ SEN School in Birmingham. 


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