John Whaley was a senior electrical engineer with Buro Happold. A warm, gentle man, voice deep with the burr of his native Sheffield and with an entertaining penchant for mixed metaphors ("Now then, let's put our cards in the air and balls on the table …"). The office stopped at the news. Nobody could take it in. We piled down to the pub in an attempt to make sense of this senseless accident.
What surprised me most, perhaps, was the sensitivity of colleagues. Urgent deadlines became flexible, demands for site visits were deferred, irate clients were placated … It shouldn't surprise me – after all, construction is still a people business, and the loss of such a good one provokes sympathy and regret. It's a cliché, but a true one, that you only really appreciate someone when they're gone.
We don't value our people enough in this business. We expect them to work long hours; we expect them to attend meetings at the other end of the country, getting home after the rest of the family has gone to bed; we expect them to turn up when they're ill ("What do you mean you're too sick to make this month's site meeting? Unless you're connected to a drip I want you there!"); and we expect them to get schemes designed, costed and built.
The fact that they do continue to come to work is less to do with the pay – well, in consulting engineering, anyway – and more to do with the enjoyment that they derive from the job. This seems to be sufficient recompense, because, God knows, nobody ever says: "Thank you; job well done." We take staff for granted, forget to applaud success and remember only to grumble at failures.
Staff welfare, if the term is used at all, probably means pointing out where the first-aid kit lives
"Staff welfare" is not a term widely used in our business. If it's used at all, it's probably in pointing out where the first-aid kit lives. There's no sense of nurturing, of spending time with people as people. Do you know the name of your work-neighbour's spouse? If you do, the chances are that you met at the office Christmas party, and you can't really remember what they look like as you were tired and emotional at the time. If we all took a little more time to get to know each other better, think how much easier it would be to ask for favours – or help, even. Who knows, we might even become friends …
Crossing that barrier from colleague to friend can be difficult – and not always appropriate – but that shouldn't prevent simple concern for the well-being of others. An offer of a drink when trapped on a late train on the way back from a meeting; a polite health enquiry on return from sick-leave; an expression of concern following a wild-eyed late arrival – simple things that allow us to be something other than machines forced to share working space. And that's down to all of us; it's not purely the domain of the human resources manager (the one with "fluffy" skills) who's wheeled in when there looks like there might be a problem, or of the boss, who, once a year, under the duress of a staff review, adopts a caring pose and asks: "How're things going?"
Bottling up concerns for a year does not make for a healthy or productive employee. Here's another cliché: a happy workforce is a productive workforce. There are always going to be pressures in construction, but it's certainly not going to help profitability if the team is disgruntled with their desk lighting, unhappy with the car-parking and permanently calling IT to fix that dodgy monitor … Small things, but vital.
Those that worked most closely with John have been swift to share their respect, esteem and affection. It's a shame though, that it takes such a tragedy to make us stop and express our approbation. Perhaps if we did it more, we'd have a more co-operative industry.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold in Bath.