Matthew Donovan from MRG asks Mark Bolton, Director at Strettons five questions about their operational strategy and life after coronavirus lockdown.
When do you anticipate unpicking the lockdown will begin and how long will it take to become fully operational again?
The announcement of the phased lifting of lockdown was announced a day or two ago. While we welcome the steps being made to try and secure an early revival of the economy, like many businesses, at Strettons we have some concerns and outstanding questions in terms of what this means for our business and our staff. We are hoping to enable office working during the next few days, but have plans to re-introduce staff back into the office slowly.
Fully operational? From a business perspective, we have a large number of staff who are able to WFH in a manner that provides minimal disruption to their role – and so we are fully operational other than the (key!) ability to conduct property inspections. In terms of our offices being fully functional (or ‘as they were’)? It is difficult to judge, and this may take many months – and in all likelihood, we may see some longer-term changes in our working practices which could see reduced reliance on our offices.
What are the challenges for your business, and how do you plan to overcome them?
The key priority is to put in place safe arrangements with our colleagues and clients to enable us to conduct property inspections. Being unable to do this during lockdown has affected our transactional and valuation work in particular.
It is also still unclear what the full impact that COVID will have on the property market over the coming months, and so like everyone else we are taking a suitably cautious view in terms of income and cash flow forecasting.
Fortunately, Strettons has several counter-cyclical aspects to its business. Property auctions, Receivership and Affordable Housing work, for example. We are also fortunate in having an extremely diverse client base and specialism in a wide cross-section of sectors of the property market. We are also putting in place various marketing initiatives across the business to target new potential areas of work and income streams. Some of these are in reaction to the various issues that property occupiers and owners will face post-lockdown, and probably over the next year or two until the ‘new normal’ becomes clearer.
Do you have a post lockdown coronavirus or pandemic plan?
Many staff will, of course, be able to WFH in the immediate term, but this does not work for all teams/colleagues in the business – particularly those who need to undertake property inspections as part of their role. So yes, we are in the process of finalising our post-lockdown plans and considering the updated government guidance as it is issued. This will include preparing our offices and implementing increased cleaning schedules, putting in place distancing requirements for desking in our offices, operating ‘one way systems’ through common parts/circulation areas and reducing touchpoints, and provision of essential PPE and protocols for office-based working.
In terms of planning for property inspections, again PPE has been supplied for use by staff to allow us to conduct property inspections once we can do so safely. One of the key challenges for the Strettons’ teams with portfolios based in central London will be avoiding the use of public transport, and so we are also taking steps to plan for this. We recognise there will be anxiety amongst colleagues around the issues presented by returning to work and travelling around London, and so communicating with staff over arrangements and listening to their concerns will be paramount.
What will be the lasting effects on the business and the team that manage it?
As mentioned above, changes to our working practices and increased numbers of staff who will WFH in the short term will be a key aspect to emerge. The process has also allowed us to the opportunity to consider and re-imagine our business in a post-COVID environment and to see how we can do things differently. The over-riding impression I have from the challenges we have faced in recent weeks has been the commitment of our staff at all levels, their understanding of changes we have needed to make, and the speed with which the business has adapted.
What is the key lesson you have learned from this pandemic?
I have learned to ensure that we have robust communications, IT and telecoms support across the business. Effective procedures in place to allow us to ‘work from anywhere’.
Fortunately, the arrangements in place at Strettons were resilient, and have allowed us to largely operate the business uninterrupted. However, this exercise has allowed us to identify where we could make improvements, how we can change what we do for the better, and indeed identify systems and procedures in place that have proved unnecessary or are fundamentally outmoded.
So whatever the impact of COVID may throw at us, this will enable us to further streamline how we operate going forward, in a way that creates efficiencies for the business, our working practices – and improves service levels to our clients.
Strettons is a leading, independent firm of property advisors with expertise across a wide range of commercial and residential property, giving advice to buyers, owners, occupiers, investors, developers and more. Their core teams cover agency, property auctions, property & asset management and valuation & advisory services. They operate throughout London and the Home Counties with more than 120 staff, while our auction department and property management business covers the whole of the UK. To learn more, visit www.strettons.co.uk
Unlocking the Lockdown Series