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The view from here – Nick Williams, Professor of Enterprise, Leeds University Business School

Head and shoulders portrait photo of Nick Williams, Professor of Enterprise at Leeds University Business School

In this series we ask key spokespeople from across the region and from our core sectors to share their insights.

This time, we chat to Nick Williams a Professor in Enterprise at Leeds University Business School. His research mainly focuses on entrepreneurship and economic development, and he has a particular interest in the impacts of crises on entrepreneurial activity. We caught up over a virtual coffee to discuss his current work researching the effect of the pandemic on businesses in the region.


Can you tell us something about your recent research with Leeds-based entrepreneurs? What stands out as you talk to all these business leaders?

We have been talking to entrepreneurs who head up relatively new businesses – typically less than five years old – that have grown quickly. They span a number of business services and financial services sectors. Overall, they have been complimentary about the support measures that have been available to business during COVID-19 but, the thing that really stands out is that Leeds is a naturally collaborative place to do business.

One interviewee said to me “collaboration is very Leeds”. This seems to have been very important during the pandemic. Businesses have turned to their pre-existing networks and used them to seek advice, share ideas and help each other out. These collaborative networks are typically quite informal and often include businesses with similarities that would normally make them appear to be rivals. In the face of the pandemic they have supported one another and benefited from the shared knowledge, experience and connections this achieves. Those businesses that are less well-connected are disadvantaged.

 

What do you think Leeds has to offer entrepreneurs?

It is hard to quantify, but the importance of place is undeniable. Although Leeds is a big city, it still feels connected and there are strong business communities here with resources such as Nexus and wealth of Fintech and business support services making it an attractive place to have a base. The image of the city has improved dramatically in recent years and there is recognition that Leeds is a nice place to live – something that’s really important to employers looking to recruit and keep good people.

 

What role will entrepreneurs have in the post-COVID recovery?

Entrepreneurs can play a significant part in our emergence from a crisis like COVID. To be an entrepreneur you need to have real confidence in the idea at the heart of your business and you need to be able to deal with uncertainty. In more normal times this could be the unpredictability of supply and demand, but this mindset means that our entrepreneurs are likely to be among the first to signal to others that things are getting better and that they too can join the resurgence.

 

From your research, what are businesses saying about the barriers to returning to the workplace?

The biggest concern seems to be the psychological impact of COVID-19 on staff. Many have real and understandable worries about returning to the workplace. Mental health and anxiety are significant concerns as the crisis unfolds. The business owners we spoke to have real sympathy for their staff and share their concerns. For many of these people, their staff are also their friends and they feel protective and responsible for each individual.

The majority feel that working from home is not as productive as their old way of working, citing that they feel there is a missing extra factor that comes from bringing people together and is very difficult to achieve when working remotely. Again, it’s that desire for collaboration and shared ideas that they need.


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