How Covid-19 is impacting planning consultancy staffing

Furloughing staff and temporary pay cuts continue to be the favoured responses by consultancies to the impact of Covid-19, according to Planning's updated survey, as companies get to grips with remote working.

Out of office: Pandemic has had major impact on working practices
Out of office: Pandemic has had major impact on working practices

Last month, we surveyed the 40 biggest firms in the 2019 Planning Consultancy Survey in terms of numbers of chartered town planners employed to see how they were dealing with the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. This month, we updated the survey to examine how the pandemic was affecting their businesses. Some 13 firms responded to our latest questions. We published the first part of that survey last week, examining how firms' workloads and fee levels have been affected. This week, we looked at consultants' responses on how they are coping in terms of staffing and pay.

All but one of the 13 respondents said they have taken up the government's job retention scheme, under which it has agreed to pay 80 per cent of an employees' income up to a monthly maximum of £2,500. This compares to 11 in our early April survey. James Bainbridge, Carter Jonas's head of planning and development, said the firm has not furloughed many more staff since the early days of the crisis. The average response, according to those firms that provided information, has been to furlough 15 per cent of planning staff, although one firm has used the job retention scheme for just over a third of its planners.

Some consultancies have already welcomed back members of staff. Avison Young has recalled staff as fresh jobs have appeared and others have kicked back into life, said Jo Davis, the company's managing director for planning, development and regeneration. "Planning is very personal, so you have to ensure that you are servicing clients who are working with people who are trusted advisers," she said. Andrew Bridge, managing partner at Fisher German, said the multidisciplinary firm has brought back staff from furlough, although not yet in "big numbers". Given that staff could otherwise be away from the business for months, some firms are exploring ways of rotating furloughs so that team members don't spend too long completely cut off from the workplace.

After furloughs, reducing the wages bill is the planning consultancy's sector's next most common response to the slowdown. Nine firms have announced or are intending to introduce temporary pay cuts, compared to seven in our earlier survey. And while nine of the consultancies in the survey have frozen recruitment, none has yet to make people redundant.

Carter Jonas is consulting on a pay cut lasting three months, said Bainbridge. "It is aimed very much at keeping teams together for when things pick up. We have very good teams who have worked together for a very long time, so they would rather take a reduction in pay across the board than have somebody in their team made redundant." Davis said Avison Young is asking its executives to bear the lions' share of cuts, which will be limited to ten per cent for all staff below director level. Another top 20 consultancy, which did not wish to be named, said that 10 per cent of its planning team had been subject to temporary pay cuts.

For the time being, consultancies appear in no rush to get planners back into the office. Avison Young doesn't expect to see all its staff back in the workplace during 2020, said Davis. "We will be reopening offices at the right time, but people will continue to work from home if it's safe and appropriate. We don't want anyone to feel anxious about having to come into work."

Keeping technical staff like planners working at home also helps implement safe distancing in the workplace, Davis said. And the last eight weeks has demonstrated that staff can be as productive working from home, she added, which Avison Young encourages one day a week anyway. "Planners work quite well remotely. As the capacity of each office is significantly reduced, you have to ensure that you have people who really need to be in those offices such as agents rather than technical professionals."

Bainbridge said an internal survey of Carter Jonas's planning department showed that a majority said they can work effectively from home and "quite enjoy" it. But it doesn't work for everyone, he added: "Some of our people are finding it more difficult and stressful working from home than others." He foresees a "slow" return to the office for some staff "possibly starting fairly soon". "If people wish to return to the office, we will support that, but we'll ensure that they're going into a safe environment and are following sensible guidelines."

Bridge said there are downsides to remote working, like not being able to bounce ideas around or undertake some forms of training. "We're seeing how we can offer that support, but it's not as easy as sitting next to someone with 25 years' experience in the office," he said.

When it comes to remote working practices, a big topic of debate in all workplaces has been around the preferred video conferencing software. More than half of the consultants we surveyed said they found both Zoom and Microsoft Teams to be the most effective for teamwork and meetings.

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