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claire smith

The Big Rethink: Claire Smith

Bath Office Director and Partner at Buro Happold
Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers

We are certainly living in fascinating times. Who would have guessed that in 2020 seemingly slow progress on Brexit would be completely eclipsed by the speed of change resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic?

As the director of Buro Happold’s head office in Bath, home to over 400 of our 1,900 employees, I was amazed at the strength of our IT systems and the flexibility of our staff that enabled a move to 100 per cent home working at 24 hours notice. Three months later we continue to thrive from our home offices, delivering world-class engineering for landmark projects such as the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, the Bristol University Enterprise Campus and the Bath Abbey footprint project to heat the building using the thermal springs.

What is less clear at the moment for any business is the impact of the pandemic in the longer term. Our current workload is from projects secured pre-pandemic and it is in the next six to 12 month period that we will start to understand the longer term impacts. The hope is for a sharp V-shaped decline and recovery focused around a relatively short lockdown period. We need to be prepared for a reality that could be somewhat different and will inevitably vary in our 21 offices across the globe.

During my 30-year career the advances in technology have enabled ever-increasing levels of home and flexible working. The pros and cons of office versus home working is often debated, based on differing levels of experience and, dare I say, prejudice. One of the advantages of the lockdown is that these two modes of working have been put into stark contrast overnight. This has enabled us, as a business, to survey and talk with all our staff to capture insights about the best (and worst) parts of each so when we return to the ‘new normal’ we can go forward in a way that captures the best of both worlds.

In addition to planning our own return, our specialist analytics and people movement teams are busy helping universities, sporting venues and city councils to find their way to opening again, with public health top of their criteria. Ironically, we’ve been quickly adapting their software, originally designed to create interaction, which now must facilitate the opposite in the short term.

Longer term, I am excited by the impetus that this crisis will give to our consultancy and advisory work in the development of a green recovery as we push to build back in a more resilient and sustainable way.