What a difference a day makes

This blog is a personal account of observations so far in this pandemic and a look into the future.

Andrew Kerr | 27/03/2020

This blog is a personal account of observations so far in this pandemic and a look into the future. There is little doubt post-Covid19 will bring about technological, social and business change for us all.

As I begin, may I ask that Dinah Washington’s beautiful voice rings in our ears, ‘What a difference a day makes.’

Casting my mind back 2 weeks, Friday 13th March, I was embarking on my stag do to Quinta de Lago. Of course, we were aware of the very real threat of Coronavirus but honestly thought it would ‘blow over’ as a tragic, foreign episode which wouldn’t really affect us personally.

As I set off, I reflected on the busiest 18 months of my life, I was about to be wed to the love of my life in July, I was running my own business, we had purchased our first home and made restorations to our liking. (I say ‘our’ lightly) What a superb 18 months, very thankful indeed for all these great blessings.

Sitting in the Cheeky Pup Bar & Restaurant after a ‘hard’ day’s golf at 9pm on Saturday evening the police entered and instructed us to go home. In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the President of Portugal had ordered a lockdown/curfew of all public places. We arrived at Faro airport the next morning to chaos; flights cancelled, huge uncertainty and huge delays. We were very lucky to get home but the world we returned to was a very different prospect to the one we had left just two days prior.

Owning my own business, Urban Connect, this was a ‘black swan’ of the highest order. The problem with black swans, a term coined in this context by the economist, Nassim Taleb, is that by definition they are unpredictable. No amount of business planning can effectively prepare one for something about which we can have no knowledge. The tools to guard against such risks are prophetic scanning, scenario analysis and the prudent financial management of a business that creates value for one’s customers. However, at the moment, the ability to respond decisively and pivot to the changing conditions is essential yet extremely difficult.

As we are in the depth of the pandemic, predicting anything is difficult, the coming months will be one that is unprecedented in the living memory of virtually everyone on earth. Many businesses face short-term cashflow issues and some, unfortunately, will not survive. There are very few sectors unaffected and any upturn in productivity could be soundly assumed as short term. Governments around the world are pumping monetary and policy relief into their economies as quickly as possible. In particular, the reaction of the UK government has been exemplary, effectively underwriting the wages of its entire population.

People are fundamentally changing how they work, shop and live; something that would have been met with disbelief just a month ago. At first, this was going to mean a couple of weeks of disruption, now the Government rhetoric has shifted to 3 months. The honest position is that we cannot be certain how long the present conditions will last.


Longer-term impacts?

When the dust settles on COVID-19, as at some point it inevitably will, some things will go back to normal, but other things will be changed more permanently.

Around the world right now, we are rethinking how we do everything, out of necessity and that is no different in the Construction sector. Many people who have never ordered online in their life have created an Amazon account. All of us are becoming more proficient in the use of Skype and running online meetings. The emergence of the Houseparty App is taking Covid-19 by storm. We are substituting the pub and the gym for solitary walks in the countryside. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I have seen evidence in the wider construction sector of incredible ingenuity and adaption in the face of adversity. For example, the construction nearing the speed of light of the new hospital at the ExCel centre to house some 4,000 beds.

I’m not the first to say this, but some of these practices will be found to be better or cheaper or both than the previous way of doing things, and these will survive the pandemic.

Assessing the future?

We are all entangled in an exercise in looking at what is likely to continue, and what could plausibly change based on what we know about trends and technology. I would suggest, just 20 years ago, being asked to work from home for three months would have meant business closure for many; and not going to the shops would have meant starvation. The incredible advance of communications technology and cloud computing over this period has now substantially mitigated this position. However, in many respects, this technology has not been used to its full capacity. Many of the change factors we are implementing are likely to alter the construction landscape. The pace at which these changes will take effect has been boosted. The biggest barrier to change is not typically the progress of technology, but rather a cultural willingness to adopt it. COVID-19 is the catalyst for breaking existing patterns of activity, inventing new ones, and over a period of months, hardwiring them.

What changes in Construction?

The principal effects of the pandemic are public health, the economy and the practice of social distancing; each of which has a bearing on construction. Especially, the move to social distancing is forcing us to shift deeper into the digital world. This means working remotely and decentralised from an HQ, talking to colleagues via video calls and not in meeting rooms. We are about to genuinely test the value of vicinity rather than guess what it is.

Some will argue that after a period of isolation, there will be an explosive demand to become social again. I’m not so sure. Coming of out this period, people, and businesses, will be cautious. Set against conventional rhetoric about the desirability of face-to-face talent interaction, and visiting shops for experience, will come to the questions of: ‘was it actually so bad without it?’ ‘is it important enough?’ and ‘what is the cost outlet?’ and perhaps even, ‘but weren’t we more productive at home?’ Those commuting into our cramped and polluted cities might actually prefer the time that they got back to spend with their families, and introverted design professionals (typically the forgotten minority in construction design), might prefer the solitude of home working.

I suggest, the outcome could hasten the departure of the old office and the secondary shopping centre, and put greater focus on a dynamic approach to working, shopping and living, where one-size-fits-all solutions to changing activities will no longer work.


A greater power at work

This is somewhat of an elephant in the room while discussions take place around Covid-19. As the son a Church of Ireland (Anglican) vicar I have been exposed to the religious notion that there may be a greater hand in all of this and a sense of hope deriving from that.

I do not protest to be a devout believer and would not use this pandemic to justify myself getting closer to God. But it is interesting to compute how a greater being intertwined with a sense of mother nature may be at work here.

As the panic and disbelief give way to the wartime spirit that we are now starting to see across the world, there are hopes that a better and more caring society will rise from the ashes of COVID-19. Pulling together is reinforcing local connections. People are offering to pick up groceries for the neighbour that they have never spoken with previously. Campaigns are being arranged to support the elderly and keep the local café afloat. I stood outside last night in rapturous applause as we remembered those people fighting on the frontline as part of the NHS. We will all be challenged on the importance of the corporate response to ethical standards, wellbeing and the environment. Perhaps that is the more enduring black swan that will come from the time ahead.

There are also clear observations of the wonderful environmental impacts of Social distancing across the world. As examples, the Venice canals are the clearest they have been in 60 years with shoals of fish returning. Air pollution has reduced significantly across the globe, particularly nitrogen dioxide levels over some of China's largest cities have dropped dramatically.

It is a welcome notion that there is some good coming from this period in the face of such devastation.

‘What a difference a day makes’ - as I write this blog, it has come to light that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has tested positive and will be self-isolating. What a very peculiar WFH situation, running the United Kingdom from home! Let’s hope we get a selfie of BoJo in his pyjamas.

Stay safe.

Andrew Kerr