It’s 11.15am and our security officers have just completed the health and safety checks of a large multi-tenanted corporate building in the heart of London. This isn’t their first check of the day, nor will it be the last. They’d much rather meet and greet at the front of house, or deal with tenant and visitor inquiries. But, alas, most of the building’s usual workers are now safely working at home, or have been furloughed or made redundant. Some have sadly died due to Covid-19.
This is today’s stark reality. Pre-pandemic, this high-rise building would have thrummed with more than 3,000 workers, many of whom would have greeted the front of house officer with a smile and pleasantries. Their exchange of greetings would often have been instigated by the officer’s charm, professionalism or sheer enjoyment of the job. There would have been football banter, family well-wishes and genuine mutual interest. After all, when you actually go to work, you can’t help but get to know the first person you see when you arrive, and the last person you see when you leave. That person is often the security officer: a figure central to the office experience we knew and now miss.
Today, this building is occupied by perhaps just 30 people. The corridors and work areas echo eerily. The white noise of traffic outside isn’t what it once was. Instead of the familiar sounds of people moving through the reception area, there are now silently scrolling Covid-19 news headlines on a mounted television. Every time the front door opens, the security officer looks up, eager to offer a welcome. He or she (usually a he) is always there, a constant amid all the flux and uncertainty.
This facet of office life is also true of another great financial metropolis, New York, which also once hosted hundreds of thousands of office staff, many of whom now work from home. In Manhattan, office occupancy had collapsed to around 10 per cent in September. In London, the figures are much the same. It’s often forgotten that this affects the officers caring for now near-empty buildings. It’s a lonesome life.
It is also a time of stress for everyone. Some visitors become aggressive. Security officers then have to manage them with empathy. It’s hard. Recent research shows that almost two-thirds of security officers — be they in offices, airports, train stations or night clubs — suffer verbal abuse at least once a month, while about half face threats of violence and over a third suffer physical assault once a year. No wonder 40 per cent of the UK’s 350,000 licensed security guards show symptoms of PTSD. And that was before Covid-19 struck.
Now, on top of it all, there is the risk of infection, especially from people who do not comply with safety regulations, such as masks. During the first months of the pandemic, official statistics show that male security officers had a mortality rate from Covid-19 of 74 per 100,000 — more than three times that of the average male, and seven times the average British female. Of course, you have to be careful with statistics: the age, gender and ethnicity of security officers plays a role. Even so, the death rate was twice that of male doctors and nurses. Only ambulance staff were higher.
The security industry takes mental health seriously: we put all managers through training so they can quickly identify any issues. Regular officer check-ins are also essential — they need reassurance like the tenants that they look out for. This is particularly important for lone officers at large sites.
I hope the appreciation of security officers will grow. The pandemic has helped bring their importance to the fore — as it has for cleaners, domestic carers, retail assistants and others who keep the wheels of life turning. Their position as key workers should not be forgotten. So do think of that when you next go to the office. A security officer will most likely greet you when you arrive and leave. Give them, at very least, a smile.
The writer is co-founder and director of SmartSec Solutions