COVID-19 – The Challenges, Opportunities And Lessons Learned

All businesses are having to adapt to working in a safe and responsible manner to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and none more so than those in construction.

However, that doesn’t mean that once we are back up and running 100% that we want to revert back to how things were before the pandemic came along. The last 3 months have given us the opportunity to review many areas of our business and come up with ideas and options that will make us more efficient, allow us to reduce our carbon footprint and work even more collaboratively with our clients.  

It is evident that being adaptable and flexible about how you work and where you work is key to the future success of businesses across the country.

It will be many months before we are likely to see our office locations open up to anywhere near full staffing levels, so even those people who will end up eventually returning to the office full time will require a different management style in the short term. One of the primary challenges has been how we come up with an approach that takes in to account we are dealing with people who are used to working in an office environment.

For those who will continue to work away from the office, consideration needs to be given as to how we support people faced with challenges such as lack of workspace, isolation, young children, poor internet etc. whilst at the same time we ensure levels of productivity remain where we need them to be in order that people carry out their roles effectively.

How do we deal with those that will see it as an opportunity to drop down a gear and at the same time ensure that other colleagues are not having to ‘take up the slack’ resulting from this?   

We need to decide how do we maintain the environment of a team culture, fundamental to the ethos of Bell Group when colleagues have less interaction than previously – Zoom and Microsoft Teams can only go so far in bridging the gap here but how do we come up with a solution that goes beyond this level of interaction and ensure the team spirit is not something that comes and goes on a laptop screen?

As I see it, the businesses that will be successful will be those who embrace the new times by investing both time and resource in to ensuring that staff are able to fulfil their duties away from the office environment and at the same time ensure that their wellbeing and drive to succeed are as little affected as possible

Looking beyond the office environment, when it comes to carrying out our works on-site or in people’s homes, the way we deliver our projects will be changed in a less obvious way with site-based staff carrying out their tasks in a similar manner to before, albeit with a heightened level of awareness and understanding when it comes to their responsibility towards others, updated safe working practices and the new PPE regime that they will need to follow.

Those contracts staff who have traditionally been used to spending their time part in the office and part on site will have to get used to, in the short term at least, splitting their time between making sure the sites are running smoothly and doing the desk-based part of their role at home or on a rotational basis at offices working to pre-agreed times

We envisage that many of our site teams will deliver the projects in ‘work bubbles’ for the foreseeable future – these are small groups made up of the various trades required to carry out the works. This will reduce risk at the same time as ensuring there is minimal impact on productivity and adherence to programmes of work as well as timescales

Those working in trades who traditionally carry out their roles alone will see less change, although they too will inevitably need to alter some of their habits to reduce risk and help us ensure both their own safety and wellbeing as well as that of those that they deal with on a day to day basis. Visits to office locations and merchants will be kept to a minimum and as a consequence there is a potential that they start to feel a little isolated and removed from the central team, this is something we need to be aware of and we need to make sure that steps we have taken to address this are effective

Looking at the way we have responded to the pandemic across the group it has been a huge plus that we have been able to tap in to our ‘in house’ Health & Safety Division. COVID-19 has made it essential for us to constantly review the steps that have been put in place over recent months. We have also had to spend significant amounts of time reviewing the way we will do things in the future and what other ideas there are to improve the approach we take. With the benefit of the knowledgeable, professional, and committed team at Bell Safety Services we have been able to keep updated and informed on the latest government advice and guidelines and have been able to ensure that decisions taken have been made on how we deal with COVID-19, together with its obvious long lasting impact, are based on sound rationale and with our responsibility toward safe working practices being central to each and every decision made.

As a consequence of the joined-up approach lead by Bell Safety Services it has also been encouraging to see the response we have had from the vast majority of our clients when it has come to their reviews of our response to the COVID-19, which has clearly been and remains, an unprecedented situation faced by all businesses. The number of clients that have given us complimentary feedback gives us the confidence to know that they recognise the major investment made by us to ensure that we come up with robust safe working practices as well as sensible solutions to whatever issues need to be addressed

It has also become evident that the enhanced reputation which has resulted from the way we have been proactive responding to the many aspects of the situation we find ourselves in, together with our willingness to share any new ideas and procedures, will stand us in good stead in the months and years to come . We have, in my opinion, approached the challenges in a manner befitting of a company at the forefront of our industry should, leading the way, setting examples and looking after our people, so to find that this is recognised by others is extremely rewarding.     

Looking beyond the current position where skies are bluer, crime has fallen and everyone has been reminded what a wonderful thing our NHS is, I am convinced many more things will be changed for the better once the pandemic has been overcome, by whatever means. Businesses and communities will show a more altruistic response to day to day issues and problems which would have once been regarded as difficult to resolve will be approached with a sense of improved teamwork. Most people will hopefully be more understanding when it comes to listening to the concerns and worries of colleagues, leading to a more supportive environment in the workplace and greater levels of empathy across the board.

Many organisations in construction have, in recent years, embraced the move toward delivering their services with a greater awareness of the benefits to be gained by working closely with their clients and the communities where they work in. These same organisations now have the opportunity to take this to the next level, promoting even more collaborative working relationships, putting environmental issues at the forefront of decision making, demonstrating how valued the people who work for them are and making Wellbeing an integral part of what is seen as a successful business. Those who see COVID-19 as a wake-up call and who go on to take this opportunity to improve further will be the ones that see their businesses go from strength to strength.      

By Paul Steedman, Bell Group Managing Director

Changing Perceptions & Raising Aspirations in Apprenticeships

By Julie Lawrenson, Bell Group National Training & Development Manager

It’s no secret that Apprentices are important in todays business landscape and for those employers like Bell that invest in Apprenticeships and have over three decades of success, the business benefits are real and demonstrable.

You may be surprised to learn that 85% of apprentices stay in employment following their training, 64% remain with their original employer and 1 in 5 companies have an ex apprentice represented at board level.

Apprenticeships make good business sense.

The Challenge

Having originally trained and graduated in construction engineering, my passion has long been in supporting young people into the construction sector, particularly those who find themselves disengaged, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have worked alongside, trained and supported apprentices for over 25 years and have been fortunate to collaborate with many stakeholders on major infrastructure projects to test a variety of employability models. I have led on a range of regional and national programmes of study exploring links between the aspirations, attitude and behaviours of young people and how their social upbringing influences educational attainment and participation. This was the pathway that swayed me away from construction operations and into training, development and apprenticeships.

Success at school has for a long time sadly weighted solely on academic excellence resulting in many students being left by the wayside. When we understand these areas of disadvantage, it then provides us with the opportunity to work with key stakeholders and influencers to implement new strategies and promote positive change within schools and the wider education system. When resource and investment is applied to these areas, young people generally flourish and over the years I have seen plenty evidence of this in practice.

With a significantly depleted careers service nationally and our sector somewhere at the bottom of the list of priorities then it will come as no surprise that many young people leave school with low aspirations simply because the provision of careers guidance setting out the full range of training options is not working. Timely and sustained engagement with young people is key and now more than ever, employers have an instrumental role to play in supporting this objective.

There are of course some well-established careers resources available and the Construction Industry Training Board alongside Trade Federations and Trade Associations play a critical role in championing the ‘apprenticeship’ cause and as such, they are to be applauded but the reality is that there is so much more to be done to educate influencers and promote apprenticeships within our sector. Apprenticeships are still seen as second best by many schools and whilst there is dedicated support for those achievers choosing the University route, there is not the same level of student support for Apprenticeships.

At Bell we acknowledge we have a part to play in the education process and continually review and update our careers engagement strategy to promote apprentice opportunities and ensure they are readily accessible. We weave in the support of our Community Engagement Team who play a part in engaging young people and to date have trained over 20 Construction Ambassadors across the business providing us with the edge to engage with schools’ colleges and present meaningful interventions to teachers and students alike.

Over recent years we have also refined our recruitment processes and have successfully linked in diploma and national progression award students from the regional Bell Academies providing an additional talent pipeline for Bell. In doing this, we have widened participation in our apprentice programme, improved diversity and supported greater social mobility across communities.

Responding to Change

Since 2016 there have been wide reforms to the Apprenticeship system; the introduction of the apprentice levy in England, the introduction of Trailblazers and shift from Apprentice Frameworks to Standards, a review of the National Occupational Standard and Skills Test and the introduction of the Modern Apprenticeship programme in Scotland. Although these changes may be for the greater good there is no doubt that they have presented employers with new challenges particularly large employers like Bell who employ apprentices across all 3 nations in the United Kingdom as the funding, programme content and delivery mechanism differ resulting in a complex terrain.

These changes coupled with many college mergers have resulted in programme interruptions and we will not be the only employer that has evidenced inconsistencies in apprenticeship provision over recent years leading to skills and competency gaps impacting on the calibre of apprentices and their future prospects. As a business we need the assurance that apprentices are work ready at the end of their programme and have a moral obligation to ensure that apprentices reach their potential and achieve their apprenticeship timely.

We recognise that apprentices work best when they are embedded into the fabric of our workforce planning and the greatest opportunities arise when the business has the ability to train apprentices in a way that promotes specific skills that are required by the business.

This was the catalyst for change.

The business made the decision in 2019 to move away from conventional apprenticeship provision, initially in Scotland, in favour of developing an in-company Apprentice delivery programme. With the support of colleagues at Skills Development Scotland, the national Skills Agency for Scotland the business commenced the process of becoming an accredited centre with the Scottish Qualification Authority and were subsequently awarded an Apprenticeship funding contract in 2020.

The Future

The journey to where we are now has been a real learning curve and as we move forward will no doubt continue to present us with new and stretching opportunities but at the same time it is an exciting time for the business and in establishing ‘Bell Apprenticeships’ we welcome on board a team that are committed to supporting our business vision. Our delivery model means that Bell are not only investing in young people but the business as a whole and this ensures long term sustainability. Our focus will be on providing learners with skills, knowledge and behaviours relevant to our workplace, embedding organisational culture every step of the way resulting in high calibre painters and decorators.

As we move towards our 2020 intake, we have put measures in place that will allow young people to maximise their potential once they have joined us. We will utilise the wealth of experience and expertise of existing Supervisors and Managers within the business to deliver on the job training and by means of recruiting a dedicated Skills Co-ordinator will ensure that there is a consistent approach to development and competency across the Bell branch network for each and every apprentice that joins our programme. Our Assessors are newly appointed and come with a wealth of experience within the painting and decorating sector and will follow their own programme of Continual Professional Development as they carry out their own role in reviewing and assessing our learners.

Bell apprentices will benefit from high quality off the job training interventions that will be a stimulating and engaging part of their programme of study. They will have access to our on line learning portal ‘Elevate’ to enhance their development, the support of our internal safety team; Bell Safety Services who will deliver accredited Health & Safety training and support local managers deliver our Working at Height Standard resulting in work ready, confident and competent apprentices on completion of their apprenticeship programme. This new model also provides an ideal platform for me in the capacity of National Training and Development manager to impart my knowledge and deliver training through a range of mediums as well as providing bespoke training to our dedicated Apprentice Mentors who are appointed to promote the wellbeing and progression of our learners and supporting them to achieve their aspirations.

We acknowledge that apprentices will bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to our business. We also know that we have the ability to offer apprentices a long and fulfilling career. By providing scalable and sustainable investment ‘Bell Apprenticeships’ will become the ‘go to’ employer in Scotland for Painting & Decorating Apprenticeships.

In simple terms, Investing in Apprenticeships and Investing in our Future.

Bell Group launch their first Decorating Hubb

Bell Group recently helped students transform a derelict wing at the rear of the school into the newly launched Bell Decorating Hubb: a buzzy learning area where, students can feel inspired to learn and challenge themselves to develop new skills.

The Hubb gives learners an insight into the industry at an early stage, allowing them to make an informed decision about their future career plans, and has got off to a great start many participants helping in the renovation showing a real interest and desire to pursue a career in painting and decorating!

Hubb workshops are designed to be interactive with practical and engaging activities and includes involvement from Bell supply chain and other local contractors. Learners work towards completing a Task Book and receive a Certificate of Completion which can be included within applications for Apprenticeships or College courses as a demonstration of prior learning.

One of Bell’s key business objectives is to provide opportunities for all. As an inclusive and socially ethical employer they embrace a responsibility to drive progress within the industry and continue to develop new concepts that promote the industry as a viable employment route for everyone.

This is a fantastic opportunity to work closely with the school to open up opportunities to learners. As a business we feel a strong responsibility to drive progress within the industry and continue to develop new concepts that promote construction as a viable employment route for everyone.

Craig Bell, Bell Group Chief Executive

The Hubb will continue to be generously supported by Crown Paints who not only donated paint and materials for the workshop makeover but will also be providing valuable workshops to the learners throughout each year.

The Link School is delighted to be working with Bell Group as our local enterprise partner and both the staff and learners are looking forward to developing new skills and experiences as the Hubb develops. This is an innovative and exciting opportunity for our young people to learn practical skills with the support of experienced professionals and will give them a positive route into a possible future career in the industry

Mrs G Nesbitt – Associate Senior Leader / Careers Lead, The Link School

Places for People, Fire Risk Assessments

How Bell Group use eLearning to keep staff safe, happy and productive

At Bell we understand our people are our greatest assets, and that’s why we take the safety, health and wellbeing of our staff incredibly seriously.

We have always had a social conscience and tried to use the work that we do to make a positive impact. I see many businesses today trying to emulate us, but fundamentally, you have to believe in the work you are doing and it has to form part of the DNA of your business if you want to drive real change.

Craig Bell, Chief Executive

We’ve been using iHASCO, a market-leading provider of workplace eLearning, for the past 18 months as part of our wider Health & Safety strategy for which they offer concise, video-based training that helps our 1800 employees understand their Health & Safety responsibilities, helping us to create a safer workforce.

We use a wide range of iHASCO’s core Health & Safety courses, including Fire Awareness, Working at Height and Asbestos Awareness. We also offer staff a range of HR Compliance courses, including Mental Health Awareness  to help to raise awareness of mental health and the support available should they or others need it; Equality & Diversity training to develop employees understanding of the importance of diversity and our expectations as an organisation; Environmental Awareness; DSE and Fire Awareness; and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations).

Courses like Asbestos Awareness and Legionella Awareness teach our staff how to react should there be an incident when on-site. The way we see it, if our staff are safer on the job, then so are our clients!

Whilst we understand that there is a lot more to Health & Safety than online learning iHASCO’s offering has allowed us to train all staff across the group in a cost-effective and time efficient manner. Their LMS allows for easy tracking and reporting and our staff have given us fantastic feedback on the courses, rating iHASCO 4.6 out 5 overall. We couldn’t ask for much more from a provider!

Julie Lawrenson, Bell Group National Training & Development Manager

Want to learn more about the Bell Groups Community and Environmental initiatives?

See our Community Initiatives here.

See our Environmental Initiatives here.

Bell Group & Curo launch ‘Love Snow Hill’ in Bath

The community of Snow Hill came together at the Gateway Centre in Bath last week to celebrate the launch of #LoveSnowHill, a year-long programme of exciting activities and events that will improve and brighten up the estate’s gardens and outdoor spaces.

Organised by the newly formed Snow Hill Residents’ Association in partnership with Bell Group and housing association Curo, residents and local volunteers – including local Police Community Support Officers Gemma and Chloe – spent the day planting 900 spring-flowering tulip bulbs across the estate.

This was followed by the official launch where residents took part in making bee box hotels under the watchful eyes of Bathscape and Avon Wildlife Trust, and planted bulbs for the home, assisted by Aaron from Avon Greens.

The Residents’ Association are encouraging members of their community to get involved in all the great events that are planned for the next year. These include establishing a forest school, setting up a regular gardening club for children and adults, and harvesting the wildflower meadows that have recently been planted all over the estate.

Local garden designer Rosie Nottage, along with the Bathscape project, will be helping the residents turn the Snow Hill estate into a beautiful haven for wildlife and bio-diversity that can be enjoyed by the whole community.

Rowan Edwards, Chair of the Residents’ Association, said: “We are so excited to launch the Love Snow Hill project and get our estate looking beautiful. Snow Hill has an unfortunate long-standing reputation of having issues and we are working really hard to change this. We are focusing on addressing a lot of the legacy problems and showing that we do have a wonderful community of people, determined for change. You can join us by going to”

Julie Evans, Curo Executive Director of Property Services, said: “The resident-led Love Snow Hill project is a brilliant example of what happens when a community gets together and comes up with their own great ideas. Snow Hill has a fantastic community spirit and I’m really looking forward to seeing these ideas become a reality over the year.”

Jon Wiltshire, Regional Manager Bell Group UK (Bristol) said: “We are delighted to be supporting the residents as they improve their community and create a safe, beautiful and welcoming environment in which they can live and play. As the main contractor leading the re-roofing works on the estate we can’t wait to get stuck in to all the fantastic events planned for next year.”

Lucy Bartlett, Bathscape Community Projects Officer said: “Bathscape and our partner Avon Wildlife Trust are really excited to be working with Snow Hill residents over the next few years. We’ll be creating a forest school area and helping to keep the new meadow area full of wild flowers and great for bees and other wildlife.”

Bell Group receive Ministry of Defence Silver ERS Award

Bell Group are delighted to be one of eleven Scottish employers that received a top award from the Ministry of Defence for their outstanding support for the Armed Forces.

We were presented with the Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) Silver Award at a black-tie dinner in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle 14th November 2019. The prestigious accolade is the second-highest badge of honour available to organisations that employ and support Reservists, service leavers, Veterans and their families.

In Pic………. (c) Wullie Marr Photography

Guests were welcomed to the Great Hall by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Clark, the Commander of Edinburgh Garrison before each employer received their ERS Silver award from Major General Simon Brooks-Ward, CVO, OBE, TD, VR, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Reserves and Cadets) – the most senior Armed Forces Reservist in the UK.

Those in attendance also enjoyed a performance from the George Heriot’s Pipe Band and the Royal Marines Band and were given an insight into how fellow employers supported their Reservists, and the business benefits of part-time military personnel, through a number of speeches during the evening.   

The audience heard from Flying Officer Ashley Brooks of 1756 (Broxburn) Squadron on his role as an Adult Volunteer with the RAF Air Cadets before Major Scott Menzies, a Reservist with 6 SCOTS and a pilot with Loganair, spoke about his dual role as a Reservist and an employee. 

Each Silver Award winner has signed the Armed Forces Covenant, a commitment to supporting Defence through services, policy and projects.

Employers have gone above and beyond with their support through engaging with initiatives such as employing veterans, supporting individuals transitioning out of the Armed Forces into a new career and providing flexibility for Reservists.

In Pic………. (c) Wullie Marr Photography

Bell Group, provides flexible work packages for all staff including those that are part of the Armed Forces. All staff are supported during deployment and the company supports charities including the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust (RNBT) and the Royal British Legion.

Bell Group CEO, Craig Bell, said: “Bell Group continues to have a strong partnership with the Armed Forces and are proud to have redecorated, maintained and refurbished accommodation, service and support buildings for the Armed Forces for over 20 years. We believe this is an important part of our business activity.

“As a family owned business we believe in, and invest in, our employees. We provide flexibility to many staff serving with the Armed Forces, support them during deployment and actively recruit from service leavers who, we know from experience, have the skill and attitude we seek as an employer.

“Bell Group is very proud to have been awarded the Ministry of Defence’s ERS Silver Award, one of the highest accolades for supporting the Armed Forces community.”

Decoration and refurbishment to hotel event suites

Taunton School, Internal Redecorations

Linthouse Housing Association