Leading a Town Planning Team During Lockdown

The last year has seen us make many adjustments in our day-to-day life, not least in the way we approach work and the processes that enable us to carry out our duties.

Local Authority planning is no different, and the sector has undergone a massive adjustment period in the last 12 months. Virtual team meetings and committee meetings over Zoom, virtual hearings, and even remote site visits in some cases, are just some of the changes in procedure that planning teams have experienced over this last year.

This has, in turn, brought about a significant change in the approach of Managers and Team Leaders to how they implement the processes of a planning team, and how they directly manage staff in an empathetic, but also efficient and performance-inducing way.

I spoke to Derek Lawrence, Interim Development Management Team Leader at Maldon District Council, who was kind enough to shed some light on the differences between managing a team before and after lockdown, and how he has had to adapt his approach to the role.

How did you settle into your role at Maldon?

‘From a personal perspective as a planner with 20+ years of experience, and with the last 5 years as a contract planner, I was able to settle into the role quite easily.’ A common problem with beginning a new role during lockdown is the IT and getting set up remotely, but Derek explained that the ‘IT had worked well from the start’. Many Local Authorities have had to work on this aspect with so many permanent and temporary employees starting new roles from their homes instead of the office.

Regarding his transition into the role, Derek explained there was preparation to be done. ‘It was essential to have a dedicated ‘office’ space with a desk and suitable chair. I had to complete a workspace assessment first. Working from the kitchen table would not have been acceptable from the point of view of comfort and virtual meetings in MS Teams or Zoom’. Derek raises an important point, as the environment one puts themself in to work can have a significant impact on their productivity and attitude, which in turn can affect the rest of their team.

What is the main difference between leading a team before and during lockdown?

‘Communication has been the main difference. Not meeting team members face to face with team meetings in the office and the sharing of thoughts and ideas. Seeing how the team members interact with each other’.

Derek highlighted this as one of the major challenges that Team Leaders and their wider teams have faced. ‘Maintaining working as a team and discussing issues remotely. Maintaining the regularity of a normal working day’.

The frequent interaction with team members cannot be replicated whilst at home, as much as technology has adapted. The ability to bounce ideas and questions off one another and lend advice or expertise to someone immediately is lost somewhat and as Derek says that can prove a challenge.

What would be your advice to those leading a planning team during lockdown?

‘Send a good morning message at the start of the day and be available for the team when needed. Have weekly case reviews and ask how people are getting on. Ensure that people are working core hours but allow general flexibility due to other responsibilities such as homeschooling for their children’.

A combination of constant and structured communication with flexibility and understanding towards remote working hours seems to be the crux of Derek’s advice.

What is important for those joining planning teams at the moment to focus on?

Derek again highlights constant communication as something that those joining planning teams during lockdown should pay close attention to, in order to settle in.

‘Establishing contact with existing team members and integrating into the team is vital, which is done by maximising the use of software such as Microsoft Teams to establish a dialogue with other team members’.

Ultimately, how have you and your team fared during lockdown?

‘Younger members have missed the social aspect of the office and ease of being able to talk over issues with senior colleagues. It has been difficult, but overall most of the team have found they have been more productive and have welcomed the flexibility to working hours and the general feeling of being less stressed because of this’.

Lockdown has completely changed the way planning teams and many others have approached work as Derek has highlighted, and there have been many different effects. However, it does appear that as a collective Local Authorities have dealt as well as they possibly can with the situation.

Their successful adaptation to new work processes has not only seen their planners cope and even thrive in some places, but also continue to succeed in dealing with the high workload that lockdown has presented. When lockdown eases and office work can be combined with the flexibility of remote working, the benefits of both for planners across the country will hopefully shine through.

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