The way we work in the UK has undeniably been affected by the lockdowns imposed since March last year, and professional networking and socialising has been no exception.
From formal events to impromptu discussions by the printer, social contact with colleagues and peers plays a huge role in our day-to-day work. However, this is especially significant for young professionals in the early stages of their careers.
In the office, a wide variety of knowledge, guidance and expertise is readily available through regular contact with colleagues, friends and other professionals. A great deal can be learned simply from exposure, and many insightful and educational discussions are had across desk pods and around the office.
These offer young surveyors not only knowledge but a glimpse into the complex thought processes and considerations behind even the most straightforward reports and emails. This is essential for developing everyday skills, as well as offering support to APC candidates as they progress through their training.
Connecting with peers in your own business, such as graduates and apprentices, also provides a unique sense of camaraderie. Much like a class at school, these junior colleagues start their professional journey at the same time and face the same challenges together. The support networks forged by this experience often last for years, and continue to grow as they progress in their careers.
Outside the office, socialising with peers from other businesses also forms a huge part of early career development. I recently spoke online with a few of the surveyors I work alongside, and we all agreed that having a network you can share your struggles and successes with is imperative.
Professional networking through groups such as RICS Matrics are often the first opportunity new surveyors have to feel a larger sense of purpose, and appreciate they are not so much performing a job but are in fact part of a wider community. These early connections often also provide the foundation for new surveyors' future networks, potentially influencing their career prospects, because establishing good business relationships forms a crucial part of their roles.
However, perhaps the most significant feature of these networks is the space they give for surveyors to develop the skills essential for career progression alongside their peers. This everyday contact can help cultivate effective communication, teamwork and public speaking skills, as well as building confidence and assertiveness. These in turn help young surveyors to become more comfortable with sharing their thoughts and ideas, which ultimately enhances the quality of service they can offer to clients.
"Connecting with peers in your own business, such as graduates and apprentices, provides a unique sense of camaraderie"
Given all the benefits for young professionals of networking and socialising, the absence of such contact during the pandemic has been challenging. Along with the wider population, this has had an impact on mental health. Maintaining an existing network has been more difficult than usual even with the technology available, and trying to extend your existing network has been even trickier.
Young professionals I have spoken with during this period have described how lockdown has shown how much they thrive off social interactions. This has made extended periods of isolation a huge hurdle to overcome when trying to find motivation and energy day to day, especially for those who may have been furloughed.
What's clear is that those who have joined the profession during this unusual time have been directly affected. While employers have been supportive and accommodating, the lack of social contact has simply made it hard to settle in to new roles. For instance, working from home has meant that the task of acclimatising to a new company and office culture is more difficult for some.
Consequently, it is easy to see how some new surveyors may feel isolated and frustrated with their lack of development. A lack of access to fellow team members will limit development and learning opportunities.
Fortunately, most companies do have systems in place to support these new intakes. External support has been slightly more challenging to find, however: most opportunities will be advertised on mailing lists, which many new surveyors will not yet be able to access.
In fact, this is a more general issue – many of the mailing lists are not well advertised or visible, and are usually shared with new joiners by word of mouth at events or by other surveyors in the office. Working from home, many new staff aren't visible to the rest of their office, and as a result will likely not have heard of the lists and other professional opportunities.
New starters already have limited professional contacts, so establishing a network in these circumstances is hard. Few would have had the chance to join any of the relevant groups, many of which have reduced their levels of activity due to ongoing restrictions on physical events.
In a more personal capacity, newly qualified surveyors or those who started on graduate schemes immediately before the pandemic tend to live alone or in houseshares, having often moved far away from their home towns and support networks to be closer to city locations. Lockdown has therefore left them feeling significantly isolated. In addition to this, relative economic uncertainty has also caused concern about career progression for new and unestablished surveyors.
Despite this, some have successfully maintained social contact throughout the pandemic. A lot of people I have spoken to cited as beneficial the regular team calls where they have discussed work and socialised.
On the other hand, external networking has been less structured and more generally guided by individuals' own scheduling and organisation. Examples given included coffee and lunchtime video catch-ups, as well as committee and group social events held outside working hours.
These have boosted people's moods and provided the social interaction many have craved during the pandemic; but the prevailing feeling is that it just isn't the same. Online networking and socialising are very different to in-person interaction, and for young professionals who aren't as seasoned in asserting themselves in such forums they can be daunting.
However, it is also important to remember the positives. There have been undeniable benefits in working from home: while these vary greatly between individuals and their circumstances, most of the young surveyors I've spoken with have found at least a few perks.
One is the time gained by cutting out the daily commute, not to mention the potential cost saving. According to a report published by the TUC in 2019, the average daily commute in the UK totalled nearly 59 minutes there and back, though it varied between regions. I personally have been able to reclaim almost three hours a day: before the pandemic this tended to coincide with my most productive spells, but of course I was not able to work.
Adapting to a new way of working has been challenging, but it has also presented young surveyors with a unique opportunity to become more adaptable and enhance their communication skills. It has also done a huge amount to dispel many myths about remote working that may have made employers hesitant to allow it before the pandemic.
So, while it is likely that flexible working is here to stay, it seems doubtful that videoconferencing will entirely usurp in-person professional networking. However, it has certainly opened a new avenue to explore, even once social distancing restrictions can be lifted.