Guarding MD on the new normal

by Mark Rowe

The COVID-19 crisis has put the spotlight on a number of industries, not least the manned guarding sector. But while the national media has tended to report the negative stories about our industry, there are many positive tales that are yet to be told, writes David Mundell, Managing Director of Axis Security, pictured.

When they are, they will reveal an industry that has adapted quite brilliantly to the challenge of COVID-19 and with a degree of agility and proactivity that should be recognised and applauded. The manned guarding sector has also, for the main part, responded in such a way that could have far-reaching consequences on the customer/supplier relationships of the future.

In the first few weeks of the crisis, there was an understandable focus on the vulnerability of the security officer. What those early stories failed to tell, however, was that security officers were fulfilling a key-worker role long before the words ‘key workers’ were even being used. Certainly, there were those who were obliged to go to work to protect the family income, and had justifiable concerns about exposing their own family members to unnecessary risk. But there was a far greater number who saw a duty to protect their clients, as frontline workers on a par with the emergency services.

It is this sense of duty and commitment that has been largely under-reported. It did not mean, however, that such officers were forgotten, or left on their own to cope in extraordinary circumstances. Vulnerabilities had to be identified, and support offered where it was needed most. It meant regular communication, from the Group CEO down, to ensure officer welfare remained paramount. The importance of keeping in touch was never lost. Within Axis Security, as an example, a decision was taken not to furlough any operational staff – which might have been an ‘easy’ option – but was decided against to ensure our people were properly supported in the field.

In our experience of the crisis, this support, however, has not only come from the employer or its senior management. Customers and clients have been similarly supportive both at a practical and emotional level. Some clients, for example, have paid the officer’s congestion charge (where they apply), or arranged parking or, in at least one case, for taxis to bring officers to/from their place of work.

The crisis has led to a better understanding between the officers and their clients. It has also seen the role of the security officer evolve. Whereas they will never forget their primary responsibility to protect a business, its people and their assets, now their remit is much wider. Now they have a role as ‘protectors’ to keep employees ‘safe’ by providing a reassurance that the risk of contamination is under control.

Whole reception areas in commercial premises have been re-designed to allow for a ‘return to work’, whatever that might eventually look like. In some, new ‘corridors’ of plastic screens have been erected to keep those entering or leaving a building apart; alternate turnstiles have been disabled to ensure social distancing; one-way systems put in place; doors closed and locked to give greater control to access and aggress. Responsibility for managing the ‘people flow’ has fallen to the security officer.

A new collaboration between customer and supplier has emerged. Customers are now asking for our advice, rather than telling us what they want. Today it is more about consultation; customers seem more prepared to listen and are actively looking to our industry for solutions. It is as though we have now been given ‘permission’ to be more innovative, and they are more willing to hear our ideas around things such as signage, access flows and lift capacities. There has also been a greater willingness to share best practice and ideas from other buildings or property managers with similar concerns.

Security officers are becoming even more intrinsic to the good order and management of people coming into or leaving a building. They are there to provide a feeling of comfort and protection, and of perceived ‘safety’ of their environment.

The redesign of reception areas has, of course, meant changes to operational procedures, which have in turn meant re-writes to the appropriate process manuals in line with Quality Standards. Our security teams have taken such changes in their stride, and use the necessary toolbox talks to cascade any additional training required for each individual site. They have used similar tools to communicate more general, company-wide policies such as First Aid treatment protocols which have all, of course, had to be revisited.

And there are other trends emerging from the crisis. Recruitment of new talent into the industry seems to be improving, and a higher percentage of new recruits attend interviews, albeit ‘virtual’ ones. It may be because of the downturn in other sectors, such as hospitality, and it will be interesting if this is a trend that continues into the longer term. But what it is allowing is the industry to showcase itself as one with more career opportunities than an outsider might imagine, and that has to be a positive development to our industry in the future.

New business opportunities have slowed, but again the picture is not necessarily consistent across sectors or across the country. Processes that had started pre-COVID are continuing, and those businesses with a strong pipeline of work are doing better than others. Security firms that have looked after their customers, and responded well to the challenge of COVID, may well be asked to extend their current contracts, rather than risk a re-tender at this time.

If there is one, overriding trend we have identified in the last few months it is for a new-found respect for security officers and the vital role that they perform. Perhaps once in the shadows, the crisis has stuck them firmly in the limelight.

Threat levels are still there – terrorism has not gone away – and so COVID must not be allowed to distract officers from their primary purpose. They will remain alert to the threat during these unusual times and their focus will remain the same.

But I hope that all of our officers, within our own business and beyond, are judged with new consideration of the work that they do, and the challenging situation they have confronted and not been found wanting.

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