The COVID-19 crisis is leading to increased demand for some services, new working practices and fewer vehicles on the roads. And, we can report an offer of premises to help the NHS.

Thames Tap asked our partner organisations about the impact of the crisis and how they are adapting to cope with it. Many reported successful increased use of technology and, it seems, some changes may be here to stay.

The overriding message appeared to be that while business may not be as usual, it continues.

Laura Fitzgerald, associate director at mode Transport Planning in Reading, said: “This first week of remote working has been a real learning experience – the speed with which clients and design teams overall have adapted from the need for face-to-face meetings to utilising the technology available (I’d never used Microsoft Teams or Zoom before this week!), without any loss of continuity or service on projects, has been a credit to everyone’s ability to adapt to the new ‘business as usual’ norm.

“The key challenge now is waiting for the local planning and highway authorities to catch-up and embrace this approach. We’ll also have to see what the future approach will be for meetings held in public (eg planning committees, Local Plan inquires etc).

“Once this is behind us, I think this could change working practices in the future; working from home on a more regular basis will become the norm. This is especially poignant given the data coming through on overall reductions in emissions and improvements in air quality as a direct result of fewer vehicle movements across the world.”

Andy Jansons, managing director for Jansons Property, said business is continuing. He went on: “All our London meetings are cancelled as most London-based organisations have encouraged their staff to work from home.

“Currently in our office, meetings are still occurring but in a smaller format with people keeping a two-metre distance rule. Our diaries are as busy as ever.

“Business meetings have changed, ie our days are now full of conference calls and video calls moving existing projects forward. One has the time to catch up on the detail, read long reports and expedite legal issues.

“We purchase opportunities through our own internal capital resources and are very much ready for any opportunities that require quick decisions and speedy completions.

“We are lucky in that we have a spacious office where our staff and consultants are able to keep a two-metre rule and maintain a clean environment. The consultants are already working from home, on-site and partially in the office so daily contact isn’t substantial.

“Of paramount importance is the health and safety of all our colleagues and their families.”

DevComms had already prepared for remote working.

DevComms director Maria Allaway said: “Before Boris Johnson’s call to action on Monday for home working, we had already taken the decision that all of our colleagues should work remotely from home as of this week.

“DevComms adopted the ability for full flexible working last year and the necessary technical and procedural measures are well embedded. We are therefore well placed to continue to support our clients without any change in our service on a day to day basis.

“It seems likely that disruptions to normal life will continue for some considerable time. We have already been advising clients on adapting existing strategies in order to keep projects moving, whilst engaging as effectively as possible given current constraints.

“In the meantime, we are busy and keeping positive. Adapting our working practices means that we can keep pushing on and continue supporting and advising our clients.

“We recognise, however, that people are affected both professionally and personally during this time. For that reason, it is imperative that any engagement is handled sensitively and carefully right now.

“Should you have any questions regarding engaging with stakeholders at this time, please do not hesitate to contact us.”

Hicks Baker director Steve Head said: “It would be trite to say that it is ‘business as usual’ because we are truly in uncharted territory and ‘unprecedented’ best describes the stark reality of the current situation.

“It is difficult to envisage much new transactional work, ie sales and lettings, for the immediately foreseeable future.

“For now though there will be opportunities, particularly in the investment market.

“However, our property management clients will have need of our services even more (particularly rent, insurance and service charge collection) as we help them through what is going to be a difficult period.

“Hicks Baker maintains a full service (and staff complement) although, like many, we have adopted strategies to mitigate risk in all areas.

“Our hope is that, whilst the systemic shock has been sudden and deep, it will be mirrored by an equally sharp upturn in market sentiment when the current uncertainties subside.”

Stuart Bertie, director at architect Broadway Malyan, who heads the Reading studio in Thames Tower, said: “Broadway Malyan has long supported businesses to become more flexible and adaptable through design so we are currently practising what we preach.

“Thanks to a fantastic effort from the IT and digital practice team at the practice, the majority of colleagues in Reading and across the practice are now successfully working remotely.

“It would be a little trite to describe anything as normal in the current environment but the team is fully operational and connected with their teams and their clients, with whom they are able to provide real-time 3D walkthroughs of projects to keep that all important design dialogue going.

“We currently have a skeleton staff in the studio – who are able to commute while adhering to social distancing protocols – and we will continue to move towards a fully remote operation as we continue to follow the latest Government advice.”

David Thomas, partner at Reading-based property consultants Vail Williams LLP, said: “We have all entered a period of unchartered territory. It’s a complex, confusing and worrying time, and there’s no textbook answer to a pandemic of this kind.

“The safety and welfare of our teams is paramount for all businesses in this rapidly changing environment, and so is making the right decisions about today, tomorrow and the future.

“That is why our teams are working remotely to reduce their interaction with other people whilst remaining committed to a business as usual service for clients, in their time of need.

“Now, more than ever, the importance of staying connected is paramount. As advisors, we are here to support our clients during these unprecedented circumstances; to help them navigate business decisions and offer bespoke commercial solutions to the challenges they face.”

Andrew Squires, project director for Bulb Interiors and Bulb Laboratories, said: “Where clients’ buildings have remained open, we have continued to deliver projects but, of course, are continually monitoring the situation.

“Managing and mitigating risk through ‘Safe Systems of Work’ is always at the core of our operation, so where clients allow our teams to continue to build their offices and laboratories we are, but under a revised system, including:   

Heightened segregation between our site operations, clients, staff and the public.

Daily site briefings, re-iterating Government and NHS guidance to our teams – backed by supporting site signage.

Continual and easy access to personal protective equipment and sanitising stations, health monitoring and promoting an environment where people are happy to share any concerns.

“All non-essential meetings and travel has been stopped but our supply chain has continued to provide us with an excellent service.”

John Fisher, managing director of T A Fisher, said: “Without a doubt this has been one of the most, if not the most, troubling week we have ever had to face.  We are determined to carry on with our business but doing the right thing for our staff, their families etc takes precedence.

“Our business has been in existence for 125 years this year and I suspect the period we are now entering bears similarities to those during wartime.  But we are a big family and that goes for all our staff so it’s a question of pulling together and, I have to say, everyone has been brilliant so far. 

“On the housebuilding side we have taken several reservations this week and good progress has been made on existing sales. 

“Our highly-regarded, traditional approach to housebuilding is complemented by modern technology systems which allows remote working for office staff so we remain firmly open for business. 

“All our sites remain operational yet with sensible and responsible attitudes that take full heed of Government advice.

“Our apart-hotels and serviced apartments remain open for business and we operate our usual 24/7 guest services.  During a period when our clients and guests understandably demand an exemplary standard – especially regarding hygiene – corporate clients can reliably turn to long-established operators such as House of Fisher. 

“Occupancy levels this past week have remained remarkably strong in the wake of continuing, worrying news. These are incredibly distressing times and, if our apart hotels can provide a solution for NHS or emergency workers, then we are quite prepared to do whatever we can to help. Please speak to one of our team at House of Fisher.

“So, in the face of tremendously worrying times, we are maintaining a stoic and upbeat attitude.  We hope and pray that normal order will soon be resumed but I would like to thank our staff for their continuing efforts.”

Many council meetings have been postponed while some authorities are allowing certain key meetings to go ahead and others are holding shortened ones to allow certain high priority matters to progress.

Thames Valley Berkshire LEP has abandoned its planned AGM on Tuesday, March 24. It had planned to hold it online but has now scrapped the idea.

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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