On 30th January 2020, COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) with an official death toll of 171. Today, the global fatality figure stands well in excess of 6 million people.
This startling number is the devastating reality of the human cost we have paid over the last two years and we would like to firstly take a moment to remember the lives and loved ones lost during this time…..
In the UK in March 2020, life as we knew it changed overnight ….and with it, our businesses. In this pilot session of our Opinion Series, we invited key members of the North West property / construction industry, to share their perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic and reflect on the impact it has had on their long term business operations.
Jon McAlister, our Business Development Manager chaired the session and opened by asking our guests about their initial reactions at the very beginning of the first lockdown.
Chris Acton shared his initial concern about the sudden change over to homeworking but was also encouraged by how his team quickly adapted:
“We’d had an agile working policy for some time where people worked at home when they chose to; When they had an element of work to deliver on their own. We trialled a number of different versions of IT systems. I have to say there was a little bit of anxiety to a wholesale shift but it worked perfectly. Our IT teams pulled out all the stops in getting people up to speed and making sure everyone was connected. Literally overnight we switched from everybody in the office to everybody working at home. I have to say it was a nervous time, but yes, it worked fantastically.”
The levels of initial uncertainty became apparent early on in the conversation particularly when the topic turned to client comfort and security. Ian Chapman commented
“The transfer to people working at home needed us to maintain our high levels of cyber security due to the work we do and required us to take a leap of faith in the business to have staff who worked so closely to be able to remotely operate in the same way that they would do in the office.”
Whilst the consultants around the table dealt with issues of business continuity, James Nicholson, sharing a developer’s view point, spent a large part of lockdown 1.0 reassessing and questioning the fundamentals of changes in market requirements
“From a development side of trying to liaise with consultants, I think the difficulty was that, we didn't know what was going to happen; Do we even still need that building? That was the biggest shock of lockdown actually, seeing the office take up drop off completely, not knowing how long it was going to last for.”
It was clear that lockdown was difficult for all businesses but perhaps the most courageous experience came from Helen Ewart, Director of M1NT Studio who founded her new business in the same period.
“I was on maternity leave when it all started. A major client had put everything on hold until 2022 so the company I was working for let go of 5 interior designers. I was one of them. In the next couple of days we set up M1NT Studio, and we had projects before we even officially formed as a company. We organically grew our own studio overnight. It didn't feel brave at the time. It was scary and daunting.”
Our COVID conversation kept coming back to a unanimous concern for the younger and less experienced members of our industry; a real sense of responsibility.
“I can't praise my staff enough. I was very surprised at how many of them really did step up to the plate and take on board working from home. In the initial stages and with furlough, it was difficult. Project statuses were changing daily and staff managed what felt like moving targets beautifully. But there was a real feeling from senior management that we were somehow letting our younger team members down. We pride ourselves in making sure our next generation of construction consultants feel fully supported. It’s difficult to recreate that over TEAMS.”
Zoe Brooke also shared her concern for how fast our industry was in getting back to work in comparison to other industries
“After around three weeks nearly all our teams were re-engaged on site. For us, with a significant number of health sector projects, we felt a duty to keep going but doing that whilst social distancing was challenging. I am sure all organisations found this difficult to navigate initially and a lot of the commitments towards work placements were temporary ceased by their respective educational body. On a positive note, our internal white-collar trainees used covid as an opportunity to work on site, gifting them a wealth of knowledge and an appreciation of the wider business activities.”
Neville Patterson commented
“I think we are still trying to get that balance right because the younger staff are missing out on mentoring and training and may not even be fully aware of that.”
The nuances of home/hybrid working were called into question by the whole group but David Smith certainly could see how working from home eases pressure and increases work life balance.“If you switch to a more relaxed environment and remove some of the time pressures, staff are willing to put more time into a task whilst having the flexibility to collect parcels, answer the door and also concentrate away from an office hum."
Most of our guests had experienced an increase in expectation from clients to do more in a day with the absence of a commute.
Chris Henshaw said
“From the legal perspective, we were very busy, straight away. We've been busy ever since. Everybody wanted to know ‘What do I do with my contract? What are my rights?’ We’ve continued to be as busy but I think lockdown in some cases exacerbated the worst of behaviours; of not respecting boundaries. Indeed, if an individual didn’t set them for themselves, there was no boundary between work and home. The lines can quite easily become blurred.”
James Nicholson added
“Everyone’s become more productive and that does have an impact on your work life balance but it’s almost like people expect and demand that you are available at all times. What’s the saying? ‘I’m not working from home I’m actually living in work."
Neil Griffiths contributed
“Our clients were in the main, very sympathetic about procedures that we brought in to look after our staff, for visiting sites etc, but beyond that, it was, ‘we still expect the same service as before.”
It is fair to say that each member of our group session certainly had thought on their feet, learned a lot about themselves and others and have taken profound lessons away from the pandemic which can only serve us well in the future.
David Smith said
“Sometimes it can wait. Not all the time, but sometimes you can say no".
“It’s helped us to educate our clients. We were trying to educate them before the pandemic about agile working, hotspot desks, co-worker spaces. This is something we’ve been trying to do for ages and the pandemic's helped us to say ‘you can work like this, you don't have to work in traditional ways.’ Now everyone's doing it".
Neville also shared a positive aspect of what came from lockdowns
“We provided funding on some educational projects which would have had to be delivered in live environments. Lockdown created a student free window and these projects were a great success for us during that time".
Ian highlighted an environmental win as a result of continued hybrid working
“We have agreed an ongoing hybrid system, which gives us good team contact, allows for mentoring but also reduces our carbon footprint. This has been a positive change".
We would like to thank all of our participants for giving us their honest opinions and insights into how they were affected by the pandemic, where it became incredibly clear that whilst we may be over the worst, we are all very much still trying to find our way in the new normal. Neil Griffiths’ final remarks summarises the general feeling perfectly
"We're all reassessing what life is post COVID. I don't think for one minute we are totally through it, but we're all trying. Every industry is trying to move forward and I think that’s all we can ask for".
Our guests joined us for some tasty food and drinks whilst playing darts, (discreetly competing to be our darts champion… Yes, we could see the determination in their faces!) But with the highest score our winner was Neville Patterson!
Look out for part 2 of our Opinion Series in July where our topic will turn to Higher Education.
If you would like to be a part of our opinion series, get in touch by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org expressing your interest.