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In the latest instalment of a series of blogs giving insight into how Exient works behind the scenes, we asked our COO & CFO Nusrat Shah (pictured) about her role within the company, the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities that exist within the wider industry…

Tell us about your role at Exient.

My responsibilities include COO and CFO roles, which covers commercial and business development activities across Exient Group in the UK and Malta. In addition to helping our fantastic team to grow Exient as a successful game developer and publisher, much of my time recently has been spent ensuring the company navigates the challenges posed by coronavirus – it’s been a busy year so far!

How has Exient adjusted its operations during coronavirus and lockdown?

We actually moved to a working from home environment fairly seamlessly, making the decision a couple of weeks prior to the official lockdowns being announced in Europe, which gave us a bit more time to bed in new ways of working. So far it’s worked really well.

We’ve liaised closely with our awesome team to make sure projects remain on track and that productivity is maintained, while first and foremost keeping mental and physical wellbeing front of mind during what has been a difficult time for everyone, both professionally and personally.

What’s been really interesting is how remote working can actually benefit the culture of a company like ours, which has offices in the UK and Malta. With everyone working at home, I think we’ve all felt more connected as ‘one Exient’, which has always been one of our key aspirations.

Now that lockdowns are being lifted, how are you planning for the ‘new normal’?

In June we undertook a survey of all of our staff to gauge how they were feeling, if they were desperate to get back to an office environment and to get an indication of whether there was any anxiety among individuals about doing so.

In actual fact, the consensus was that the vast majority of staff are very comfortable working from home and are happy to do for as long as it’s required. So, like many of our peers, we’ll continue to operate on that basis for the foreseeable future. There will be a lot of companies that decide they don’t need a physical office space anymore.

Ultimately, you have to trust your leadership and your staff for home-based working to be a success. Micro-managing people from a distance is counter-productive – give your staff the right tools, communicate clearly and create an environment in which they can express themselves.

In the longer-term a key consideration for us is that the office environments in the UK and Malta are quite different. The UK offices are a smaller shared environment, which of course makes things more difficult to manage post-lockdown from a health and safety perspective.

However, our survey also highlighted rota systems as a potential solution, with people coming into the UK office on alternate days to help us maintain social distancing. At this point we’re keeping all options open – things can change very quickly when it comes to coronavirus.

In Malta, where we’ve had a base since 2013, the space is significantly bigger, with a capacity for 60 people. Right now, we require space for about half that number, plus we have our own kitchen and bathroom facilities, so if people want to go back to the office, we can socially distance quite easily. However, with our growth plans for 2020 the headcount is going to increase, so that’s something we’ll review on a regular basis.

Does people working remotely pose a challenge in terms of technology?

Not really. Because we transitioned fairly quickly to a working from home model, we had time to organise ourselves. We arranged for people to take the equipment they needed home from the office, then had our IT team check set-ups and perform company-wide test runs. It was all fairly smooth, even with the various insurance considerations. Plus, being a digital business there’s not a huge amount paperwork required day-to-day, which makes things easier.

How has Exient approached recruitment during lockdown?

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had during lockdown is recruiting people for the Malta office – local talent is at a premium, so for most roles we previously needed to bring talent to the island from the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

However, we have great recruitment processes and agency partners. Having to deal with the restrictions imposed by lockdown actually made us realise that the most important thing is that the projects and project teams function harmoniously.

As such, we’re now trying to approach recruitment from a functional perspective rather than one based on physical location or hierarchy. If we find amazing people, it shouldn’t matter where they’re located. We’ve proven that we can work remotely as a company across two countries.

And how are you onboarding staff in a remote working environment?

Clearly, it’s more difficult to ensure new starters feel connected with the culture of the organisation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In terms of process, our standard procedures are the same for everyone, and we’re now formalising a working from home policy, so everyone understands considerations like GDPR, for example.

And like at many other companies, video comms have proved an invaluable way of maintaining personal and team connections across the company. It’s quite exciting to see how this has evolved in such a short period of time.

What’s your sense of how the wider games industry is working through the pandemic?

It’s been fascinating to look across the market to see how others are approaching the same challenges as us. One of the games industry’s biggest assets is its sense of community. There’s no shortage of places where we can share ideas with peers and there’s so much useful content and advice to be gleaned from the B2B media, trade bodies and industry leaders.

Ultimately, every games studio, publisher and service provider needs to do what’s best for the way it works and its own culture. There’s no right and wrong when it comes to the ‘new normal’, but as an industry I believe we’ll emerge stronger and more collaborative as a result.