We didn’t see that coming! Or did we….?

So back in mid-March we got used to hearing “unprecedented times”, “weird times” “uncertain times”. But when you’re running your own business how do you plan for the unknown? After all, six months ago, whoever heard of Coronavirus or Covid-19, I certainly hadn’t and neither had the Sowerby team. Were we supposed to know? How could we have planned for it?

A new way of working…..

We had our year-end in February 2020, just before this Covid-19 pandemic became evident worldwide. Our year-end results were OK. Granted, we made some well-needed adjustments to our business model throughout the year and this contributed to our overall results. Actually, I had offered our team new ways of working months before that. I wanted the whole team to be more flexible to aid their own work/life balance and I gave them my blessing that homeworking is really OK. No longer is there a stigma attached to working from home. That idea went out the window years ago! In fact in 1992 when I set up The Sowerby Group, I didn’t dare tell any of my clients, media or suppliers that I was working from home – I had my reasons which will follow later. Nowadays it’s all about good time management, mental health and wellbeing, flexibility, trust – and people and businesses are openly embracing it.

Agency life…..

The last person to embrace this working from home thing was in fact me! When I started the business 28 years ago, I was 6 weeks pregnant, I was in a relationship with a client who subsequently became my husband and I ended up working from home for 4 years until the business outgrew the 2 up, 2 down cottage where we lived in leafy Epping. To be honest, in my early 7-year career at Unilever’s Head Office in Blackfriars no one ever worked from home. Granted, the technology in the early ‘80s was nowhere near what it is today, even though Unilever – a multinational organisation was at the forefront of many IT initiatives. In 1988 I joined the world of advertising. I worked for a Top 5 London Ad Agency and that experience set me up for life – deep down I have always been an agency girl, working in the office – never 9-5pm, more like 9-8pm. We would carry on working on an agency pitch late into the night until the work was done.

More recently, working on Harlow Business Park, invariably at that time of night, someone had already closed the security gates so I would be fiddling with my keys, trying to unlock the padlock and using the headlights on my car as my main source of light. But I would have finished my work for the day – and that meant I could sleep at night knowing that I had put the best effort into a proposal, a tender, a website brief or a design project.

Six months on……

And now we are in June 2020. Still in lockdown though the government tells us we are slowly coming out of it – the number of deaths is on a downward curve. We are still cautious though. We are all working from home – in the UK and in Poland. The teams are happy, they have work – and I need to be the driving force to keep that work coming in and the team motivated. So although many of our clients and media reps have been furloughed, we remain active on social media, still talking to clients that are working, still engaging with some media – those poor media whose bottom has fallen out of their market – particularly in recruitment. Some of our clients have a recruitment freeze. Goodness knows when they will be lifted but we plough on from the safety of our home offices, maybe having too many coffees, too many snacks at our desks because we can now reach into our kitchen cupboards and shamelessly take a packet of crisps, a Mars bar or in my case a whole pack of cashew nuts. Looking at the bottom of the packet….did I really eat all of those? Well I can because I’m a plant-based vegetarian and cashew nuts are a good source of protein. So that makes it OK, right?

It’s lovely to engage with the team over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This new way of working is actually quite empowering and when we have our quiet days, we go out walking, respecting social distancing, being sensible about meeting up with friends and family and generally being mindful of those in a vulnerable situation.

So what now? Well we continue with projects – websites, digital and design work, even some recruitment/search assignments, case studies to write, but that’s not enough. I wanted to do more outside of work. I needed to fill my life with other ‘stuff’, so I become an NHS Volunteer.

NHS Logo

My ‘other’ job…..

I read on social media that our local hospital – Princess Alexandra NHS Hospital Trust had a Covid-19 Support Group and the Group was looking for volunteers, predominately in the Harlow area where the hospital is based.

Well I sort of fitted the criteria as the Sowerby offices are based in Harlow, but I live in Theydon Bois, just outside Epping in Essex. So how could I help? I looked down the list of volunteers. So many were based in Harlow. A few in Epping. A couple in Loughton, but none from my village of Theydon Bois. So thinking I will have some extra time on my hands during this Covid-19 thing, I applied to be the Authorised Volunteer for Theydon Bois. And what a journey it has been.

My task was to bring in as many donations as possible that would subsequently be distributed to those who needed them most. Often working around the clock, the Covid-19 team comprising of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers at the hospital were desperate for basic toiletries such as shampoos, conditioners, soaps, deodorants, toothpaste, toothbrushes, as well as some welcome treats like snacks, biscuits, drinks and chocolate…lots of chocolate! The teams were also asking for scrubs, other items of PPE and very soon my NHS donations box was overflowing with all sorts of items, along with bedding and fabrics that could be made into scrubs, scrub caps, laundry bags, headbands and face masks. My little volunteer project had turned into a pretty full-time job as I engaged with Regional Coordinators who had to get the products into the hospital. I even roped in my husband to deliver fabric to the amazing sewing teams who worked their magic by turning unwanted bedding into creative and very colourful scrubs for our NHS keyworkers.

The donations project became so successful that the Harlow hospital (initially, with one of the highest cases of Coronavirus in the UK) one day advised that they were overwhelmed with supplies and so we promptly stopped donating.

But what was I to do with all the items I had collected over the past weeks? I did some local research and realised that St Margaret’s Hospital in Epping were in need of PPE and toiletries – not only for their District Nurses but for patients who had no visitors due to the Coronavirus, along with other patients in the community. So armed with boxes of much needed supplies and wearing a face mask and disposable gloves there has been a few trips to the hospital to give out the donations. My work has stretched even further to support care homes, our local hospice and food banks.

You’re nuts…..!

My friends and family thought I was nuts! “Why you?” they said. “You run a full-time business, you undertake other roles in the community and you still make time to volunteer.” I have to say I have met some incredible people. People who have put their lives on the line in order to save or help others. People who have stepped outside of their own comfort zone to donate, to fundraise and to help make a difference. And collectively, we really have made a difference. Our journey continues for as long as this Covid-19 thing is on our radar – but even then, I can honestly say that the best rewards are seeing smiles on people’s faces when they open their box of goodies or to receive their homemade set of scrubs.

But for now, I turn my attentions back to agency life – and I still love that too!

Sue Sowerby