‘Covid taught us your business must be storm-proof’

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Lockdown 2.0

Resilience is the pandemic watchword. When management consultancy giant McKinsey analysed organisations able to absorb and adapt to the challenges of Covid successfully – by definition resilient –  it found they all had one thing in common, agility.

“Society has had to make huge adaptations affecting personal and professional lives,” says Avi Barr, partner at property lawyers BBS Law, “individuals and businesses alike have discovered resourcefulness and strengths they perhaps did not know they had”.

In lockdown 2.0, Barr has seen those survival instincts kick in again, but with a difference. Having overcome the first, fairly daunting, period we didn’t know how long would last, the assurance is “we can not only survive but continue to flourish during this second lockdown,” he says.

Any office based business has now been forced twice to recreate all the same professionalism and proficiency customers and clients were used to when staff were centralised in a single workspace, but from home. A mammoth task.

Overwhelmingly, and astonishingly, this has been achieved, to the extent property buyers are now relocating outside commuter hubs on the basis working from home, last year a rare perk, will be an ongoing reality.

The WFH revolution came at an unusual time for BBS Law. The first lockdown coincided almost exactly with the opening of its London office, having previously been a Manchester company.  “Is it has very much created an “all in it together” approach which has strengthened the ties between different parts of the business,” says Barr.

BBS Law is the paradigm of how white collar Britain, as in other countries, has shown resilience, rapidly metamorphosing from a traditional office, desk-based environment to a firm with the flexibility for everyone, lawyers and support staff, to work from anywhere.

The change for the law firm at least, is permanent. “We have the confidence to embrace a variety of different working methods, even once lockdown finishes and business life returns to “normal”,” says Barr.

Employment, from home or not, dominates virtually every Treasury Covid-policy decision. With furlough extended until March some workers have a temporary reprieve from joining what is expected to be millions of unemployed over the coming months. A second lockdown, with the threat of more, tests even the most optimistic hiring bosses.

“Each lockdown brings with it an uncertainty to the market that definitely affects the decisions we make in terms of businesses hiring, or the general appetite for lending,” says Faye Wilcox, director of recruitment firm Valorem Partners.

Fewer businesses affected in this round of lockdown takes some of the sting out of the tail for potential employers, says Wilcox. But the cumulative effect of having to stop-start operations is taking its toll.

“Unfortunately there are victims of this lockdown, companies that have struggled to recover from the first time around,” she says, “it is incredibly sad, especially with small local businesses at the heart of some communities”.

Valorem Partners had prepared for a second lockdown. Migrating to the home office again has been “seamless” says Wilcox. The company is committed to keeping its office base, giving staff the option to work from home, a desk or a combination of the two. But hiring staff within commuting distance of its Birmingham HQ is no longer a priority.

“I think this goes for a lot of businesses now, and will make hiring and expansion far easier in the future,” Wilcox says.

Barr is less sanguine. For law firms, like many professional businesses, he says the biggest challenge is hiring and training. “For junior employees so much about their formative years hinges on learning from colleagues and being part of the office environment”.

Getting trained up in the professions has become a problem for young people who are already facing the brunt of lost job opportunities, and reeling from being robbed of their full university experience through remote teaching and on-campus curfews.

“It has meant there is a greater emphasis at many businesses on looking at ‘proven’ candidates rather than more junior candidates,” says Barr. BBS Law has recruited twice during the last few months at the junior end of the career spectrum, but with a lot more thought as to how to ensure new employees were adequately supported and supervised.

Office life is not always a bed of roses, but it does offer the chance at a community. Our forced social and professional isolation means Covid-19 is not the only health crisis we face. A survey of more than 16,000 people during the first lockdown by charity Mind revealed shocking findings.

Two out of three adults over 25 and three-quarters of young people aged 13-24 with an existing mental health problem reported worse mental health. More than one in five adults with no prior experience of poor mental health now say that their mental health is poor or very poor.

Lockdown 2.0, while still isolating for many, lacks the shock element felt first time around, and at least for now has a clear end date of 2 December, rather than the open-ended internment of the Spring restrictions. With schools still open in most areas, combining children and work is also far easier this time round.

“Stress and anxiety levels are far less than last time,” says Wilcox. There seems, she adds, “to be a tremendous community spirit of ‘we’ve got this’ in the market, which is refreshing”.

From a business point of view, Barr, who acts for property investors and lenders, is seeing no real impact caused by the second lockdown. “There are clearly aspects of the property market which are in decline, perhaps in some cases terminally, including retail, but there are certainly enough opportunities out there to keep our investor clients keen to undertake significant transactions,” he says.

Business expectations have changed though. The days of lawyers in London commuting for an hour or so each way into the City “for now seems behind us”, says Barr, who notes benefits for clients in extra productivity and “the ability to find hours in the day that previously were not there”.

Pre-Covid business decisions to invest in company tech – or not – are separating the corporate wheat from the chaff. “With the right systems firms have been able to differentiate dramatically from their competitors by offering a high quality seamless service regardless of the external factors and disruption,” Barr says.

As a recruiter, Valorem Partners has an extended overview of all aspects of the specialist finance market, who is moving in and out of it, which firms are growing and which are shrinking. Wilcox says the current crisis has taught her personally, and the bridging sector more broadly, that “anything can happen at any time and your business needs to be somewhat storm proof”.

“We have experienced financial crashes and recessions before, but can often see these coming,” she says. “If we are to learn one thing from this pandemic, it’s that good practice needs to be in ongoing learning and development, as a way to combat any storm that comes our way.”

Valorem now plans a laser focus on its growth plans, cutting all waste in time or money on activities that have no impact on the sustainability or expansion of the business. It will enter Q1 of 2021 “with a little extra caution” as it, like other companies, looks to continue the recovery from this year, Wilcox says.

“But as they say, the show must go on. We will still aim to grow our business as much as possible in 2021, set high goals to achieve and take on new hires as and when the business requires.”

Barr describes 2021 as “a very exciting year”.  “Brexit will be on the horizon very early on which will create opportunities as businesses and sectors adjust,” he says, a reminder concerns that pre-date Covid-19 still exist.

BBS Law expects a strong start to 2021 as investors look to complete deals before the stamp duty rates go back to normal. “It remains to be seen how the market will react to the removal of the discount at the end of March,” he says.

Other property sector freezing policies will also have an as yet unforeseen impact on the market, such as those which have prevented landlords taking commercial properties back. Once these are lifted it will be “very interesting” to see how the property market reshapes to deal with the emerging new world post-Covid, says Barr.

“One thing is for sure,” he adds, “uncertainty, as it always does, will create opportunities – then it is just a matter of ensuring your business is positioned well enough to be able to take advantage”.