Digbeth business owners reveal how they have adapted for Covid-19


Covid-19 has had a dreadful impact on businesses across the world. This godawful virus has blighted a huge number of creative & innovative businesses in Birmingham over these past few months – but as you’d expect, the fightback from the business community in Birmingham has been fantastic!  

In this blog, we have asked some of Digbeth’s leading business owners (who have their HQs, studios, and/or workspaces in Birmingham’s iconic creative quarter) to give their insights on what it has been like to run/manage a business during a global pandemic.

Ed James (co-founder of HDY Agency, pictured) has revealed what it has been like at a digital agency.

When lockdown first hit it stopped us in our tracks, as with pretty much every business in the world. It was a shock and we took advantage of the furlough scheme and made sure we concentrated on the clients who were still able to trade and in some cases actually thrive. We also made it a mission to really invest in the team. We did regular check-in calls, visits to take a few beers and have a walk in the park, Zoom quizzes, team events and we arranged some keynote speakers to talk about mindfulness, resilience and mindset!

Lockdown version one was a learning curve for us, it made us value how vital the team is to our success and we learned a lot.

We then went back to the office two days a week, and our Head of Operations Mark made sure we were Covid secure with Monday as a B2C day and Thursday as a B2B day. The content, social, PR and studio teams were in both days.

The ‘new normal’ was feeling pretty good, we’ve actually had a really productive three months with a number of new client wins and some amazing new members of the team too. We’ve pivoted businesses online, helped numerous e-commerce platforms to reach unprecedented levels of growth and delivered some amazing work for clients in West Midlands and globally.

When lockdown 2.0 was announced it was a hard pill to swallow but we feel we’re ready. Putting into place lessons from the first one, we’ve activated a full health and wellbeing programme. With activities every day including power workouts, yoga, mindfulness and a weekly team quiz get-together. This is on top of the daily catch up and regular phone calls, messages and Zoom calls with the team. 

The main learning has been that the team is everything. If we don’t support, look out for and be kind to each other we have nothing. We’ve also really missed the vibe, energy and creativity of the Custard Factory and can’t wait to get back!

Amrit Singh (Creative Director at Rebel Creatives) has revealed what life has been like in the art/content/training world these last few months.

Before the pandemic, we had a quite a few in-person training sessions and workshops booked which would have taken place in our studio. We also had 4 public art sculptures and a number of creative campaigns scheduled in for the coming months. However, as soon as March hit and the first lockdown was in place all of the in-person talks and workshops were cancelled, the public art trails were postponed to 2021 and the campaigns were delayed. With a brand new studio space and business growth, normally this would be exciting, but it was very worrying to the say the least.

We had to think quickly about how we were going to adapt, and adapt we did. We launched our training provider side instantly and moved all of our workshops online. By doing so we picked up a decent amount of work all over the UK, especially as businesses wanted to learn new digital skills around live streaming and short-form content. We also managed to produce and deliver 4 digital boot-camps during lockdown and I got to work on 6 public art sculptures for trails next year. The magic ingredients in preserving as a business this year has been through agile working, being resilient, collaborations and staying positive.

Tariq Shaikh (Managing Director and Principal at Gensler) spoke to us about the life as an architect during lockdown.

Lockdown and working from home came as less of a shock to us, as we saw it coming weeks in advance, and drew on the lessons learnt from our China offices. We had time to move our projects onto the cloud and make sure everyone was provided with powerful enough laptops, and send everyone home when it started to get dangerous, ahead of the government imposed lockdown.

However as architects and designers we thrive in collaborative environments, taking inspiration from serendipitous encounters and bouncing ideas off our collective creative buzz that only really happens in an office environment. Like everyone else, we had to learn to adapt.

Daily scrums and check-ins have helped us to track and monitor staff wellbeing, workload distribution and planning for new opportunities. Our teams are utilising a variety of tools to help streamline project management and facilitate communication on projects. We have been using other communication platforms such as skype instant-messaging and GoTo Meeting for 5 to 10 years already, connecting to our other offices and international Clients.

Microsoft OneNote has been a godsend as has Microsoft Teams upon which we are relying on heavily during lockdown to help us keep information organised and facilitate communication between teams and across offices.

We also use a virtual whiteboard tool called Miro, although not quite a 100% substitute, it has massively helped alleviate our current inability for in-person collaboration. Through Miro we are able to facilitate workshops, charrettes, townhalls and maintain ongoing dialogue with our clients. We also have the expertise to leverage tools like video, websites and apps, digital guides, QR codes, VR/AR and virtual polling to help keep presentations and meetings engaging. So if there is a sliver lining, through necessity we have had to learn to master these new tools to an extent where constant long distance travel can be alleviated to a large degree, helping towards reducing our carbon footprint.

Despite initial reservations, it turns out that we have been busier than ever, our expert Critical Facilities team has seen unprecedented volumes of work with internet usage skyrocketing due to lockdown and the ever-growing demand for data, as we have suddenly all relied on the internet like never before.

Danielle McGirr (Unit Production Manager at North One TV) has revealed what it has been like making TV shows during a global pandemic.

A lot of our output from the Midlands office of North One usually involves travel abroad – from Travel Man: 48 Hours In…, to Our Guy In…, as well as our long-standing programme The Gadget Show.  So, when the pandemic hit at the start of the year, we were immediately faced with an abyss, with all current and upcoming productions put on pause.

We set about figuring out how we could ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ but also ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Edit suites were moved to living rooms and kitchens, dressing tables became desks and our children became our assistants as we set about putting together compilation shows of the ‘best bits’ from our wealth of archive. 

Working closely with our Health & Safety advisors and in consultation with the leading testing labs around the UK, we were soon back up and running, sending smaller, PPE-protected crews back out and about to pick up on filming for new UK-based projects.

Despite the lack of their being an ‘office’, virtual Zoom meetings, Whatsapp groups and regular conference calls kept the wheels in motion. At the end of it all, despite the challenges faced we have made 2020 a pretty successful year, with the fulfilment of our Gadget Show content maintained, a delve into The Life and Times of Captain Sir Tom for ITV plus a completely new series for Discovery under our belts.

As for 2021 – when travel allows, adventures will continue with more travelogues from Guy Martin, plus a second series of Paul Hollywood Eats…. We of course hope that a vaccine will bring a swift end to the restrictions that still hold us back in some areas, but either way we are confident that we can build on the lessons learnt from this eventful year, where staying home wasn’t the end of the world. 

Melissa Snover (CEO and Founder of Nourished) has unsurprisingly seen interest in her award-winning vitamin company spike as we all look to boast our immune systems with 3D printed goodness.

Nourished has in-fact thrived during the pandemic as our product focuses on self-care, nutrition and prevention over cure. We have seen a sharp rise in consumer demand for personalised nutrition over the last few months, and as we control pretty much our whole supply chain and 3D print each product in demand, we have been lucky enough to be relatively unaffected by external factors caused by the pandemic.

However, as we only launched a few months before the COVID-19 outbreak, it has been an uncertain time, and we have had to constantly pivot our business. I am extremely proud of my team’s resilience and dedication, who have remained focused and adapted with the government regulations and our customer’s requirements.

In conclusion, a walloping well done to all five interviewees for what has been achieved by their teams during an extremely difficult period for running a business.

2021 can’t come soon enough! FYI: We think that the Spark Media video below (which has just won a viral video Lovie Award) perfectly sums up the current feeling in our city! “The Comeback” has begun…

If you’d like to join Ed, Amrit, Variq, Dani, Melissa, and Spark Media in Digbeth, contact our team on spaces[at]digbeth.com to find out about the workspaces we have available at the Custard Factory, Fazeley Studios, The Bond Company.