Interview with Dr Mike Pitts, Deputy Director, Innovate UK

Dr Mike Pitts is Deputy Challenge Director at Innovate UK. He discussed with me how the pandemic is fundamentally changing our relationships with our environment, work and each other.

‘A huge difference to people’s work-life balance’

People are more awake now to some of the shocks happening to our ecosystem. There’s no such thing as an isolated problem and hopefully we’ve seen the power of nature and the fragility of society.

The more that people can experience change, the easier it is to imagine how the future might look different.

The pandemic has made a huge difference to people’s work-life balance. We’ve been able to do things with more flexibility.

When a lot of people were stuck at home and realizing how hard it was, all the existing systems improved. It has made it easier for many people to work remotely.

It’s opened up and connected more people across our organization. I can join a meeting live from a site and show people what I’m seeing. It’s so easy now with the phone in your pocket.

When hybrid working is done properly there are many upsides. The full scope hasn’t been fully realized yet. Everybody’s got a different definition of what hybrid should be.

Offices won’t completely die. Although it certainly means a change in use. And I’d be very surprised if anyone goes back to five days a week in the office.

‘Recalibrating back to the best of all worlds’

There’s still a challenge in how to get the balance right – hybrid working has to be implemented very carefully. But we certainly don’t want presenteeism back.

I have more meetings in my week now than I’ve ever had, with better attendance. Although I miss the beautiful serendipity that comes from being in an office – the catching up and side discussions.

Offices should be much more about that human interaction side of work – the ability to have more nuanced conversations.

It’s very hard to make these changes in a balanced way. It’s easy to do too much of something new. We’re slowly recalibrating back to the best of all worlds.

We have experienced a change in our lives and don’t want to go back. Although I don’t think we’ve achieved that balance yet.

‘We are seeing a resetting – becoming more local’

Being locked down for a long time has increased people’s desire to interact. We are seeing a resetting – becoming more local.

We really saw people’s desire for a sense of community and local engagement during lockdown. Spending more time at home and in the area where they choose to live.

People want to live somewhere that matters to them. It’s connected to wanting a better work-life balance. And to live somewhere that isn’t driven by a need to be in an office five days a week.

City centres have become important again. People want nice places to go and spend time in – whether that’s indoors or outdoors.

They want their city to deliver their social life and family life in a different way than before. It’s not so much about shops – it’s much more about experiential things.

They’ve reconnected with people they didn’t have the time for before. As humans, we live off this real interaction. One of the best things I’ve seen come out of the pandemic has been how people have supported vulnerable people.

The trend towards service delivery has also been accelerated by our experience of the pandemic.

It’s brilliant that we can access more services online, but local independent stores have also pivoted quickly to providing more of a service. Many started doing deliveries immediately and are now making more money than they ever did.

‘It’s accelerated a switch that’s probably irreversible now’

In the construction sector it’s really driven through some much-needed changes.

We’ve been supporting the construction sector to change the way it builds.

Many sites are congested – trying to put a lot of different skills in a small space for a short period of time. If they start to treat the entire process like a manufacturing operation, standardizing processes, they can achieve much higher productivity.

What we’ve seen during lockdown is that these projects lost nothing in productivity because they were largely labour-light sites. Whereas more traditional sites really struggled.

It’s accelerated a switch that’s probably irreversible now.

‘I’m a strong believer in business changing society’

Business did an amazing innovation job responding to the pandemic – they got there very quickly. And it’s continuing – there are some amazing coronavirus drugs being developed.

I’m a strong believer in business changing society – most companies are way ahead of government pledges.

Creating a shift through company innovation can happen very quickly. It’s government’s job to notice that and get out of the way. To make it harder for bad practice and easier for good practice.

It’s important that we support innovation for businesses that are established, as well as the disruptive emergent companies. Often innovations are best when they both work together – to create completely different solutions.

When you’re involved in innovation, you’re constantly thinking about how to do things differently, in a better way. And you always get spill-over benefits – beyond the ones you set out to achieve. We’ve seen a lot of that through some of the responses to the pandemic.

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