Our company's response to Coronavirus

2020/04/27

   By Raúl Ferrão

 

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Last March we fought panic and disinformation, in April we fought the virus. I suspect by May we will be fighting fatigue, oblivion and the I-don´t-care attitude. But we will get there.

This year started pretty well. Despite several sources pointing to the possibility of an economic contraction sometime this year and that more and more reports about the Coronavirus spreading to different countries came to us, in fact, on January and February we broke business volume records once again in construction. In the case of the events department, that works specifically with events companies by giving them architecture, engineering and construction support for their events, our quotes and planned jobs for the year had grown to never seen before numbers. Then, in March, all of a sudden, all those events jobs were either suspended or outright cancelled. We quickly understood that the events department would not have a significant business volume this year.

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Temporary structure from our events department for the Vision Awards 2017 | Image by Neves & Ferrão 

Then it was time for the energy efficiency certification department to suffer the impact. It is mandatory to have the energy efficiency certificate of your house if you want to rent or sell it and we do about 7 a day on average. Only an expert qualified by ADENE can issue energy efficiency certificates. Visiting the house is also mandatory before they can calculate or issue the certificates. With a growing share of experts starting to voluntarily exercise social distancing and quarantines, it became difficult and dangerous to do those visits. This is how the number issued by us dropped from 7 a day to 3 a week.

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Lisbon is where we do most real estate energy efficiency certificate visits

It was by then that we were forced to react and then to act so that we could face the new paradigm.

General panic was installed and disinformation was abundant.

Since then, we did a considerable effort to adapt ourselves to the new reality. The first thing we did was transition to telework. This was easiest with the architecture and engineering design department: almost all of these jobs are done behind a computer screen and Neves & Ferrão was ready and in fact has practiced telework since its inception. Meetings with clients where quickly switched to digital with the use of Teams, Zoom, Skype, Hangouts and Whatsapp. Most of City Halls and other official entities were simply not ready to switch to digital permits but I give it that for my surprise, they too adapted to the new reality in less than three weeks. Both our call centre and accounting services switched to telework as well.

However, not every job can be done from home. In our case, most of the jobs we do cannot be done from home. Our construction site managers, team leaders, electricians and electrician trainees simply can´t switch to telework - either they would keep working and taking risks for their health and others´ or we would have to halt production on construction, rehabilitation and electricity departments. Well, these three departaments stood for more than two thirds of our business volume in 2019 and the decision to shut them down would have striken a harsh blow on the economic sustainability of the company, inevitably affecting the sustainability of the jobs themselves.

For me, this was the most decisive moment of the whole pandemic we have been living until now. But it was also the that we got a very important declaration by our workers that could not work from home that they would be continuing to work on site. For that, I had the opportunity to thank them personally and I'll gladly do it again here - your contribution may have been decisive for the continuity of our operations as a whole. We can do anything given there is a reasonable amount of courage, goodwill, commitment and specially by adopting appropriate security measures. Alcohol, bleach, gloves, masks, face shields, social distancing and protection are all words that rushed into our world last month.

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It is not possible to build, rehabilitate or install electricity on villas with telework | Image by Neves & Ferrão

I think it's safe to assume that none of us were immune to the stream of news that reached us and that showed the lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for health workers. Doctors, nurses and others, men and women working daily and in close proximity with the patients were lacking basic protection equipment such as face shields. It was then that, in the beggining of April, we heard about an initiative by Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia among others. They were producing 3D printed face shields with the aim of delivering them to hospitals in need. It was a simple 3D printed part, an A4 acetate sheet and an elastic. It was time to fight the virus.

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Monique Reprezas testing one of the first face shields she printed | Image by Neves & Ferrão

To us, it looked like a very interesting initiative. Not only the hospitals would get the face shields they badly needed but also the students would feel relevant and given a special and unique purpose. It was a no brainer. - we decided to join the initiative, made a couple of calls (many of us graduated there) started printing what we could with our one printer that frankly is more used to printing reduced scale villas! We proudly printed and delivered until last week, when we got the good news that the industry had picked the slack, was mass producing and our help would no longer be needed.

May is next week. Many people spent last month in varying levels of quarantine and a growing and generalized sentiment of fatigue is brewing. When comparing to some other countries, the number of fatalities and infected presented by DGS have also contributed to lowering the panic levels and raising the confidence levels. Many different industries and services are planning to return in May. But this is a double-edged sword.

For there to be an economic recovery, it is necessay to have safety and health. It is necessary to mantain social distancing and that masks, face shields, gloves and disinfectants are used. But most importantly, it is paramount that everyone is trained on using them, with the same intensity that the social media told us to go home as the Government was using that time to decide how to act. It is now time to abandon #stayathome and embrace #stayprotected. This is not what I see around me: right now there is a big group of youngsters playing basketball in front of my house, they have no such concept of social distance and I have witnessed these behaviours growing the last couple of weeks. It is necessary to fight the I-don´t-care attitude.

But back to Neves & Ferrão, let me finish by saying that even if 6 of us are in layoff, we are all well and healthy, most of us active: construction, rehabilitation and electric works keep going with certain restrictions, projects keep going in telework mode and energy efficiency certification also (with a higher protection level) - only events are suspended. Our next challenge will be to manage our physical return to the office in a responsible manner and taking to account the specifics of each of our branches. And because it is never enough to say this: everything will be OK.


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