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Unprecedented with Keith Cox

Published 12th April 2021

At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Keith Cox, Director of Bloc Digital (Bloc Arch-viz/ Bloc Creative/ Bloc Media), who spoke to us about how the pandemic has affected Bloc and what he thinks it means to be a leader.

A background into you and your business?

Bloc was created by myself and my business partner, Chris Hotham, 20 years ago. At the time, we were two technical illustrators with a vision to disrupt the design and product visualisation industry. Today, we now head up a leading immersive digital technology studio, delivering cutting-edge digital visualisation, harnessing augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), web and mobile applications for global clients.

In the beginning, we wanted to shake things up a little and challenge the assumption that innovation, technology design and creative talent is only found in London or big cities. So, in starting a Derby business, we intended to truly show the visualisation industry and showcase what the area has to offer. I believe our forward-thinking and collaborative mindset, combined with our commitment to cost, helps to put us, and the Midlands region, ahead of the competition.

The last seven years, in particular, have seen dramatic growth. We have pioneered and utilised emerging technologies and software capabilities across new markets to offer innovative services, and in the last year, we’ve strengthened and grown further to form the Bloc family. In doing this, we’ve been able to bring a number of divisions - architectural visualisation with Bloc Arch Viz, marketing and branding with Bloc Creative and most recently Bloc Media, which focuses on film and broadcasting audiences along with public space, heritage and visitor experiences together.

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

Leadership for me is the balance of vision and perspective. The ability to see and seek new opportunities for growth and having the courage to take steps outside the immediate comfort zone but not to take risks with the ethos that underpins the business, particularly with trust and transparency.

It’s not just about striding out at the front, it’s about ensuring that you’re keeping the wider team with you and helping them to grow, both as individuals and as a team, so that we’re all pulling together to contribute to the business. As someone who has been fortunate enough to start, build and grow a business within this region, I want to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the opportunities and potential that a strong economy and thriving business community can deliver.

I want our own business to play its role in attracting, appointing and nurturing the best talent both from within and outside of the region.

Who are your Leadership role models/inspirations?

Honestly, I have never thought about one single person as a role model. I also don’t think that business inspiration only comes from people within your own profession, sector or purely from the business world.

I guess thinking about it, I did speak to my Dad a lot in the early stages of setting up the business as he had experience in starting and running his own business for many years. However, I didn’t always follow the advice given but it is always good to get other people’s points of view and perspectives.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?

My motivation is to be a compassionate leader and to put the well-being of the team before profit. I would like to be considered to be a person who leads by example and shows people how to do something, instead of just telling them.

It shouldn’t be surprising that we chose to call our expansion of divisions the ‘Bloc family’. At the heart of our creativity and innovation is our people. That’s why we focus on seeking and nurturing talent, whether it’s through apprenticeships, graduate schemes or direct hires. We want to encourage fresh ideas and perspectives for our staff to do well, not just for the company, but for themselves as well. We believe a less ‘corporate’, more collaborative environment is central to unleashing creativity too.

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

Do your best and put in the effort. Just coasting along is not good enough.

Collaboration and sharing knowledge is also a must as a strong team is a successful team.  

Another ‘non-negotiable’ is to own the mistakes as well as the successes. I want to foster an environment where people will explore and innovate, and we do learn from our mistakes or when things don’t quite go our way, but that means we have to stand up to that at the time.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you?

The Covid-19 pandemic has really emphasised the family-style nature of our organisation, which is very close to our heart. Our team has been thrown into unexpected situations of remote working, juggling the work schedule with changed family life, caring responsibilities and homeschooling, but we’ve been very mindful of that and have supported the team to manage these new situations.

It has also made me appreciate the impact of day-to-day interaction in the office and the unseen benefits that working as a creative team in one physical space brings. That’s not to say we’re not creative while remote working, but those important creative ad-hoc moments of the ‘off the cuff’/ ‘over the shoulder’ reviews and input from the wider team during the work-in-progress stages of projects are different when it’s more of a prepared/ booked element over a video call. I know I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait for the team to get back together!

What impact has covid had on your business?

We’ve built our business on adapting and innovating so we’ve been very flexible. In the shifting circumstances of COVID-19, it is perhaps that aspect of our business that has particularly come into its own. In anticipating the lockdown restrictions, we transitioned our entire operations-3D modelling, animation, immersive tech, web and app development teams to remote working within 1 week.

That’s nearly 50 people, IT systems, VPNs and virtual reality worlds up and running smoothly across four-country boundaries and two continents! In the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, one or two of our global clients appraised their focus for a while which did have a short-term knock-on effect in terms of the scheduling of some of the new projects we were expecting in early 2020. However, we used some of the in-house capacity that was created to develop our business model.

We have been planning to move from a ‘service only’ business to a ‘service and product’ based business for some time, and this has allowed us to focus on that. We have used our expertise, technology, infrastructure and talent to create our first product. This virtual interactive solution is also actively supporting our clients and other organisations to meet specific challenges and maintain operations during Covid restrictions.

Where were you and what were you doing when you first realised that Covid-19 was very serious?

I keep up to date with the news and by the end of February / early March, we could see that something unprecedented was unfolding, and one of our team members had children at one of the first schools closed by the virus. We started taking active steps to develop a contingency strategy and plan how we would mobilise to allow the team to work remotely and effectively. We had the whole team kitted out and working from their homes before Lockdown 1 came into full effect.

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months? What was your internal comms strategy at the start of lockdown? Has that changed?

We have always encouraged open channels of communication when we were in the office, we don’t lock ourselves away in offices and collaboration and communication is a key part of the creative and innovation process. We shifted that to online communication – encouraging teams to continue to work /discuss together via video calls and holding regular whole team meetings to set out plans and discuss how we’d all navigate this new normal. Again, our communications were underpinned by our company values of trust and transparency – sharing our plans and strategies to navigate this ‘new normal’ with the team.

What have been the Unprecedented decisions you have made? Those where there was no playbook. The word pivot was used unprecedently in May/June. What have you done to innovate or differentiate you or your business?

2020 was always going to be a big year for us – it marked our 20th anniversary and we had just formed the Bloc Family of companies. A group rebrand brought together by ourselves, Bloc ArchViz (architectural and property sectors) and Bloc Creative (branding and marketing) as well as a new public-facing company, Bloc Media.

My business partner, Chris, and I have had this vision to “provide our clients with a fully digital journey” across different channels and sectors, and with the Bloc Family complete, that vision was realised and is opening new and exciting opportunities for us.

Innovation and seeking to differentiate ourselves in the market has always been a key driver for us. 2020 has seen us make a shift in the business. To be honest, Covid-19 was perhaps more of a catalyst than a reactive pivot. Our horizon scanning and early access to technology and hardware, means we’re able to quickly and effectively take an improvement idea, develop, test and produce it. For some time we’ve been looking to develop the business from a ‘service only’ to a ‘service and produce’ based business.

We took the decision to shift some focus to accelerate this and have invested in our first product which provides a virtual and interactive presence for our clients to meet Covid-19 specific challenges, and maintain activity and operations in the virtual sphere.

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you have made in 2020?

  1. Continuing our commitment to investing in Research and Development. These innovations and developments can carry a financial cost in the short term, but identifying strategic advances in technology and translating them into industry use is a central driving force for the company. We knew that during 2020, this approach would mean investing time and resources with no immediate gain but the success of these projects will build proactive resilience in the business and deliver significant ROI in the future.

  2. We committed to paying any member of the team that were furloughed 100% wage. It was important to us that they wouldn’t have any changes to their income.

  3. To invest in any capacity we had within the team to focus on the creation of the Bloc product stream.

What remain your 3 biggest challenges? How have you/your business evolved from a digital/tech perspective? 

Honestly not much, we are a creative tech company, and we live and breathe developments in technology – so we were already using all of the tools and had the right digital and tech infrastructure in place. Rather than people coming to work with the tech – the tech went to them!

The only change we had to make was to increase the bandwidth of the broadband as we had a massive increase in data being pulled out of our servers at the same time and we improved our VPN service as well.

How have you (your business) coped from a mental health/stress perspective?

This is harder to measure. No one could have really anticipated the uncertainty and duration of the lockdown, or how working life would be affected. I am sure some of our team members will be feeling the strain of isolation, working from home, caring responsibilities and home-schooling. Often, though, when we ask how anyone is doing, there’s a standard reply of “I’m doing alright”.

This may be the case, but I’m also aware that some people may not feel comfortable talking about how they are affected by lockdown. This is why we work to demonstrate that we’re here to support them. One way was to give them the confidence to know that they would be maintaining full 100% income if they were furloughed and offering flexible working to meet childcare and caring needs. The well-being of our team and their work-life balance has always been really important to us.

Looking back to March 2020. If you could change one decision that you made what would it be?Looking ahead to 2021 what are your predictions for the economy? For your sector?

The shift to the ‘digital world’ has been a natural progression for our large global clients, but we know that for other, perhaps smaller, businesses it hadn’t been a priority until now. As a result of COVID-19, they’ve been thrown into trying to establish, fund, implement and roll out their products at a time of significant disruption and uncertainty.

We all need to ensure that these businesses within our community also stay connected and resilient. They are critical to the local economy and support our larger regional companies and industries, so I would like to see our sector working to support all businesses in making that digital shift and innovating to thrive. There’s no going back.

Digital communications are now required to cut across all sectors of the business from operations, product design, marketing and skills learning. That shift is here to stay, but it’s not about virtual and online replacing face-to-face or previous working practices, it’s going to be about developing blended solutions which maximise personal connections but realise the cost, sustainability and opportunity of virtual, immersive solutions.

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a talent short market. What is at the top of your"people strategy" agenda for 2021?

Developing new talent is vital. Within the tech sector and our geographical region, we all need to ensure that we are collectively creating the right employment opportunities which build a strong new skills base and which harness advancements. From apprentices to graduates, industry professionals to KTPs, a proactive approach to recruitment, progression and skills development, even during uncertain times, is a key part of our own ‘people strategy’ growth.

It’s enabling us to futureproof, allowing us to adapt to the changing business landscape, and ensuring we have a diverse range of backgrounds and skills to meet next-generation problems with innovative solutions. Our creative studio now employs nearly 50 people, doubling in size over the past couple of years and directly benefiting the local and regional economy.

Has "succession planning" risen up your people agenda? What are you doing to retain your superstars/leaders of the future?

Self-development and progression is something we encourage right across the business. Similarly, we invest in the latest and emerging technologies so that our in-house talent can advance both their own skillset and also be advocates for the implementation of new processes within the company.

In terms of our superstar/ future leaders, we involve them as much of the strategic business decisions as possible; allowing them to take leading roles and responsibilities within the company – without micro-management from the top.

Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self… That you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.

As a creative tech company, we’ve always got an eye on the future and that’s something we’ve also built into the resilience of the company. It’s been important to us to be in a position to have the freedom and scope to innovate and explore opportunities even in difficult times.

Throughout 2020, it was that ethos that allowed us to keep investing time and money into the business, to give our staff the stability and security of their full incomes and to drive on, and in fact, accelerate our growth plans. So to my future self... running the company prudently, with an eye on the future and providing yourself with reserves and contingencies is something I believe we should want to keep doing.

As a Leadership Team, how have you re-defined your vision and values? What have you done to make your culture remote-work friendly? What advice would you give to those entering the workforce today?

Find a job/ role that you love and would do for a hobby with no interest in getting paid, that way you always want to get up and go to work and you will always be looking to better yourself.

Don’t be limited by assumptions – I know from the team we have at Bloc that there are many routes into the industry and specific careers within it.

Seek to engage with people whose work you admire and take the initiative. When you do get the opportunity to meet people or get insights into the business you’re interested in, listen and observe. It’s important that you soak up as much information and knowledge as you can.

To find out more about Keith, you can follow him on Twitter, alternatively to keep up to date with Bloc Digital, visit their website here. For more Unprecedented blogs, visit our blog section here.

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