Collaboration, not culture wars, will help us return to the office

Work at home (if you can). Get back to work (sorry, the office). Forget that, work at home please. Go back, gradually and carefully. Read the guidance. Businesses must work out what’s best. It’s on you. Fingers crossed!

These phrases illustrate the chaos surrounding England’s official office working guidance during the pandemic. I exaggerate in places. But each statement reflects a government position at a certain moment. Sometimes, ministers even took different positions on the same day.

Navigating this is tricky, especially if you’re not expert in workplace design, occupational health or HR. I’m more used to writing about 600-acre spaces than 600 sq ft ones, and I struggle to visualise how a shell will look when kitted out and occupied. “How many desks can you get in here again?” was a stock phrase used during recent forays into Bristol to check potential new office space.

What knowledge I have is shaped by conversations with helpful agents and dozens of viewings over recent years. Much of this was during COVID, which detonated drastic changes to everyone’s living and working patterns. Once, I nearly agreed a three-year lease on office space before government guidance shifted (again) to work from home. Not signing saved us from paying for a space we couldn’t use.

The process feels fraught with uncertainty and confusion. I know I’m not alone in struggling to find something that works for us post-COVID, as the environment around us remains in flux.

From this muddled standpoint, I’ve watched with interest as people on all sides of the vexed office debate state their case with certainty. As I write from Scotland (that’s flexible location working for you), respective positions around this debate appear to have hardened. Whether it’s work from home or return to the office, it’s taken a binary either/or context.

This is unhelpful when many organisations are looking at somewhere between those points (or hybrid, to use the jargon).

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PR disaster? Good comms people are proving their worth

Good clear comms has proved its worth

How was 2020 for you? If you work in comms, it’s probably been a mixed bag at best.

COVID-19 wreaked huge damage on parts of the sector, with jobs and businesses lost. Many who stayed in work, in the public and private sector, were much busier and more stressed. They worked under a cloud of uncertainty, responding to constantly changing events.

There will be learning points from this. On balance though, comms professionals can be proud of how they supported the COVID-19 response. They helped organisations adapt, kept the public and stakeholders informed and saved lives. Need convincing? Check out these examples of how the NHS is responding across all these fronts on #FuturePRoof’s website.

It’s a great shame, then, to see comments about ‘PR disasters’ when mistakes happen. It featured in commentary on the government’s COVID response, around issues created and managed (badly) by people like Dominic Cummings. Its cousin – the ‘comms failing’ – was name-checked when local leaders raised legitimate concerns at being out of the loop on important policy announcements affecting their areas.

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My three most read blogs of 2020

Three balloons

Well, that was a year, wasn’t it!? Although I won’t be sorry to see the end of 2020, it’s brought what’s important into sharper focus.

COVID was immensely challenging, and continues to be. Brexit is distressing, but I have come to terms with it and hope we can start to move on from the sniping. Plate-spinning was relentless and exhausting. I’ve missed people. I can’t wait to see family, friends, colleagues and clients again. And I feel encouraged by a growing willingness to rethink how we live, work, travel and consume stuff.

I’ve written more regularly on this blog and for other titles in 2020, after a couple of years when I wrote very little. Along with daily exercise and music, it’s kept me clear headed and in reasonably good spirits. I will hold onto those habits in 2021.

I’m pleased by the level of engagement in the blogs and am grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read them this year. I hope you’ve found them useful if you have. Below are the three most read posts from the last year. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read, share or comment on these and other posts. It means a lot.

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Three points for government comms – and three for me – during lockdown

This week marks the start of a new financial year for us at Social, and my first as managing director of our South West division. I enter it with mixed emotions.

On the upside, I feel elated at our achievements in this most challenging of years. Our team doubled its size and turnover in 2020. We raised the bar in the quality of our work and the type of clients we’re supporting. We’ve adjusted brilliantly to enforced changes in how we work. We’ve been flexible, empathetic and innovative in supporting our clients.

While I don’t take any of this for granted, it is tempered by sadness, anger and despondency at the national response to the pandemic. As a comms person, I’ve despaired at what I’ve seen and heard about events leading up to the latest lockdown announcement.

In an attempt to set this out in coherently, I’ve split this post into two sections: three things I’d change about the government’s handling of this crisis and three things I will do myself. It’s not intended as a plan; it’s more a way to collate my thoughts and feelings to help me to look ahead with clarity.   

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Businesses can steer us away from Carmageddon

Lockdown has provided us with the biggest behaviour change programme we have ever seen. It would be a real travesty if we went back to ‘business as usual’ without locking in some of the benefits achieved during lockdown.

Ann O’Driscoll, North Bristol Suscom.

Wherever you’ve worked over the last three months, most of us can agree that lockdown has been challenging. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting.

But, as the West of England emerges from lockdown with the rest of the country, it feels right to reflect on some positive things to emerge from this crisis that are worth holding on to.

Businesses at the West of England Initiative’s latest meeting heard from those leading the local conversation on how we travel about lockdown’s impact on traffic congestion, air quality and carbon emissions. The findings are stark:

  • Peak time traffic levels in Bristol are said to be around 40% lower than pre-lockdown levels, although are back on the increase.
  • Bus passenger numbers are reported to be at around 13% of ordinary levels.
  • Air quality in cities is markedly improved as traffic has fallen.
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Things to hold on to after lockdown

I’m glad we’ve reached the end of April. It was relentless and stressful. It’s chipped away at my income and mental wellbeing as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc.

After seven weeks, the novelty of lockdown is long gone. With the daily death toll increasing by hundreds of people, knowing that we’ll have social distancing for a few months is sobering.

Walking in High Street in Wells is a brutal reminder of COVID-19’s impact on places, which stand empty and desolate. I’m not alone in feeling that lockdown can’t end soon enough.

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