Tim Thorlby has been part of the CTC team since 2012 and is currently Managing Director of Clean for Good – a business which emerged from CTC’s community organising in the City of London.
In this personal blog, he reflects on his experiences of the last few weeks and what happens next.
Just a few weeks ago, we were all making our usual plans and getting on with our lives…. and then, suddenly, we are blown sideways. The coronavirus storm arrived at great speed. A wholly unprecedented way of life has suddenly been thrust upon us, and now we find ourselves in lockdown, queuing outside supermarkets and studying bar charts of coronavirus cases every day. The speed and scale of change has been astonishing – a huge storm from nowhere.
At work, the storm has hit hard. I’m Managing Director of Clean for Good, an ethical office cleaning company for London. We had just celebrated our third birthday in February and were looking to round out our best year yet – 60% growth, a team of 50 cleaners and our first signs of profit.
The party never happened.
In the space of two weeks, nearly all of our client buildings were closed – day by day. Quite rightly, of course, following Government guidance on working at home and minimising travel. But in the space of a fortnight we found ourselves to be an office cleaning company with 45 out of our 47 buildings shuttered for the foreseeable future and facing huge uncertainty. Without a doubt, these have been the most stressful weeks of my life. How will we survive? How will we keep paying our team of 50 cleaners? Am I about to lose my job?
The shock to many businesses has been severe – cafes, restaurants, shops and many others have seen their businesses brought to a juddering halt overnight. Some are already going into administration.
Businesses have reacted in many different ways. Many workers have sadly already been dismissed. A million people have applied for Universal Credit in just two weeks. That is a million human tragedies in one statistic.
Weathering the Storm
Since the storm broke, there has been frantic activity to react and put survival strategies in place.
The Government have come up with several enormous rescue packages to protect jobs and livelihoods. The sums involved are going to make the Banks’ ‘bail out’ in 2008-9 look small. Every business and charity has been scrambling to respond in different ways.
At Clean for Good we have worked hard to devise a plan for April (and possibly May) that will keep the show on the road – our aim is to keep every cleaner on payroll and pay them a full 100% London Living Wage, and also to keep and help every customer, many of whom are also in shock. We have sought a fair approach that shares the current burden between employees, business, customers and taxpayer.
The Government’s Job Retention Scheme is hugely important – paying 80% of the wages of many of our team. But some of us are still working and the scheme doesn’t pay for overheads, so there remains a gap to fill. We have asked our customers to continue paying, at a greatly reduced rate. We have cut overheads where we possibly can, including a 50% pay cut for me. We have asked employees to give up some annual leave. If everyone chips in, we think we can do it. Truly, in it together.
And so we were able to pay every employee in full for March, whether working or furloughed, and we fully intend to do the same in April and every month after until we can all go back to work.
Our customers in particular have been very positive in their support for us and nearly all have agreed to pitch in and help us keep the show on the road. So, it might just work – keeping every cleaner and keeping every customer.
After the Storm
Clearly, our present situation is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. So, we need to be thinking about the future – our responses need to be sustainable. And this storm will pass. What will happen after?
I have two thoughts – a ‘micro’ and a ‘macro’ thought.
Firstly, I think it is a mistake to think about our present situation as a ‘hiatus’ – an interruption to ‘real life’. This actually is real life for now and all the usual rules still apply. In particular, we must continue to invest in the quality of our relationships – including at work – so that when the storm passes, we are in a strong position to move on. 2020 must not become a ‘lost year’.
When we launched our ‘rescue plan’ for Clean for Good, I was struck by the response from many of our customers, themselves often under great strain. Many got in touch to offer encouragement and positive messages. This was so helpful and cheering. Thank you! And some have gone further – a handful have volunteered to pay more than the discounted rates they have been asked to, some even offering to pay in full. I have read some very moving messages of support for our cleaners (and backed by hard money!) from customers who refuse to abandon their responsibilities when the chips are down. Such kindnesses and generosity will have a lasting impact. They are a sign of our past relationship, but also an investment in our future relationship.
Secondly, and for the second time in my working career, the Taxpayer has bailed out the private sector. A decade ago it was the banks, now it is the majority of businesses (and charities) in the UK. I have no idea how the UK is going to pay for this in the future, but it feels like the right thing to do, and it opens the door – just a little – to a change of direction when the storm passes.
Could this herald a new understanding between public and private sector in the future? If the private sector recognises the value of public support and is moved to gratitude, could this open up a more generous business sector, with greater awareness of the need to contribute to the Common Good? I certainly don’t think this can be assumed (after all, bailing out the banks has hardly changed them very much!) but the seeds of change may be sown, and with active encouragement, maybe there could be a positive dividend in the future.
At the very least, we might hope (and campaign) for a rapid expansion of the number of employers becoming Living Wage Employers. Out of this present situation something better might emerge – let us set our minds to work for that.
After the rain, the sun.