Developing expertise during difficult times

Last week Helix trainee Oliver Pearce secured a place to study Quantity Surveying at Westminster University. This is fantastic news, not just for Ollie, but our entire team. It is a helpful reminder of how – with the overwhelming challenges of recent months – short-term risk management often conflates with positive strategic thinking and investment. 

Speaking in this recent video, Ollie explains how Helix is sponsoring his degree, and how he is excited by the “brilliant opportunities” to be exposed to different areas of our organisation.

Ollie’s ambition and success has reminded me that every business should, where possible, continue to offer training and development, especially when faced with uncertainty.

Lessons from 2009

In 2009, during the last significant recession, I was myself working my way through a management development programme. When asked to present an industry subject to my executive board, I chose to focus on “upskilling in a downturn”. 

Within the presentation, I set out how, too often, economic downturns trigger budget cuts – and learning and development funding is usually the first to go. 

While it is easy to understand why reduced revenues necessitate heightened cost-consciousness, halting investment in upskilling is a strategic misstep that deprives organisations of key opportunities, which they could potentially exploit during a recession or a period of uncertainty. 

Investing in our people

More than 10 years on, and as Managing Director of Newbury-based SME Helix, I feel equally as passionate about making the most of opportunities. As an organisation, we have pushed on through this difficult period, bolstered by the news that we have been appointed a preferred building partner for three West London housing associations – Octavia Housing, Origin Housing and Shepherds Bush Housing Group – to help deliver their “significant development programmes”. We are also in the latter stages of procurement processes for several other clients.

In 2020, whilst COVID-19 as the trigger for our economic uncertainty is unique, the decisions faced by organisations are all too familiar. And it remains the case that providing career development opportunities drives and sustains employee engagement. 

Investing in individual team members leads to innovation and the kind of discretionary effort that increases productivity and performance in a way that is much-needed during more difficult times. 

Offering opportunities

Such vital investment decisions are not always easy. Much like a decision to switch to sustainable technology, they require a certain amount of longer-term thinking. However, I believe the organisations that take a conscious decision to continue to offer development opportunities to their employees are able to communicate a stronger employer brand, and compete for the best talent during times when wages and other benefits are likely to remain stagnant. 

Over the last few months, we have continued to provide development opportunities to staff, including those furloughed, whether through continued support in achieving professional membership or further on-line technical training. We have been consciously talking about positive opportunities with team members, highlighting the benefits of upskilling and pursuing learning options.

As we safely return to work following lockdown, having a skilled workforce is more important than ever. It is important to protect and expand our apprenticeship, skills and education budgets, and, as a sector, reach out to a wider workforce – in particular, those who are just starting their careers, like Ollie. 


This topic more broadly underlines a wider, more current priority in the “levelling-up” agenda, which aims to reduced disparity in productivity and earnings across the UK, and the importance in educating changing attitudes, supporting mental health, and creating equal opportunity.

As Ollie begins to apply what he is learning during his degree to help us deliver recently secured projects, including consulting on the development of 185 new affordable homes for Catalyst Housing Group at Brackley in Northamptonshire, we as a wider team will benefit from his fresh input.

Our ongoing investment in our team members will help Helix to work our way through tough times and continue to be experts in building brilliant homes.

Nic Davies is Managing Director of Helix