As I am writing this blog, relaxed lockdown rules have commenced for England at least, meaning a careful return to something resembling normality whereas other parts of the UK are taking a more cautious approach to grandparents seeing their grandchildren. Packed beaches and protests aside, whether it’s too soon in the eyes of some who are fearful of a second wave of the virus, you can be sure that most businesses that have either shut up shop or seen a significant downturn in trade, are welcoming the government’s relaxation measures.
Overcoming Covid at CIAR hasn’t been easy. Actually, it’s been extremely challenging, and showed us just how vulnerable we were, as many businesses have been. So we wanted to give the industry an insight into our challenges, something that we are comfortable in doing because our sector – block management – is particularly supportive and close-knit. So here it is.
Back in early February, Lee and I looked nervously at the situation in Italy. A national emergency had been declared. Small towns were put into quarantine. A month later, schools were closed, quickly followed by a nationwide lockdown on 9 March. A lockdown in the UK was inevitable and our fear was a London lockdown – however necessary – could signal the end of CIAR.
In quick succession, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (including ‘furloughing’) was announced and enforced lockdown started. The confusion started too. Were we allowed to continue providing maintenance, gardening, caretaking and cleaning services? Were our workforce considered key workers? For one thing, TFL made it clear that only key workers were allowed to use their tubes, trains and buses.
Although we got legal advice giving our engineers, handymen and cleaners the green light to continue their roles (they can’t work from home after all), we armed them all with a letter to carry out in case they were stopped by the police. And some were stopped and the letter was very important in legitimising their travel. Incidentally, back in March, public transport was almost empty so our staff were actually comfortable using it.
We quickly stepped up PPE procurement – just in time to see the cost of latex gloves double! We procured masks from wherever we could (including FFP2 masks from builders’ merchants), even though the government was advising against masks back then. Hand sanitiser became rarer than hen’s teeth and our staff worked wonders using all their contacts to procure as much (appropriate) PPE as possible. We felt as protected as we could. Ready to rock and roll!
All of a sudden, the maintenance needs of our property managers vanished. Reactive and planned maintenance largely stopped overnight and 30% of our trade disappeared into the ether. At the same time, our cleaning services found lots of new customers as a surprising number of cleaning firms ceased trading. We were faced with quick decisions to make: Furlough our maintenance engineers? Or ride it out and hope that property managers were just putting off reactive maintenance for now? Well, we did neither. We needed more cleaners and in the guise of our maintenance and handyman staff, we already had them…They needed minimal re-training, so drills went back into their toolboxes to be replaced by mops and buckets!
Then the implications of furloughing became clearer at the same time as did the deadly effects of the virus. Combined, this was causing huge concern amongst the families of our staff that using public transport and working in common areas of blocks of flats would risk bringing the virus home. Some of our staff enquired about voluntary furlough as a result and some took unpaid leave as they could not risk bringing home the virus and infecting the most vulnerable members of their family. We started to worry about the entirety of our workforce and if we were putting them ALL at risk asking them to continue working during the peak of the pandemic. If we furloughed the staff – AND the business – would we have a business to go back to if managing agents started to use other suppliers?
Making the decision to continue trading was a tough one but the right one to protect our staff financially, and to continue to serve our clients. We still needed more cleaners though. Interviews on Zoom begun, and we weren’t short of applications. We’ve never had to undertake such heart-breaking interviews….It seemed the entirety of the hospitality industry had no choice but to turn their attention to any job going, many of whom had been let go before the furlough scheme announcement. Chefs, hotel porters, beauty therapists, baristas – they had rent to pay and families to support – we interviewed them, made our selections and got them trained up in double quick time.
There wasn’t a great deal of time to take stock. But we did, Lee and I. We had safeguarded our employees’ jobs by reassigning many of them. We talked to our staff and listened to them like never before, recognised our role in keeping them and their families safe. We rescued unemployed hospitality workers from prolonged unemployment. We met the cleaning and caretaking demands of our property managers and their RMCs and leaseholders. In fact, Lee and I started to receive notes of thanks from RMC directors who had heard CIAR delivered when others couldn’t and were enormously grateful that their common parts were being kept clean and safe. Cleaning may not be the most glamourous jobs but for once it was seen as absolutely essential and we were there to deliver. The thanks and appreciation from property managers and their clients made all the difficult decisions and sleepless nights worthwhile.
So how are we doing things differently – better even – because of Covid?
No-one should take their staff for granted and whilst we had never done that, we are more grateful for their loyalty and their flexibility than ever. The lockdown has brought the team closer together and that will be for the benefit of everyone, including our clients. We shared a lot with them – including about the financial security of the firm – and that openness has benefitted us all.
We have improved our supply chain of PPE, virus-killing cleaning materials and more, so if you need something doing fast, the chances are we will be able to deliver, quicker.
The reliance on ‘proptech’ is obvious….Working from home for our customers means using and embracing in their portals and platforms. Whichever cloud-based software you use, if you need us to use it too, we’ll be glad to. When planned maintenance demand dropped off, so did property manager site inspections. This led to our innovative solution to conduct video inspections for property managers! Check out our blog.
A final word
If this period of lockdown has taught us anything, it’s a reminder of what is important – the health and safety of our friends, colleagues and loved ones. For any business to survive and thrive, it must never lose sight of the people that work for it, and our cleaners, decorators, gardeners, handymen and engineers have been exemplary and we’re very proud of them. Lockdown has also given us time to reflect in a different way – to think about the future a little more. That’s given me an idea for another blog!
We hope our clients see this blog because we want to thank them for their support. We hope they continue to see our services in the same way that local people favour local suppliers. We can’t say that these last few months have been particularly profitable (paying engineers a full wage but charging back at cleaning rates isn’t recommended longer term!) but in the long run, we will be stronger for the Covid-created challenges that we’ve faced and overcome.
Emma Frances Thomas MIRPM AssocRICS