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Reflections on Running a Consultancy Practice in the COVID 19 Pandemic

During March, realisation was growing across the world, nationally and within our business that COVID-19 would impact the way that we live, including how we work. As I started to consider, with managers in our company, what the effects might be we initially perceived the issue as a health threat. The word “pandemic” is incredibly emotive and presented a threat that we had not experienced before; would all of our staff be off sick or having to put themselves in quarantine? And how must they feel about the threat of disease and how it could impact their livelihoods?   It was a very insecure time for everyone (and for many people it still is), and our first instinct was to make sure that our people felt supported and secure. At that time, it meant making sure that everyone knew that we would provide support should they fall sick or need to self-isolate.

At that moment we set some principles that have guided our response to the constantly changing world of business during COVID-19, these were simply to look after the welfare of our team and to do all that we could to make sure that Treework remains a viable business for the long term.

And then lockdown happened…

We have an independent working structure, most of our people work from home and are based around the UK, and we provide the infrastructure that supports this way of working. So, other than for the people working in our administrative office in Bristol, the requirement for people to work form home did not impact us heavily. We offered support to everyone who needed it and we were aware that new pressures could arise because peoples’ partners were now working from home with them and children were off school…but more on this later…

We were fortunate that March was our most productive month ever, at the end of our most productive year ever. Our team had been working incredibly hard and the fruit of our labours was that we were in a strong enough financial position to meet the challenge ahead with confidence and to respond with strategy rather than with panic.

As we moved into April and the start of our new financial year, we started to see the first signs of how our trading might be impacted, enquiries were down and some projects were put on hold by clients either through reasons of health and safety or because they were reviewing viability and conserving cash in the face of great uncertainty.

With demand down and future demand uncertain, we needed to take prudent action. Our approach (which no-doubt is similar to most businesses) was to:

  • Make sure that we fully understood and applied the government guidance
  • Communicate and seek feedback and advice, with our team, our clients, others in our profession and in other professions, our accountant and other business advisers
  • Secure finance (such as a business continuity loan) where terms were reasonable
  • Minimise unnecessary financial outgoings
  • Secure contracts that could keep our team productive
  • Make sure that all of our messaging showed that “We Are Open for Business and Here to Help”. The majority of our work involves surveying trees (a solitary exercise) and writing reports / producing plans (produced at home), as one of our consultants commented “we have been social distancing for over 10 years.”
  • Design and promote services that could be provided without attending site

In those first weeks there was insufficient work to keep everyone productive, so we looked at the Job Retention Scheme (furlough). Knowing that the idea of ‘being furloughed’ would be very unsettling for many people, we consulted with all of our team and this consultation informed how people were selected for furlough.

Three of our operations team (two Arboricultural Consultants and a CAD / GIS Technician) were put on furlough, however within two weeks we could see that our strategy was paying off, and by the start of May we needed everyone back at work.

As we progressed through May, all of our team were busy, although one of our team could not return from furlough because she has a dependant requiring 6 hours per day of care.

Our management team are meeting weekly and our agenda includes Team Welfare, Health and Safety, Finances, Sales and Marketing, Operations and the all-important “What is going to happen Next?”. We try to address the issues arising and to plan for future scenarios and hold one another to account for delivering on our actions.

We have modelled three cash flow scenarios, 1 – trading at the same level as last year, 2 – trading at 70% of last year, and 3 – trading at 50% of last year. We have identified moments within each scenario that will be critical for our business and we review weekly how we are performing in relation to these. We are also seeking to identify the early warnings that will signal that we need to take action…

At that moment in May, the outlook for our productivity and new instructions was better than we expected, in fact it was better than the previous year, but we knew that it could be fatal to take anything for granted with the real possibility of recession on the horizon.

It seemed to me that there were three approaches that we could take:

One: We could be Protectionist; push back all the contracts that we could until later in the year when we expected a recession to hit, take the tax payers’ furlough money for as many people as we could do without; effectively mothball the company, and bring people back when we needed to.

Two: We could be Strategic; line up projects strategically to support as much continuous productivity as possible, furlough staff if we really need to, have only Treework staff (no contractors) delivering, and try to generate as much work as possible.

Three: We could be Confident; generate as much work as possible and deliver it as efficiently and quickly as is practicable.

The third approach is more-or-less how we trade in normal times and it is the option that I feel most comfortable with, but we are not in times of ‘comfort’ and I needed to get feedback from our team and business advisors before implementing our approach.

We chose to apply a mix of the Strategic and Confident approaches, adjusting more towards one or the other as circumstances require.

As with all businesses, COVID-19 and Lockdown have thrown up many considerations, whether it be providing the team with health and safety resources of guidance, hand sanitiser, masks, anti-viral surface sanitiser and hi-viz social-distancing tabards, discussions about where to go to the toilet when surveying or devising a strategy for fair allocation of holiday at a time when taking holiday might not be as attractive to all members of the team. There are three considerations that stick with me as particularly important which we turned our attention to once we had established a secure strategy for our business, these were:

Supporting our Business Ecosystem – Any business has an ecosystem of suppliers who depend in part on that company for their viability. If we want a healthy business environment to exist once we come out of the pandemic, those companies who are sufficiently financially secure, need to continue to trade with their suppliers. We have consciously chosen to do this while we can.

Supporting our Sub-Contractors – During busy times we rely on a several sub-contract surveyors and consultants. Many of these suppliers are self employed or are sole directors of Ltd companies which have not had the same level of security provided for them as employees. In the first few months of Lockdown, we did not have work for sub-contractors so offered them the opportunity to invoice us in advance for a fixed amount of future work, if they needed cash to tide them over a difficult patch.

Supporting our Parents – As we looked around to see how lockdown might be impacting our team, we realised that parents in our team were having a particularly difficult time. We consulted with all of the parents and found that they were juggling their work and the care of their children who were at home with them, normally on their own, and were carrying a sense of shame and frustration that they were not managing to do either well enough. To address this, we set up a parents’ group with WhatsApp and weekly video meetings where everyone could share experiences, we offered one hour online arts lessons for the children and provided support and reassurance so that parents felt able to be flexible if their children needed their attention.

It has been an exceptionally intense period and it is far from over. I feel fortunate to be working with an incredible team throughout our company who have approached frightening uncertainty of these times with resilience and intelligence. We are also fortunate that the strategy, dedication and hard work of our team in the previous year, enabled us to enter lockdown with a level of security that enabled us to be strategic.

Have we seen any benefits of this ‘crisis’? Well, we have certainly experienced, and have made some changes that are positive. For instance our hands-on weekly management has improved the running of the company and, another benefit is that, because meetings are now held online, we are brought into Design Team Meetings earlier which means that we can advise on trees at an early stage in the design process and help the design team to avoid clashes and problems with trees.

At the moment, demand for the quality expert service that we offer continues to grow and we have recruited a new Principal Consultant to help us to continue to deliver.

But what of the future? We are now in a recession and we do not know how it is going to play out.

We work within the sectors of Property Design Planning and Construction and also of Facilities and Public Space Tree Risk Management.

While we know that there will be impacts on the property sector from the pressures on hospitality and on office use, we also know that there is still a massive need for new housing and associated infrastructure.

At the same time, while Lockdown has brought the essential services provided by green spaces to the awareness of the nation, the managers of these spaces (mainly councils) have seen the demands on their services increase while their income (e.g. from events and car park charges) has been reduced to more-or-less zero.

These have been incredibly difficult times for so many people. While the environmental sector has not experienced the pain of the hospitality and entertainment sectors, there are several pressures that may yet impact us. In addition to the impacts directly associated with the pandemic, there is currently a deluge of national strategy and policy changes that will impact tree managers, from The England Tree Strategy to the Planning for the Future white paper, whether these are negative or positive, they represent another layer of uncertainty…and what will Brexit add to this turmoil?…

We will rely greatly on the grass roots leadership of our professional and industry bodies and those of aligned sectors to help us to ensure that the business landscape that we emerge into from the pandemic is one in which we can all thrive.

I am both cautious and optimistic for our future; we will continue to assess and respond strategically to this ever changing environment, put the wellbeing of our people at the heart of what we do, apply compassion to all of our decisions and reach out with confidence to all whom we engage with.

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