The experience of running a fintech from abroad during the pandemic has prompted a wider debate on the opportunities remote work may create for UK fintechs, writes Chirag Shah, CEO, Nucleus Commercial Finance.
“You must stay at home”. This edict from Prime Minister Boris Johnson which marked the beginning of the first lockdown was unprecedented and concerning, but a seemingly simple instruction. For me, things were less simple. I was in India when the pandemic hit and as travel routes and borders around the world shut, I was stuck.
This raised a range of questions for our business: could I actually run and lead a fintech from another country? How can we ensure the welfare of teams in two different countries, with the pandemic hitting each acutely but in different ways and at different times? And how could we continue serving clients, when businesses across the UK needed access to credit and fast to stay afloat?
All these questions and underlying assumptions, unique to our situation but shared by business leaders throughout the pandemic, were eventually resolved as we found new ways of working. When it briefly became possible to return to the UK, I realised I no longer needed to. Our business had adapted - or it had, to some degree, always been that way and had only now proven itself to not be tied to any given location.
This challenging but exciting time has taught me lessons, not only about how we can continue to scale as a company, but how the fintech industry as a whole can propel innovation as we imagine life after the pandemic.
Realising location doesn’t matter
By a fortunate twist of fate, we became fully cloud-enabled just a couple of months before we entered lockdown. Of course, this wasn’t really a mere matter of luck but rather evidence of the already well-storied narrative that Covid has only accelerated existing trendlines. As a business, we were already planning to be more flexible and decentralised - the pandemic just meant a five-year journey turned into being a mere five days.
Operating entirely in the cloud, meant people could truly work from the UK, India or anywhere they liked. And so remote work - after three weeks of teething issues - miraculously had no impact on our service. If anything, it allowed us to scale up capacity to service the drastic uptick in demand for SME finance, as we played our part providing funds through the Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS).
The volume and time spent on customer service calls alone increased by fifteen-fold, an influx that would have been difficult to triage if we relied on outdated office-based communications. At the same time, our self-service portal and recently deployed use of AI in the loan approval process means 90 per cent of applications submitted by brokers are granted in under an hour.
Innovative technology and the ability to move fast are fintechs’ main strengths. These are reasons why the growing embrace of alternative lenders during the pandemic should continue to be further strengthened.
Looking to the future
Remote work is certainly not without its challenges though. Work-related issues when in an office tend to be very similar for people. That’s not true in a remote environment. People faced different challenges, whether technical or more so with their health or personal lives when the line between home and work became completely non-existent.
Communication, while in many ways more immediate, also became more strained and quality sacrificed. Digital communication has binary dividing lines between public and private, meaningless vocal people could inadvertently miss out on key conversations, which made the need for more intentional and structured catch-ups all the more crucial.
Yet, there are undoubtedly resounding advantages, and beyond mere business continuity and productivity. Remote work has changed the way we think we can scale as a business. After listening to employees, we decided to downsize our office as there was no need to have such a large office space if fewer people were choosing to come in.
Furthermore, remote working means we can hire the best talent from anywhere. We’ve been able to recruit people who we previously may not have considered as they’re not based in London or Mumbai. But with talent being the lifeblood of any business, and flexible working being a key criteria for most people looking to switch jobs going forwards, not embracing this would be a colossal misstep.
Things will gradually return to some sense of normality. I will continue to divide my time between India and the UK - though business travel will be much less frequent. However, the accelerated shift to digital has played to fintechs’ strengths. This marks their transition from being simply a disruptive force to more vital and depended upon pillars in the financial system.
Chirag Shah is CEO of Nucleus Commercial Finance. The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of AltFi.