Emerging out of UK lockdown - a moment for reflection and change

TC bw

Contact Tom Cartledge, CEO Handley House

With non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality re-opening in the UK, the growing anticipation of a return to ‘normal’ is palpable. But as people re-emerge for long-overdue haircuts and al fresco drinking and dining, the question remains: have the past 12 months made us all, whether at home or at work, fundamentally change our ways of thinking and being? Or is it just a case of ‘old habits die hard’? Handley House CEO Tom Cartledge shares his thoughts.

Return to Future Thinking
Crowd shot

There’s been a lot of talk recently about COVID-19​‘accelerating changes that were already underway’. But what does that actually mean? Is it more a case of the UK, as a developed western society, simply having been too slow to embrace change previously?

For me, it’s been fascinating to see the global differences in response to the pandemic over the last year. At Handley House, we started our own COVID-19 journey in China in early 2020, where our offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong were among the first to close. Shanghai opened just eight weeks later and has remained open, designing and creating, ever since. We’ve seen small agility shifts in our working patterns and arrangements, but largely it’s been​‘as we were’. 

It’s the same with clients in China, for whom there has been no mention of post-COVID changes. Instead, they’ve been focused on developing new mixed-use places and spaces for the emerging Alpha generation. Perhaps the pre-existing scale, ambition and growth in Asia was already driving change without the need for a significant shift in gear or reflection. We’ve designed in China for over 20 years and have witnessed first-hand the relentless appetite for improvement in the urban environment. While perhaps historically challenged for its lack of environmental credentials, China now leads the way and will, I’m sure, be the first to deliver against carbon reduction targets.

Back to our journey: in early 2020 Singapore closed, opened up, closed again and reopened! But mirroring China, the Singaporean culture of togetherness and ambition resulted in little discernible difference in the live-work dynamic there. Meanwhile, our people in the Middle East, India, LA and back home are still hovering between modalities. So, as our economy reopens, will we revert to type or are some changes here to stay? 

Firstly, I believe we are all, by nature, social beings. We have a deep-rooted instinct to belong and to be part of something. Call it community or society. And whether it’s at home, in leisure or at work, we crave experience created and shared by others. I also believe this fundamental drive will take us back to a more responsible version of our previous selves. I personally cannot wait to get back to the office to co-create with my colleagues, reengage with my local streets, shops, bars and restaurants, and of course to see family and friends. 

But I’ve learnt that there can be a better balance and shape to these different elements in my life. And that changes I make personally – to my spending and travel habits, say, or my work-life routine – could combine with adjustments made by others to drive broader patterns of change which may alter the way we live, work and play long into the future. What do I mean? 

The 2019 version of Tom travelled more overseas, commuted longer and always opted for face-to-face meetings where possible. It was a working paradigm that carried unintentional costs: a sizeable carbon footprint, increased online shopping, reduced time with friends and blurred boundaries between home and work. I was tired and under-exercised. But Tom 2021 – still in development – will be a different proposition entirely. He will travel less, work from home more, and will certainly know when and how to switch off and see people. He will also shop locally. Call me romantic, but this period of global reflection has made me appreciate all things local. 

'I believe we are all, by nature, social beings. We have a deep-rooted instinct to belong and to be part of something. Call it community or society. And whether it’s at home, in leisure or at work, we crave experience created and shared by others. I also believe this fundamental drive will take us back to a more responsible version of our previous selves.'

So how, as a multi-disciplined creative team, do we see this period of change impacting on our work? We know we need to ensure that social mobility and social wellbeing continue to influence the way we design. We will continue to put people at the heart of our efforts to co-create places with our clients. Will use our sister company Pragma to listen to what the data is telling us, so we can see and hear clearly and substantiate the design decisions we make. And we will continue to create blended teams across our global studios so our clients can benefit from the best design solutions from across the world.

I know for sure that the team around me will challenge and push Tom 2021. And when 2022 arrives, it’s going to be fascinating to reflect on our journey through this remarkable period, and on the pathway ahead.