Looking back on this year feels rather different than in previous years. Our business has survived into its tenth year but it was a difficult ride, and for many of us reflecting on what has happened has been a sobering experience. Here are my thoughts on how we made it, and what might be learned from that.
Accept fear of change
“When you are finished changing, you are finished” – Benjamin Franklin
Gaping Void’s Hugh Macleod argues that fear of change is a natural instinct engrained in humans, but if you feel fear, it means that you’re doing something meaningful. You might be making trouble – but you’re making something. Feel the fear and do it anyway; it’s better than doing nothing.
2020 has been a major year of change for much of construction. All of a sudden, organisations who have happily trundled along doing what they always have done realised that they couldn’t. Some of our clients furloughed their entire marketing departments including board level staff at the end of March, and then discovered they had no one to draft or send out their COVID updates. On 1st April I published an article about business continuity and communications, arguing that communication with your clients was essential in changing uncertain times.
The uncertainty created further troubles – what was firstly a few weeks of lockdown turned into three months. But those clients who accepted the argument that comms was key, have survived through a difficult year with their audiences on side and are better prepared to move forward in 2021.
Learn from your past
There has been a lot of learning coming out of this experience, and thinking back, it isn’t really the first time. Whilst unprecedented, similar change has come before. My career has lived through three recessions and each has wrought unexpected changes.
In the early 1990s recession, I had to put my journey to becoming an architect on hold after five years of study and a year in practice. I joined the academic world, where I ran the first year studio at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture and Building Engineering for three years. This taught me a great deal about management.
Five years later, in the late 1990s, I was unable to pick up my career as an architect, but my management experience and architectural training helped me get my first practice manager’s job in an architects’ office. In the 15 years that followed I learned about all aspects of business management, good and bad. It paved the way for my blog about managing architects’ practices.
In the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008-9, the seeds of my consultancy were sown when I went online to help find business for the firm I was managing. The successful launch of my consultancy in 2011 and its survival was helped immeasurably by the contacts I had made online via LinkedIn and Twitter, and the experience of the previous decade and a half provided the fuel to help me discover the niche of helping manufacturers understand architects.
Know what you can do to help
If you were able to reflect on what your clients are struggling with and identify what you can offer to meet that need, you have been successful this year. It might not be your core service, but it was what was required at the time.
Many of us who had spent years advocating digital tools in an atmosphere of denial suddenly found ourselves in huge demand. In May, Nick Tune, then Digital Director at Atkins, described how the pandemic had turned digital advocates “into rock stars”.
Those companies who had pre-established methods of digital communications methods found that the investment had paid off. This included internal comms and external. If your staff were already experienced in using Teams or Zoom or presenting on GotoWebinar they were suddenly worth a lot more. If you had developed an audience on social media or worked on your website visibility, you had channels to communicate with your clients which were efficient, low cost and effective.
One of my clients worked with us to develop a series of wellbeing and COVID-related social media posts which we published through the lockdown from the end of March right through to the end of July. Followers learned about the value of looking after your mental health, sorting out your home office ergonomics and getting used to the ‘new normal’. Their staff appreciated the support and the brand gained credibility by supporting them and the wider community. This was a low-cost solution with considerable benefits.
Make decisions early and be willing to pivot
Early on in the crisis, it became apparent that some of the traditional methods of selling were not going to survive a lockdown. These are the times when it is important to make brave, well-focused decisions, make them early, and keep an eye on how the changes are delivering.
One of my clients delivers dozens of in-person CPD seminars to architects every year. When the first of these was cancelled, an architect asked my client for a Teams presentation instead. Within a fortnight we had set up online webinars and trained four sales team members to deliver them.
We hosted 26 webinars in the following 12 weeks, with over 450 attendees, an attendance average of 17 – well above that of in-person seminars. By the end of the first three months, we had trained up a staff member to act as host and manager and the client took over running the webinars themselves.
These CPD webinars continue weekly and the client has found several advantages over delivering them in-house. A much wider range of specifiers can participate, and the sessions are more cost effective than driving to deliver a seminar in person. The online version has enabled the team to reach many more firms and also open up new markets amongst surveyors. When you choose to attend a seminar as an individual, you are much more likely to be a willing participant than if you are forced to attend at work.
Numerous commissions have resulted from this swift repositioning of the CPD offer, and our client is now looking at additional ways to offer learning to their target audience. Never stop looking for ways to improve.
Keep things going
Over this year we have been project managing two major projects related to the Grenfell Tragedy. Both of them would normally have involved a lot of in-person meetings.
- BIM for Housing Associations is a project to develop a toolkit for housing associations to implement BIM processes into asset management and procurement, helping them meet the Building Safety Case and become more efficient. It is supported by the National Housing Federation, funded by six major housing associations and has over 35 organisations participating.
- The Plain Language Guide for Manufacturers is a project to develop a guide to product data management for construction product manufacturers, so that they can profit from digitisation, meet the growing need for verifiable, secure, structured product data and respond to the evolving requirements of the Building Safety Bill. The project is supported by the IET, UK BIM Alliance, BEAMA and IBM.
Both these projects aimed to complete in the Autumn of 2020, and of course both were delayed by COVID. Volunteer participants were furloughed, overworked or underfunded, and some succumbed to the virus. However, we were able to continue to support both projects – taking meetings online, publishing updates and continuing the process of compiling reports and tools. In the case of the Plain Language Guide, we wrote a series of seven articles and held open Zoom calls after each publication, using the convenience of digital communications to inform the process of writing the guide. Both projects are now planned to complete in the Spring of 2021.
Commerce can be for public good
There is a tendency to feel that when you are in business you should be solely focused on the bottom line. This is a common criticism of commerce, that it only pays lip service to ‘CSR’. However this year, whilst it is always important to make decisions that keep your business alive, we have seen many examples of companies doing things because they are the right thing to do.
At JPL we always do some pro bono work, and this year is no different. We worked for one client for a month for free, because it was the right thing to do to help them through the first difficult month of the lockdown. And it payed off – we still have them as a client, and they are still in business. We were also able to make a substantial donation to our local food bank again this year.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges too. The important thing is to balance the benefits and disbenefits. Towards the end of May we spoke at an event for a Canadian audience free of charge. Then the following month, when renewing our business insurance, our insurers insisted we increase our premiums substantially to cover the additional risk. Fortunately, we were able to convince them that the risk was low on this occasion. As we move into a post-Brexit UK market, no doubt other obstacles will arise, and we all need to be prepared to make the necessary changes.
Here’s an infographic of some of our achievements this year. We are naturally proud that the company has survived and thrived in 2021, whilst being able to help others do the same. Looking back has been a positive experience in the end. It has reinforced our belief that good communications are essential. Though the benefits aren’t always recognised under normal circumstances, few circumstances are ‘normal’ for long.
In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the publication next year of the BIM for Housing Associations report and toolkit, the Plain Language Guide for Manufacturers, and we’ll be working with our clients to help them be more nimble in the new year.
We hope you have survived 2020 and look forward to working with you in 2021.