By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.

So, I attended HQN’s virtual annual conference last week. From my past experience of Zoom and Microsoft Teams meet-ups I was expecting a rather clunky, disjointed experience but it was actually very smoothly put together by HQN’s staff – well done to all involved!

Only those speaking appeared on screen but you can scroll through the other participants to see who is there (many had chosen to turn off their camera) and also chat with everyone, or selected participants in private.

There was an impressive range of speakers from the UK, Ireland, Australia and Africa. Alistair McIntosh’s introduction made it clear that we are facing huge challenges and that the impacts of lockdown cannot be underestimated.

This all made me wonder what conferences are for, and will we ever go back to the way we were? The bland answer to the first question would cover education, information, networking, sharing ideas, meeting like-minded people, making friends, having a few drinks, and perhaps more. The virtual conference will meet only some of those needs, but I do hope we do not go back to the way we were pre-pandemic, because it was neither a happy nor an honourable place.

I have some experience of organising conferences as I led on the CIH Eastern conference for a number of years. The bottom line was always a key worry and so we often invited some crowd-pleasing speakers (George Galloway, Alastair Campbell, Germaine Greer to name a few) who did not necessarily add to our knowledge of housing issues, but they sold tickets.

Meanwhile, here are a few random facts that I learned last week:

  1. In Australia, social housing is only 4% of all homes. The country has a poor system of housing benefits and no planning gain
  2. Africa is urbanising faster than any other part of the world and will be home to seven of the world’s 20 biggest cities in the next 50 years. Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, will be the world’s biggest city by 2075
  3. In Africa, Chinese firms are creating vast cities of inhumane tower blocks
  4. The housing deficit across Africa (54 countries) exceeds 20 million homes
  5. The revised Ombudsman scheme kicks off in September and complaints via Twitter will be treated as complaints
  6. Before Covid-19 just 31% of people worked from home more than two days a week, now 89% plan to do so (this will have a major impact on city centres and retail space – big opportunities for office to resi conversions?)
  7. Housing association revenue is becoming more volatile and debt could be increasing
  8. There is a record breaking heat wave in Siberia and a temperature of 38 centigrade was recorded north of the Arctic Circle on 20 June. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average (yes, we are all doomed)
  9. Housing accounts for 17-25% of all UK carbon emissions and we need to decarbonise and retrofit our existing homes as soon as we can, and by no later than 2050

So, the day was certainly informative. But one of the key messages of the day for me came via Nick Atkin. He quoted a colleague who had told him that pre-pandemic we thought we were all terribly busy when in fact we were just busy travelling. Hear, hear to that. I’ve spent months of my life travelling to meetings that could have been handled just as successfully online. Covid-19 will force us to re-evaluate the way we use, and misuse, time, which in turn should make us all more efficient (he says hopefully).

I confess there are some clear advantages to digital conferencing. You can dip in and out, you can wear a shirt and boxer shorts, you can turn off your camera and do the ironing or the washing up, you don’t have to travel anywhere.

The downside is that you are on your tod and do not gain the stimulation that comes with looking into someone’s eyes and picking up on body language and the nuances of human interaction. Static cameras miss so much, and the written word in chatrooms, as we all know from Twitter, can mislead and be misinterpreted.

I can remember as a kid reading a sci-fi comic where an earthling struck up a relationship with a beautiful woman from another galaxy on-screen. When they finally met it turned out that the woman was just a head, nothing more. What you see on the screen does not necessarily give you the whole picture.

So, in my view, we will need to strike a balance between the online and face to face experience, whether it is conferences, meetings or the way we work in general, vaccines permitting of course. We are social animals, after all. I hope to write more about the future of work in a forthcoming blog.