The sounds of people laughing, of drinks being poured and of children playing drifted across to our table. In short, the sounds of normality starting to slowly creep back in. It seemed an appropriate backdrop as I sat down with one of our directors, Shevek Pring, to discuss how he thought The Outdoors Group had fared during the lockdown and to discuss how it’s going to affect the company moving forward.
I began by asking how he was, and how the last few months had been for the company and for him personally? He took a deep breath before replying with an answer I half expected ‘(It’s been) A lot busier than I thought we’d be. When we first hit lockdown, I thought everything would stop but it has not, in any sense, stopped! We’ve had parts of the business that have shut down obviously but things like TLP have grown and the school has kept going and moved sites which has kept us busy. And there’s been quite a lot of work that we’ve been able to do behind the scenes, putting a management team together to take us forward as soon as we are able to, out of lockdown. Yes…busy!’
And personally? I prompted. He looked thoughtful and then echoing parents around the country said ‘’Ups and downs. They’re quite self-contained kids, happy with their own company but I think the biggest thing for me is that I’ve managed to do being a professional and being a father both at about 50% and that’s been tough. I haven’t really managed to do either one as well as I’d have liked. We’ve muddled through’. But you’re still standing I asked? ‘Yeah definitely, and so are they! They don’t want to kill me yet!’.
When I started working for The Outdoors Group three years ago, the company comprised of less than 10 people and now it’s over 70. The growth has been phenomenal and as we approach a decade of the business, I asked Shev that whilst him and Tom must have seen their fair share of setbacks during that time, has covid presented any unique challenges? Ever channelling a wise guru, Shev remarked ‘Each obstacle we encounter is unique in its own way. I think, the problem that you encounter is solved more by your mindset and your approach than by the particular issues it presents. We’ve always been very forward looking and very positive in the way that we approach issues. And I think the same is true of covid. We have hit some bumps along the way, we have shut areas of the business, we have had to furlough some staff, but we haven’t made any redundancies, we haven’t lost anyone. And in fact, we’ve recruited in some areas through lockdown as well. You see a lot of very established brands that are losing thousands of people and I think we’re very fortunate to be in the position we’re in. So, I think we handled it as well as could be hoped really.
Definitely an amazing achievement! Following on from this positivity, I asked whether there were any standout moments from the last few months that Shev was particularly proud of and would like to share. Once we’d got out of the way how amazing I was(!) we settled down to a serious answer which paid tribute to a lot of my incredible colleagues throughout the business. ‘I think Arwen being able to grow her team and have that business support really working how it needs to be is a real positive. Being able to employ a proper SLT for the school, because we’ve had the space to do that so we’ve got a new SENDCO and Robyn in post as head and Jon as deputy so that’s been really positive and has really helped bring the whole school team together. In terms of successes, those are big ones. I think also, on a more general note, the way that all the staff have pitched in and just been amazing and really rallied around to make whatever changes they have to and be on board with doing what needs to be done to get us through it has been a real testament to the ethos of the company. We had people going above and beyond all over the place. You’ve got Amanda rising to a challenge (with unprecedented demand for TLP) she wasn’t expecting and the Kindergarten staff dealing with being furloughed, then not furloughed, then not having a site, then having kids, then not having kids and they have just taken it all in their stride and been brilliant about it. Those kinds of stories pop up all over the company, right the way through lockdown. It’s been a fantastic effort from everyone really.
Moving away from The Outdoors Group I was keen to touch on the subject of outdoor education as a whole and how it might change in the wake of covid. I asked whether Shev had any thoughts on how the educational community within the UK will respond to the crisis and whether he thought it’d change the landscape of education. He laughed and asked, ‘how long have you got?!’ and in fact the conversation that followed is far too long to relate here! Amongst putting the world to rights though, he observed that ‘the larger educational picture has been moving towards outdoor learning more and more anyway over the last decade. We’ve been quite well placed, slightly ahead of the curve all the way through that which is largely why we’re successful. You’ve got a solid legislative commitment towards outdoor learning in Scotland and Wales. I think soon to be followed by the UK. Forest School in the last 13 years has gone from completely unknown and fringe to being, I think, in some form or another, in almost every school. You’ve got outdoor learning being recognised in the PE curriculum for primary. There have been lots of moves that way. I think it will continue. I would hope that the legacy of the pandemic is that that is speeded up. There’s every chance that it will be. (And) I would hope that we continue to stay slightly ahead of the curve on that one. ‘
We spent a long time discussing the fate of Outdoor Activity Centres and the lack of commitment from government to support these industries but that’s a story for another day. Moving closer to home, I asked about how the business will be different moving forward than he and Tom might have imagined, pre-covid. The main thing we discussed was in terms of day-to-day staff, moving away ‘from that traditional office space’. Flexible working with a mix of home working and office working has clearly worked over the last few months and we discussed why that might be the case. Never one to not fully answer a question, Shev discussed ‘key motivational factors’ (which come from Dan Pink – look him up!) According to Pink, ‘the most important things, as far as motivation is concerned are autonomy, mastery and recognition. And I think that ability to provide that autonomy or where you work and how you work and how you collaborate, is going to be, really key. It’s not a new idea but I think covid has provided that way of thinking to smaller companies who wouldn’t be able to custom build that infrastructure.’
Time was drawing on now and the climbing wall was beckoning us and our very patient companions, so I decided to ask my last big question for the day. What was his biggest hope for The Outdoors Group as we navigate out the other side of this? An air of sober optimism descended as he replied ‘I think that we continue to ride out future challenges in the way that we have to date. I feel very lucky but also, I am aware that actually it isn’t entirely down to luck at all. There’s so much more involved. Something else me and Tom have always said, and I would hope that it continues, is that we never make the same mistake twice. We make plenty of mistakes, but we try not to repeat them. I would hope that that continues. Obviously, the challenges and projects get bigger and the mistakes have more impact. So, I would hope to have learned enough to avoid big mistakes.’
Finally, to end on what I teased was a ‘human interest’ note, I asked what he was most looking forward to doing now that restrictions have eased. His initial answer, camping, was not a surprise. However, then a softer side of the ambitious, unflappable director that we all know appeared as he looked at his partner with a smile and added ‘we’re not quite there yet, but I’d quite like to resume our long weekend city breaks. We went to Barcelona last year and were planning one for Paris. I’m looking forward to doing that. I don’t think we’re there yet though. I don’t want to have to self-isolate for two weeks for a long weekend!’
Author: Hannah Durdin, Business Services & Forest School Leader
Date: Wednesday 12th August 2020