I ventured out the other day to get a bit of exercise. I’d become a bit jaded with my usual route so, for a bit of a change, I took the bus slightly further afield, so I had something new to see on my walk home.
As I headed across town, I got a brand-new perspective on life in lockdown and the likely return to work. I had a bird’s eye view of open supermarkets and pharmacies, orderly lines outside bakeries and greengrocers and patient, distanced queues at coffee shops.
But I could also see the boarded-up businesses: the pubs and restaurants; the dressmakers and florists; the specialists and high street traders. Every cinema and theatre. Even our places of worship. And I thought about what the prime minister said about us all rushing back to our offices when the brakes come off.
I’m going to stick my neck out, but I don’t think we will. I am not convinced the new normal will be as close to the old as Boris Johnson believes. I’m not saying there won’t be people who give up the kitchen for the canteen but, when I’ve asked my wonderful colleagues at the Association for Project Safety (APS), that’s not what they said they wanted.
Yes – they miss the companionship and the social support.
Yes – getting out of the house can have a positive effect on mental health.
Yes – it can sometimes make work easier just to shout over to someone for a different opinion, a quick fix or a sanity check.
But working from home has benefits too. People can work at their own pace. They can be more flexible, balancing family and career. They don’t have to commute, leaving more of the day for things they might actually enjoy.
As an employer do I need people on the premises? Has working from home made us less productive? Have people needed to be constantly in view, and shackled to the old routine, to get them to work?
Not a bit of it.
I don’t need to hover over people to get them to work. They respond much better to trust. Each and every member of our team has stepped up, worked better and turned out more – and higher quality – work. And I can Zoom rather than shuttling up and down to London for meetings.
But what of our members – construction professionals around the country? They have had more for their money. Since, a year ago, the pandemic forced us home we have put on more webinars and online meetings. Over the last 12 months more than 15,000 people have attended our membership events. When we were reliant on face-to-face meetings, we could only manage a fraction of that.
I don’t need to eyeball someone, standing toe-to-toe to close a deal. That’s, frankly, more macho than I feel necessary. Online life has, in a way, opened competition up to those of us who don’t actually do business in old boys’ clubs. I don’t need a private office full of marker pens to be a manager.
But that won’t work for everyone. What was sadly clear from my elevated journey was not just the tragedy of the shuttered shops but how little of what lies behind I’ve actually required – or missed. The long Covid of our cities may be that, after a year, we don’t need all those closed doors to open again.
But I’m lucky and don’t have to face that future. For APS tomorrow is blended. We’ll have the office – just not all the time. And un-lock may just signal the end of the 34 bus for me.
Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, Association for Project Safety