Paul McErlean: How well will our return to the office 'suit' us all?

The Wolseys are proper hospitality entrepreneurs and see the trends and styles quicker than most people

NEXT week, after the 12th break, the offices of my company will reopen, almost four months to the day since we closed up. I’ve been in a few times over that period, just to check on things (an office with no people and no phones ringing in an empty city centre is an eerie and very different place).

We’ve done a staff survey, carried out an extensive risk assessment and had a clearance of all desks and a very deep clean. We’re not putting individual screens up, we don’t need to, we have plenty of space.

In these next months, as per the risk assessment, we’ll only have a maximum of 12 people in the office at any one time – we have desks for 22, two external consultants and a current full-time headcount of 21 people, plus two retained consultants. Four of the team are still on furlough.

Some of the staff, for various and valid reasons are not coming back just yet, others do want the routine and are keen to return. I’ll be going back to the office when we open next week.

Coordinating that return and managing the flow of people will be an interesting and new exercise for us, as will the management of any changes in how we conduct our business. I’m wondering will we resume face-to-face meetings to the same extent as before, for instance? I’m also wondering will there really be a need to put a suit on again (bought two new ones in February too!).

Overall, I feel relieved that we have come through this period relatively well and I'm also grateful for the way our staff and clients have reacted. Under very challenging circumstances, and in some cases with young children to home school, my colleagues have more than delivered on their work and been innovative and creative at times too. That’s not easy when you’ve the same four walls to stare at for weeks on end. And maybe we’re lucky, but our clients have treated us brilliantly too and some of them, in very difficult circumstances, have continued to inspire.

The hospitality and leisure sectors have been worst hit,so it was brilliant to walk back into the Merchant Hotel last Thursday for a trial breakfast, in advance of its Friday reopening. Bill Wolsey, his sons Conall and Luke and his wife Petra are proper hospitality entrepreneurs. They just see trends and styles quicker than most people and they have, as people say, a great eye.

All of their bars and hotels look fantastic and it’s no accident, the level of research and the quest for perfection is something to behold when you get to know Bill and Petra in particular.

So, over a perfect Eggs Benedict, Bill told me about the recent internal works which have taken place in the hotel. New furniture, new lighting, new flooring and a new bar stand in the globally renowned cocktail bar. It’s a really beautiful refresh of what was already one of the best small hotels in the world.

Bill was telling me that he’d also changed the music for the hotel, a really important part of any room’s ambience. Bill had researched it and put all of the new play lists together himself over lockdown. Like any entrepreneurs I know, he wasn’t sitting around waiting for something to happen during lockdown, he was busy.

There are plenty of others. The Fegan brothers, Mark and Ryan from Keady in Armagh, who have a number of businesses but have developed DrinkApp to help bar and restaurant owners order and pay for drinks and food via their newly develop App technology.

And Pete Boyle from Argento and Let’s Go Hydro has created a drive-in cinema. And Gareth Murphy of We Are Vertigo looked at the outdoor space in Titanic Quarter beside his Spud Murphy’s restaurant and has now created the most superb outdoor facility with Glastonbury style tenting, word burners, cut-out shipping containers purposed into little lounges and enough of that nice spongy, fake grass to cover a golf course.

Cargo by Vertigo opened this weekend and now Gareth’s ski instructors and Inflata park supervisors are floor managers and waiters. What a pivot for a business which had to close completely four months ago. You can’t keep good entrepreneurs down.

So, as I wrote the last time I was on this page, it’s going to be different and it’s going to take real positive energy to come through the period ahead but it is definitely possible, particularly if those who are in a position to do so, show leadership and a bit of care.

One of the lessons I've learned in all of this, because I’ve seen and heard about it in action and we’ve practised it ourselves I hope, is to be generous and flexible with staff, clients and suppliers.

There are challenging economic times ahead and nobody will be served well by ruthless business behaviour. So, that certainly won’t be my approach, whether I put one of the new suits on or not.

Paul McErlean ( is managing director and founder of MCE Public Relations.

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