- Charlie Mullins’ company Pimlico Plumbers has worked hard to bring its people back to the office.
- He says WFH has only succeeded because of relationships established “pre-pandemic, face-to-face.”
- “The word ‘company’ is used to describe a business for a reason,” he writes in this op-ed.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have had no choice but to work from home as governments ordered lockdowns to combat COVID-19.
But this was followed by a huge effort from the corporate world to promote home working as the model for the future, and that seemed pretty bonkers.
It should have been clear that isolating staff from each other’s energy was not going to be good for businesses or the mental health of their people.
It’s remarkable just how many business leaders were sucked in by the fable that video calls would replace the human interaction needed for a successful company to thrive.
The UK’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak pointed out recently, home working is no substitute for an office with “people riffing off each other.”
Expecting teams of people, isolated from each other at home, to generate the kind of creativity they were capable of when they could bounce ideas off each other was always a hare-brained notion.
I think companies have only managed to get away with working from home this long because of the working relationships that were forged in the pre-pandemic, face-to-face days.
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to get people who have never met to pull together to achieve a common business goal. The word “company” is used to describe a business for a reason.
My company, Pimlico Plumbers, needed to develop safe ways for people to work together from the get go.
Instead of changing systems and using technology to allow people to work apart, we thought about how we could use new and existing tools to keep our people working side-by-side.
Our 300 plumbers had to continue providing a service the UK Government deemed essential. But we’ve also asked the 125 staff in our central London office to come in whenever restrictions in the UK have allowed them to do so.
Facilitating this has been more common sense than rocket science. In the past 13 months, we’ve used literally tonnes of PPE, and gallons of sanitizer. We’ve worked on social distancing, and brought in fixed and portable thermal scanners and instant COVID tests, to keep people safe, and make them feel safe.
They must pass through thermal scanners before being admitted to the building at the beginning of their shift. Anyone with a temperature above 37.8 degrees Celsius is not allowed in. Staff are also tested twice a week, and those who feel unwell at any time can request an additional one.
All non-staff who wish to enter our HQ must first pass a COVID test, including those attending interviews.
There are also 24 automatic sanitizer stations around the building, particularly in busy areas and near doors. We are lucky to have the space for all workstations to be at least two meters apart.
In our call center, where staff operate a bit closer to each other, glass screens have been installed between each phone station.
We have also paid office staff “lockdown bonuses” for their service during tough times, as well as providing them with free meals from the canteen, and parking, for those who wished to drive rather than use public transport.
Staff morale is as good as it’s ever been, and on the balance sheet, Pimlico has just had its best ever financial year, with sales up by 10% for the most recent financial year.
After the pandemic, it will be business as usual for the most part. Customers, many of whom have had little contact with others, will continue to need reassuring that engineers working in their homes are following safety precautions. So mask-wearing, hand-washing, the use of shoe protectors, sanitizer and gloves will continue.
But even this isn’t a huge shift for us as hygiene has always been important in our often dirty business.
Post-COVID, there will be some changes to the way some businesses operate but I think that the fundamental shift that many were so enthusiastically heralding will never come about.
People need people, and screens don’t count.
Charlie Mullins is a British businessman, and the founder of Pimlico Plumbers, London’s largest independent plumbing company.