CFJ EXCLUSIVE Part 3: The full story of how Covid-19 hit the flooring sector

WHEN Brian King returned to Manchester from his holiday, he was puzzled by the difference in approach taken by the Italians and the British. What was all that about ‘keeping calm and carrying on’? Instead, Brian found it was the Italians who’d been relaxed and his fellow Brits who were losing their collective cool.

‘It was odd,’ he says. ‘The Italians were going about their daily business and over here everyone was flapping.’ There was an immediate consequence of his trip to Italy though; a friend’s grandparents, for whom he’d agreed to do a job prior to his holiday, politely postponed on the off-chance he’d brought the dreaded virus back with him. Actually, they were right to be cautious – increasingly, reports were emerging of infected people bringing Covid-19 into the UK from Italy.

Soon, Brian was back at work. ‘Queries came in as usual. Maybe things were better up north at that point, I don’t know. It could just be you cockneys who were flapping,’ he joked.

But he wasn’t making light of the situation. ‘I’ve heard of floorlayers losing work. In fact, one guy apparently lost a month’s worth of work in a single day. Whether that was because he was working on a commercial site for a month or whether he had several small domestic cases cancelling on him, I don’t know.’

In north Yorkshire, where she’d recently moved from London, senior facilities management (FM) consultant Fiona Bowman - a judge on the CFJ/CFA Awards panel - was thinking ahead. She’d had one eye on the developing situation in China as early as Christmas.

As someone with vast experience effectively running buildings and in all elements of property management, Fiona works with senior management and directors of businesses to help them shape and manage facilities.
‘I call myself Nanny McPhee without the warts because I go in when they need me and when they don’t need me anymore, I go away,’ she said, laughing. ‘I monitor the FM stream with fast analysis and action, seeing where the problems are, and providing solutions. I give my clients the tools they need including training and development and mentoring support at a high level.’

As an FM, Fiona said she’d learned to quickly spot potential problems on the horizon. ‘It’s not an instinctive skill but rather something I’ve learned because of my background and the world I’ve lived in. I was working for big investment banks during the Y2K dilemma at the turn of the millennium, and that taught me if you see something happening globally, you start to plan.’

Covid-19 was one such problem – an immediate red flag - as Fiona realised it could turn into a pandemic, although she felt there was confusion about how it was spreading, and thought people were minimising its danger.

One of Fiona’s first and overriding thoughts was: ‘Water pipes! When people shut down buildings, there are so many concerns around water treatment. Legionella and pseudomonas are real risks. Who is going to flush the showers and run the taps?’

Fiona laughed at her propensity to mentally escalate to worst-case scenario. ‘I was worried about the cash machines running empty and I know it sounds selfish, but I was so relieved my husband David and I had moved from the southeast to Yorkshire last summer. Because it’s much less populated up north, I knew we’d be safer. Plus we’d avoided havoc on the housing market.’

In early 2020, she was travelling weekly to London to meet her clients. ‘Behind the scenes I was working with a large local authority where the FM team was having to take on more tasks than normal. The big question at that point was, how do you manage an entire portfolio of buildings from home? Managing buildings requires a great deal of hands-on activity.’

For starters, Fiona realised people’s roles would have to change and in advising her clients, her role progressed from being developmental to supportive.

Wayne Abbot, client services manager at Loughton Direct in London, took a more sanguine approach. ‘The virus came to my attention when I heard reports about it in late January. Loughton’s main concern was how badly it was hitting our materials suppliers in Italy. But I tend to live in the moment and early on I didn’t think it would end up causing as much carnage as it did. The office atmosphere was very much: we should be careful, but it’s probably not going to spread here.’

The virus still factored in Loughton’s disaster planning, though and the company advised employees to be sensible about sanitiser gel use.

Wayne’s role entails working solely with end-users and facilities managers, and evaluating existing projects before passing them to main contractors. He conducts several onsite client meetings a day and usually spends no more than half a day in the office, placing him in the line of fire with respect to virus transmission.

‘I didn’t think about it from a personal perspective,’ he said. ‘My first thought was for my family as my parents are still working and self-employed. As the situation escalated, I was involved in helping with office admin such as ensuring we were following guidelines, facilitating those who needed to work from home and providing what they needed in order to do so. It was a case of rolling with the punches.’

But Covid-19 was about to land a punch so hard that even Wayne may have flinched: its progression into the UK was perfectly timed to derail Loughton Direct’s imminent relocation to new offices in Canary Wharf.