Living in Lockdown

Living in lockdown

4 Mins

With nearly all businesses having to go through a rapid and, in many cases, frightening process of adaptation in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’m really proud that here at Creditsafe we’ve actually embraced the changes forced on us and used it as an opportunity to re-model the company, maintain our business and begin a process of evolving for a new future. 

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

My favourite business quote is Darwin’s famous maxim that, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” And with this as the company’s underlying philosophy, we really have been better prepared than most when it came to the crunch. Our guiding principle has always been to change faster than our competitors and to constantly be prepared to try new things and fail fast. We operate in what was a very traditional conservative business and we grew into our current form by always being the upstart disruptor. Although we are now a big successful global company, that attitude and restlessness remains at the heart of our corporate DNA and means that we are always ready to adapt and change when we need to. Metaphorically our bags are permanently packed and we’re itching to try something new. If we ever let our competitors change more swiftly than us then quite frankly we’re dead.

Creditsafe remote working

Creditsafe has come a long way since it was founded under a motorway flyover in Oslo in 1997 and as the world’s most used supplier of company credit information, we’re now a flourishing global concern with operations and offices in 16 countries around the world. Interestingly, it was this element of the company’s structure that not only meant that we were almost pre-prepared for the impact of the pandemic but also led to the alarm bells ringing early. Creditsafe has a strong operation in Northern Italy based in Turin and it was feedback from that operation together with reports from Creditsafe’s Japanese customers who were trading in China that got us to begin planning early. By mid-February we realised that this wasn’t just going to blow over in a matter of days, and we challenged our IT and infrastructure teams under Mike Salmon to begin the process of reformulating our business, so that every one of our 1,200 staff around the world could effectively and efficiently work from home.

Creditsafe global workforce

Fortunately, with our operations around the world covering all time zones and an IT team that already worked seamlessly with our offshore developers in India, there was already a strong culture of using regular video conferencing and multi-channel networking platforms like Slack. However moving all employees onto home working was a significant challenge. The team refocused resource onto this one business critical project and, not only looked to swiftly implement a redesign of the business’s core network, but worked directly with the teams at Zoom to get a full roll out across the business. With the growth of the pandemic continuing in Italy, we switched the Turin operation to home working as early as Friday, 6th March and gained vital experience from that changeover. I’m sure my Italian MD Luca Berti won’t mind me describing him as a guinea pig but his team became lab rats for our systems as a whole and the learnings from there enabled Mike and the team to facilitate design changes that had us ready for lockdown on a world-wide scale. That Italian experience and the relentless drive of the virus as cases multiplied in more of our key markets, like France and began to develop in Germany and the UK, really showed the scale of the situation. I wasn’t prepared to wait for government actions, we knew it was coming and didn’t want to get caught up in the chaos of country-wide overnight change. In addition, on a personal and human level, I was anxious to protect our people, get them home, get them safe and get them working. On March 11th, some two weeks before the UK lockdown, we pressed the button and moved Creditsafe over to working from home across the globe. Within two days the business was back up and running but not without challenges.

Creditsafe Zoom video conferencing

Seen from the inside, Creditsafe is a quite differentiated business with two very distinct types of staff member, team structure and specialisms, leading to a particular set of challenges in maintaining momentum. On the one hand we are a data and IT business, filled with information scientists, analysts and software developers, just the sort of types who might be expected to thrive in a screen-driven world of limited social interaction, but conversely the business has been driven by a high-energy highly targeted sales operation with young telesales and account management teams thriving on personal contact and competition.

It was vital to not only maintain the drive and purpose of the sales people who might be deprived of the stimulus of their fellow team members but also to avoid giving the developers and IT specialists the excuse to retreat into their shells. I just knew from day one that communication was always going to be the number one key to success - we had the infrastructure in place but without engagement, it would never get used.

The next thing we did as a matter of urgency was to pull together a team from across the group to, in effect, become a cross-country and cross-functional news desk, which began a new daily digital newsletter that was being sent out before the end of that first week. Although it might sound quite old school in many ways, we were determined to keep it fresh and relevant so we had our marketeers and in-house designers embedded in that team from the get-go. These guys are our social media experts and know-how to ensure our content is sufficiently captivating. While we’ve included all the daily facts and figures you’d expect, we’ve made it as interactive as possible with hints, tips and competitions on lockdown gardens, cooking, pets and childcare. Interestingly, we’ve had a bit of a baby boom in the last few weeks so there’s been a lot of newborns for everyone to coo over – but goodness knows what that’ll look like in 9 months or so as we’ve got a lot of couples working from home together!

The next step saw my real dream come true as we launched the company’s very own global radio station – Safe FM. Following a soft launch in Italy, the in-house web-based station now broadcasts every day around the globe with an eclectic mix selected by DJs from across the business and over 200 listeners tuned in most of the time. Obviously I’ve got my own daily show with a variety of company news alongside my own musical enthusiasms. The great thing is that we’ve got really instant feedback and if I get a bit too carried away, the email and phone requests soon put me back on track.

Creditsafe Radio

However, while the radio station is allowing group-wide interaction and communication, it’s also important to maintain the local team-based enthusiasm alive amongst those all-important sales teams and maintaining that motivation has seen us transform video conferencing tools into a fantastic mixture of key information and reality TV entertainment, with managers constantly keeping the approach fresh. We even had one sales leader deliver a pep talk in his company speedos while running against a projected beach backdrop along to the Baywatch theme music. That’s not been the case everywhere though and across the group, managers have adapted to the new ways of communicating at their own pace. Initially the lack of physical contact and interaction led many to over-compensate and almost over-communicate but now we’ve seen them settle into a routine that genuinely feels natural.

Creditsafe’s other major challenge has been the need to adapt our business to the needs of our customers and to a changing data supply environment. With company registries such as Companies House in the UK and local civil courts closing down for regular business in almost all legislatures, we’ve seen a dramatic fall in the supply of information that usually stands at the bedrock of our company credit risk algorithm. But once again, though we’ve been able to draw on that combination of experience and appetite for change to both ensure business stability and reassure concerned customers. Having lived through the turmoil of the financial crash of 2008-9, we’ve been able to model the underlying failure trends that stand out despite the noise of an immediate crisis. It was absolutely crucial that we not only do the right thing by our customers who are relying on Creditsafe’s scores to help protect them against the threat of bad debt, but also to do the right thing by the companies we rate and the wider economy as a whole. Even in the middle of a challenge like this, you can still see if a company’s basics are in place and predict how it should ride out the storm. Creditsafe has worked with other commercial credit reference agencies to freeze core ratings through the crisis for the time being, although the data science analysts are still monitoring all available on a daily basis in case developments mean that this will require any review.

Creditsafe remote working

Having said that, we do recognise that many of our customers and indeed potential customers have real concerns at this time so our account management teams have taken on a more consultative role offering support and guidance, while we’ve also introduced payment holidays for some of our more distressed customers. 

In addition, Creditsafe have launched an extended free trial for businesses to provide additional muchneeded guidance for companies challenged by the ongoing disruption to their usual business relationships.  All of these changes have seen staff within our teams refocus and reinvent their roles almost overnight, which I think shows how the company’s continued commitment to internal cross-country and cross-functional promotion has left us with an almost uniquely flexible workforce.


The company’s continued commitment to internal cross-functional promotion has left us with an almost uniquely flexible workforce.

So while we’ve reacted quickly and made use of our inbuilt aptitude for change, I’m convinced that the company could not have put these changes into place with the speed and success we have without the strength of our culture that underpins everything. I’m proud that we’ve been consistently recognised in the Sunday Times “100 Best Places To Work” awards which shows that we’ve created an atmosphere that allows things like the radio station to thrive without it becoming cringeworthy in a David Brent style way that would almost certainly be the case in other businesses. It’s something that has been a top priority right from the start and, in many ways, grew out of the company’s early telephone sales background where the need to maintain energy and motivation was essential. I’ve always said that life is too short to be bored at work and if you can make the day at work entertaining then people will always want to get up and get to the office just to see what’s going to happen next. Maintaining that attitude and environment in lockdown has been crucial. I’ve always encouraged my managers not to just make presentations but to perform gigs. That way, the atmosphere and energy are great and people remember information – it’s like remembering a joke. What has been really encouraging is seeing just how well that has transformed to the remote environment. Our staff want to tune in, they want to go the extra mile. If we can keep that little bit of craziness in everyone’s heart then that commitment will always be there. 

“The company’s continued commitment to internal cross-functional promotion has left us with an almost uniquely flexible workforce.”

And at times like this, the company’s commitment to and investment in its culture, seen in the now near-legendary time when we took the entire European workforce on` an all-expenses paid holiday to Majorca to celebrate the business’s 15th anniversary, is being paid back handsomely with a business that is now working as effectively as before and confidently hitting its 2020 budget forecasts.

As for the future, I think that the world of work, and not just inside Creditsafe, won’t be the same at all once the pandemic has passed. The whole point about change is that you make a change, you aren’t the same afterwards and you move forward. I think that meeting culture will never be the same again. Even if we go back to face-to-face meetings those video style protocols of tight agendas, keeping to the point and sharing information quickly will become the norm. I also think that working from home will be completely regularised and that actually wasting time and money on expensive commutes to spend time in expensive office spaces will begin to look like the aberration. Businesses are going to become a lot more virtual and a lot more devolved in physical terms.

I also think that the experience of the pandemic will teach lessons that companies who want to thrive will have to learn. I’m really proud of the way we at Creditsafe recognised the coming situation, got ready for it and acted. We had the people and the culture that enabled us to do that and were built around change, looked for change and embraced change. That’s a model that a lot of businesses are going to have to recognise and adopt going forward or as Darwin so rightly said, they just won’t survive.

Cato Syversen

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