Spare a thought for the experiences missed when working from home, by Graeme Bell

The news that Natwest and Standard Life are going to allow all their employees to continue working from home must be good news for some, but will planners be encouraged to do the same and would it be a good thing if they were?

The answers are complex and significant for both land use and transport planning and for our profession. 

I doubt there are many planners working for the banks and, as we know, what happens in London is often unrepresentative of the rest of the country. Fear of travelling on the underground is probably a major factor in people working from home rather than returning to the Square Mile. But north of Watford, many are more relaxed about travel by bus, bike, car or tram. 

Many will be pleased to save the time and money spent commuting, delighted to be able to spend more time with their family, thrilled to be able to get a cheap slot for internet shopping deliveries and relieved they can work when they like rather than when they have to. But others will prefer to leave the house or the bedsit and let someone else pay for the heating. Those struggling with poor internet speeds and domestic chaos at home will yearn for the days of calm, of IT support and, yes, the company of other planners in the flesh. 

For the lucky few graduates gaining an opening in planning this summer, how will they learn the ropes when they are homeworking or in a socially-distanced office? Just as a child listens and absorbs the detail and nuances of everyday living, so do trainees when they start a job. We feed off each other’s ideas and experiences, swap stories of success, disaster and being chewed off by the chief. 

And who can forget the dark arts of planning learnt in those early days? How to fold a large plan into an application file so that the title block is on top and how to inspect a site without appearing to be in the slightest bit interested, which would have made the net curtains twitch. 

For those in development management especially, it’s the eavesdropping on phone conversations, the throwaway comments, the accumulated knowledge without which an officer is almost certain to repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before. One of the biggest gripes of applicants is the churn of case officers, each of whom wants to move the goalposts and unpick the progress already achieved. There’s nothing more frustrating for an applicant and their agent than sitting opposite someone who knows the theory but fails the practical. 

‘The knowledge’ will extend to the soft intelligence about which applicants are slippery, those who will throw a tantrum and then acquiesce and, the worst, those who will agree with everything and then go back on all their commitments. The old hands will know where the bodies are buried in their patch and the task for new starters of picking up this vital knowledge will be that much more difficult when working remotely. 

Finally, let’s not forget it’s the office jokes and laughter that make a job worth getting out of bed for. It’s why ‘The Office’ was such a hit for Ricky Gervais. Long ago, being sent down to the chief draughtsman for ‘a long wait’ was always the rite of passage for new planners on their first day. We may no longer have drawing offices, but for town planners in these challenging times, developing a sense of humour is a life skill we all need in order to survive. 

Graeme Bell OBE is a past president of the Planning Officers Society and a vice president of the Town and Country Planning Association 

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