Churchill Retirement Living Responds to Pandemic

Posted 23 March 2020 by Rupert Bates

Rupert Bates talks to founder, chairman and CEO Spencer McCarthy.

Churchill Retirement Living, with 79-years-old the average age of its apartment owners, has acted swiftly and decisively in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The specialist developer immediately had to ensure the safety, security and wellbeing of the elderly residents in its retirement developments the length and breadth of the country.

That meant closing down visits to its lodges, apart from access for key care workers and bringing in strict hygiene practices across all sites.

Churchill set up a taskforce to respond to the crisis – its own COBRA committee – communicating daily with key representatives from all departments such as HR, sales and marketing, finance, IT, operations and its management services company Millstream.

“Clear communication has been vital to give colleagues, owners, customers and their families as much certainty as we can during a very unsettling time and our approach throughout has been to stick closely to government advice that has been changing on a daily basis,” said Spencer McCarthy, founder, chairman and CEO of Churchill Retirement Living.

Owners’ lounges, such a source of community and comfort on such schemes, and guest suites were closed down and all events and social gatherings suspended.

“The vast majority of our residents have naturally supported what we are doing - indeed what we absolutely have to do. But, as you can imagine, it is desperately difficult for them being isolated from family and friends,” said McCarthy.

Churchill will continue to highlight the work of The Silver Line, the free, confidential telephone helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people – a charity founded by Churchill brand ambassador Dame Esther Rantzen.

“I am very proud of the way my team has pulled together. Our lodge managers are at the coalface doing an amazing job dealing with a fast moving, very difficult and highly stressful situation. Despite the restrictions there is peace of mind for residents and the families who cannot get to see them that we are looking after them in a safe, secure environment. Some might feel we haven’t done enough; others might feel we’ve gone too far. Ultimately all our owners live independently in their own apartments and are free to make their own choices. We can only give clear advice.”

In terms of business and staff, the response has been equally rapid and decisive. All Churchill employees, from the end of this month and initially through April and May, have been put on a three-day week, effectively taking a 40% cut in salary. This decision was announced to colleagues last week, and so will be reviewed in light of the details behind the Government’s proposed Job Retention Scheme becoming clearer.

All land purchase completions between now and June next year will be stopped, although Churchill will continue to source new sites for completion after that date.

Sites currently under construction are being made watertight as quickly and safely as possible, before being mothballed, with no new construction starting for the time being. The company is reviewing all expenditure and putting all recruitment on hold. Sub-contractors and suppliers are being kept informed as the impact reverberates across the supply chain.

“They are drastic measures, but we felt it was important to make them early, rather than create more worry and uncertainty,” said McCarthy.

“The response from staff has been extraordinary and humbling. The cut to a three-day week was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make and what’s more I could not make the announcement face-to-face, which is what you should always do. But without these measures I would have to look at making significant redundancies across the business, which is an action I want to avoid.”

“We have had lots of emails supporting and understanding what we’ve done, with many staff offering to still work five days a week on the reduced salary. Acting quickly and decisively gives us a better chance of having a sustainable business to return to once coronavirus is behind us.”

Churchill has provided a special COVID-19 email address for colleagues to contact, as well as a confidential employee assistance programme helpline for financial advice and emotional support.

People who could work from home were sent home with a computer and an office chair to set up remotely, while sales consultants are in regular contact with customers on the Churchill database, offering support and updates.

Meanwhile teams of employees, including maintenance staff, are being re-deployed to deliver food and other essential supplies to Churchill lodges across the UK, supporting elderly residents in any way they can. Even older children of employees have joined the collective effort, helping with shopping and other vital needs of Churchill owners.

“It is so important everybody comes together at a time like this. Never has the expression community spirit been more apt or more important,” said McCarthy.

“There is still a long way to go but we have a strong business and a fantastic team of people which gives me every confidence we’ll get through this.”

The Ringwood-based company recently took third place in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For, praised for its staff benefits and wellbeing initiatives. It was only last summer that Spencer McCarthy invited all staff and their families to celebrate Churchill’s 25th anniversary at his New Forest home.

Never has the principle of family values and teamwork resonated so loudly and poignantly. The response in the bad times – and these are the worst of times – is critical not just to addressing the devastating impact of the current crisis, but to the ability to recover, re-group, re-build and come out the other side for both your staff and your customers. We are all in this together.

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