John-Mark Frost chats about what he’s learnt about himself in a professional and personal capacity over recent months. Also, about how customers and colleagues have been kept safe, revised levels of service and the golden thread running through Companies House: diversity and inclusion.
Megan Hayward: Hello and welcome to a brand-new episode of “Meet the team” from Companies House. Like many things big and small, this series has not been what we planned in January. In our first two episodes of “Meet the team” which I will link in the show notes of this episode, we recorded with Oceanne and Toby in our Cardiff office. But since then due to government guidelines following the coronavirus outbreak, I now find myself hosting this episode at home in my living room with my dog on my lap. I'd like to welcome JM Frost who is the Director of Operations at Companies House. He is someone that as soon as we started this series, I knew I wanted a record with. That was then and this is now and after everything that's happened over the past few months and the work that we've done supporting our customers during this difficult time, I'm even more excited to introduce him. So welcome JM. How are you?
John- Mark Frost: I'm good. Thank you Megan.
MH: How have you been finding this time?
J-MF: Yeah, it's been interesting. So a mix of being in the office and working with colleagues there and the mix now obviously of working from home as well. And of course, I've got two reasonably young children. So being at home, there was always a reason I knew shouldn't be a teacher and this confirmed that I definitely chose the right vocation and choice of career. So, let's say yeah, we've all survived we've almost got to summer holidays, so all is good.
MH: I think teachers have actually gained a lot of credit during this time.
J-MF: Yes, teachers and hairdressers.
MH: Yes, definitely. So my first question is what have we been doing at this time to support our customers?
J-MF: Yeah. So, lots and it's been really interesting to make sure that we've taken a lot of care to make sure that we had a balance between wanting to try and provide really high levels of customer service,maintain the sorts of service that we would provide during normal times as much as possible, with of course balancing that with keeping our colleagues safe. And so we were fortunate in some ways the majority of the services that our customers use are already online. So we've been able to keep them working, keep them going and support our customers through those online services, but we do have some particularly some of our more complex cases, complex case work. Where it was very much paper-based. So trying to maintain those services has been more challenging in terms of our customers often were at home. They weren't able to get out, weren't able to print or even if they were at home that the directors of the company they needed to sign things were at home somewhere else. So it was a real challenge, so it was looking for us to work with legal colleagues and policy colleagues to look at innovative ways that we could try and do it differently.
So what did the law require us to do in terms of the Companies Act and how could we try and support our customers to do some of that differently? So we've stood up new services, so we've got the emergency filing service where customers can go on and upload an electronic copy of a document and we focus that on the services that weren't already electronic and where customers couldn't already do things digitally. So we've done that. I mean even within a couple of weeks of lockdown we'd launched an extension service which in the first month or so had 90,000 companies applying for extensions and we were able to give extensions to those companies entirely digitally so they knew they had more time to be able to file their accounts with us and we form part of working with BEIS, our kind of partner and parent department and the Insolvency Service another partner organisation with BEIS another agency in government. We worked on the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill which went through and became an Act just earlier this month and so as part of that we were then able to look at that and make sure that we were supporting our customers giving them longer to file. Most companies now have another 3 months to be able to file their accounts longer on some of the confirmation statements and other things that they've done. So trying to do all we could whilst enabling our customers to do what they need to do to stay compliant with legislation.
MH: It's amazing and really things that in a normal world would take a long time to come to fruition just making company changing policies in weeks really.
J-MF: Absolutely I mean, normally the legislation would take months or years to go through the process and it was drafted within 3 or 4 weeks. Working really closely, collaboratively across government departments, working together across agencies, but also really listening to our customers. So what did they need? What do they need us to do what were some of the challenges that they were facing so that we could try and develop it and adapt it to kind of meet their needs.
MH: Yeah brings me really nicely on to speak about how the colleagues have been kept safe at the same time because obviously to make all this happen there's the team's behind all the work that goes into it?
J-MF: Yeah, absolutely and it was a big challenge so as an organisation, you know we have great, fantastic digital services. Digital services both for our customers and for our colleagues, but we did tend to be quite office-based. So obviously our headquarters based in Cardiff and then offices, small office in London, Edinburgh and Belfast, but we did all tend to be in the office every day. And so suddenly we went into lockdown and the vast majority of colleagues between 90 and 95% of colleagues were almost immediately working from home and working from there like we are, from lounges, spare bedrooms, our kitchens, wherever we were, so that was great. So we were able to get people home at they were safe particularly those colleagues who maybe were vulnerable. If someone was in one of those vulnerable categories it was really important t to us to make sure people were safe. Then there are some things like I said that that needed to be done for us to keep the process running so to keep the Companies House information service and keep the register up to date we needed to do some stuff in the office. So in each of our offices in Edinburgh and Belfast and in Cardiff, we've kept sort of skeleton staff in who are dealing with the post that arrives and then processing the really the kind of paper documents. They might be big documents or things that we couldn't do at that stage digitally, so yeah go do this first so it's really critical services and I will always be immensely grateful for those volunteers.
So we did it on a volunteer basis of people saying, look people who are fit and healthy weren't in the vulnerable groups who volunteered to come into the office and run those services with me. I was there as well so for the first kind of 10 weeks I was in the office every day with them as a thank you to them. I wasn't as useful as a lot of them, but yeah, we managed to get through and managed to retain those services which you know are paramount to us maintaining that customer service. We weren't always quite as quick as we would normally be you know, there were some delays in the process, but we did manage to maintain those services to our customers.
MH: Well understandably so and that's what I was going to ask as well, was what was the biggest challenge and how have our service levels been revised during this time?
J-MF: Yeah. So I think that the biggest challenge was really finding out how critical our services are so, you know as our role as Companies House. We want to kind of drive confidence in the UK economy. We want to enable people to be able to look up the Companies House service. Look at the information about companies to make decisions. To know that information is up-to-date and is available there. I mean last year we had just over 9 billion searches of that information, a hugely searched piece of information and data source in government. To do that we needed to make sure that it was up to date and that the information was available. So that challenge of making sure we could do that in a timely way, that we could get the information in whether that be on paper, delivered by hand or trying to increase some of the digital elements and trying to make sure that our customers were aware of what they could do and encourage them actually in some cases. There was already a digital service so we could point our customers to look do that. That's the quickest way we will get it and of course getting so within the operational areas of Companies House is about 600 people who work in my area and so getting them home, where not all of them had kit initially, so getting that the kit the computers and such, so forth to then making sure they were safe and then changing our processes and adapting really quickly to get done what we needed to get done as quickly as we could.
MH: Where there's a will there's a way.
J-MF: Absolutely, absolutely.
MH: So my next sort of area I wanted to speak about with you is diversity and inclusion. It's really important to us all at Companies House. I know it's something you're quite heavily involved with and I was wondering if you could expand on that area?
J-MF: Yeah, absolutely. So yes, I think it's really important to all of us at Companies House as you said, and I'm really passionate about it for a whole host of reasons, but because as an organisation, we should reflect the citizens that we serve. We are only here to serve our customers and so we should be diverse in the way that we are made up so we can have those perspectives on a personal basis. So I'm the son of a single mother who was on benefits, so having that perspective, you know, some of my other colleagues maybe came from very different homes. Maybe there was plenty of money around and we all bring different perspectives. So we need to realise our customers will have those perspectives from different backgrounds.
So my mum was an immigrant, she was from another country. I'm from a mixed heritage background so those perspectives that I bring I think hopefully will help me have the perspective with the range of our customers. So it's really important that we’re as diverse as the citizens out there that we serve but also that as an organisation, we're inclusive so we all have our own backgrounds whether that be background of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, the age that we are, our background whether we're Welsh speakers, whether we're not Welsh speakers, you know, LGBTQ perspective, you know all of those things. We will bring our own perspectives with us and our own mini-cultures and our ethnicity with us and it's really important that people can bring their whole selves to work. You know, we've got a really challenging role in Companies House. It's a role that we love. I'm really passionate about but as part of that we want people to focus on the role that they've got to play so they can flourish be the best that they can be in their role, not trying to hide something about themselves. So we want everybody to be bringing their whole selves to work so they can focus on doing the job that we want to do, to serve our customers to the best of their ability. So yeah, as I said, it's really important that we're both diverse and that we're a really inclusive and welcoming culture, something that you know, we're working on. I think we're doing it. We've made a lot of progress which is great. But there's always a lot further to go.
MH: Yeah, it's one of those ever moving things, isn't it? You can't just say, oh we've done it now and we're diverse, we’re inclusive. It's ever moving.
J-MF: And I think COVID and the kind of situation has really helped because of course we've kept colleagues safe, as I talked about, physically safe from the virus and those sorts of things which is really important. But also it's about keeping people's well being safe and well and one of the various things we've done is around the networks that we have. So we've got a range of different networks, where that be the carers network, where that be the LGBTQ network or the faith network one of the ones that we’ve recently developed is the working parents network. So, you know to try and support people through this time. So different people created different resources and things so that people could then share with their children to keep them busy and support them because you know, it was really challenging being at home, lockdown for a number of months with the children there and as we mentioned at the beginning, you know, I'm definitely not a teacher so these resources were useful, so it's about being inclusive and considering people's well-being as well as their physical safety.
MH: Yeah. I've been in Companies House I think coming up for 9 months and it’s something that honestly blew me away just the community. There’s space for everyone which is really lovely. My next question is what has this time taught you personally about yourself in a professional capacity?
J-MF: That’s a great question. I think it's amazing how both myself personally and as an organisation and kind of colleagues that I've worked with. It is amazing how resilient we can be, you know, it's you know, we always had plans for business continuity. What if there was a fire? What if there was a flood? What if the electricity went out? You know, these are sort of things you plan for and I'm not sure any of us had planned for a pandemic that meant that pretty much most of the world went into lockdown for 3 or 4 months. But it's amazing that we've coped. You know, we have been really resilient. I think collaboration has been the key. There's a phrase I think that, necessity is the mother of invention that actually when we need to it is amazing what we can do and I think I think that's true but also being in this it's really important with all of us working virtually and working in different locations to make sure that we remember that we're human that we do need to have a chat. That we do need to have to keep that human element of connection going. That's part of our kind of, our well-being and our safety as well so that we remember that we are people and that all of us need to connect on that level of working together not just of colleagues and getting work done. But we hopefully have to enjoy what we do and how we do it so that we can deliver more.
MH: Thanks, and maybe a bit profound but the same question but what have you learned about yourself in more of a non-professional capacity? We know you’re not a teacher.
J-MF: Yeah. I'm not a teacher and it was a good career choice. That's a really good one, I guess that I really love my family, but I didn't anticipate being locked in with them for 3 months, but don't tell them that I said that!
MH: Well, thank you so much JM. I'm at the end of my questions now. It's been an honour to chat to you. It's clear. You're so passionate about our customers and our business as a whole I knew it before, but I definitely know it now so thank you very much.
J-MF: Thank you very much for your time, bye-bye.