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Shaping a planning consultancy during lockdown

By Shaun Andrews, executive director of Nexus Planning

Like every other business, Nexus Planning has been significantly affected by the lockdown. Some of those changes have been challenging to assimilate, while others have proven surprisingly positive. At this stage we don’t know the global impact of the virus on our industry, but we can reflect on a few of the obstacles we have overcome and attempt to look into the future for our clients..

Challenge #1: Technology and connectivity 

Initially one of our biggest concerns was whether we would be able to work effectively from home on a company-wide basis. Could we operate as normal for our clients without an interruption in service? After stress testing our systems for 9 weeks, the answer is a resounding yes! More by luck than foresight, we had recently purchased a secure, bespoke video conferencing system, which It has greatly assisted the way our national offices communicate.

The implications of this are overwhelmingly positive and seem likely to permanently change the way we work. How quickly our work environment has responded has made a deep impression on us all, for a multitude of reasons, large and small. We believe that many workers will not return to the old five-day commute unless their organisations or roles demand it. This in turn will change the shape of society and the economy, creating a dynamic environment for planners around the world.   

COVID-19 has opened our eyes to different ways of working. We’re more connected as a business; isolation has ‘forced’ regular video conferencing on us and we’re the better for it. Client face-to-face liaison has been more frequent which has helped strengthen relationships and, in some cases, accelerate decision-making. The company has a strong ethical core, with sustainability and social value at the top of our agenda. We can now see numerous ways to reduce our carbon footprint even further – moving some meetings permanently online and reducing business travel, for example.

Challenge #2: Health and wellbeing

Our people are central to our success and there are some well-documented downsides to working from home, not least isolation. We were quick to devise a daily communications structure, not just for business but to generally look out for each other. Regular digital quizzes, complete with dress-up themes, have helped to keep spirits up. Winning the RTPI Planning Consultancy of the Year 2020 last month was also a major boost (watching the whole business celebrate online was a scene to behold!).

From a personal point of view, I find it important to diarise regular outdoor time, not least because it’s all too easy to miss out on exercise, fresh air and natural daylight for Vitamin D. Now that some of the restrictions are lifting, lockdown is giving me the opportunity to trial something I have been wanting to for some time: outdoor ‘walk and talk’ meetings.

Challenge #3: Project pipelines

One of our main commercial challenges has been predicting the likely impact of COVID-19 on our pipeline. When the pandemic initially took hold, some clients put projects on ice. During those first weeks we felt a real impact on revenues. However, projects that were paused are already starting to return. Our stance at the outset was to take necessary actions but to remain calm. We have delivered a consistent service throughout the crisis and it has paid dividends.

The diversity of our clients  has emerged as a key strength. And that diversity is reflected in our sectors and projects, and in our team too. As Steven Covey said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”. It is important to remember that the inevitable economic downturn we are facing isn’t the result of major structural problems with the market. It’s a virus that’s blindsided everyone.

What the future holds as a business

In all this, we’ve learnt a major lesson – to take nothing for granted. Significant change is potentially around every corner and resilience is an essential skill for survival. The pandemic is a fast-moving, unpredictable phenomenon challenging the very nature of planning itself. So, whilst predicting the future with any certainty is impossible right now, we will be pivoting our business to respond to these exceptional circumstances. As always, a strong vision is imperative as this provides clarity and motivation. But more than ever we need a flexible and iterative plan with clear, practical, short-term tactics and an ability to adapt – fast. This is what makes working at an agile planning consultancy like Nexus so exciting.

Final thoughts

We are profoundly aware as a business that this has been a devastating time for a huge number of people. Many people have lost their lives and their livelihoods. It is crucial that all of us involved in the built environment industry seek positive change from this crisis. We must fight for improvements in the areas of society that urgently need it, whether that’s helping deliver more homes for key workers, redefining what a high street does or shaping health and climate resilience.


Shaun Andrews

Shaun has a wealth of experience spanning approximately 25 years of advising both private and public sector clients. He was previously Head of Strategic Development at GL Hearn, Head of Planning & Sustainability at Cushman & Wakefield, and Head of London Planning at Donaldsons/DTZ.  His expertise covers the formulation of masterplans and supporting the delivery of major complex developments. Whilst spending most of his career in the private sector, Shaun recently spent 6 months seconded to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation where he was interim head of estates.

A key specialism of Shaun’s is town and city centre regeneration and supporting the delivery of major mixed- use projects. He has advised both the public and private sector on the formulation of masterplans and strategies including their translation into SPDs and other Development Plan documents.

Shaun is a Chartered Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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