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Professional Services

Embracing agile working

Professional services firms will have no doubt conducted numerous surveys among employees in recent months to gauge wants and expectations post-COVID. For most, the message has been resounding.

We can’t simply go back to the way things were.

Agile working has been a buzzword for many years, but having been forced into its clasp since March, we’re now beyond reasonable doubt that a more flexible, employee-focused and open-minded work structure is not just feasible or preferable. It’s better.

As we reach that critical transition stage, moving out of lockdown and back into a semblance of normality, it’s decision time for firms as to whether they’ll indulge these calls for prolonged change, or whether they choose to slip back into old habits.  

“Most organisations have moved on from that initial crisis management stage and are now in the ‘what next?’ phase,” explains Justin Rix, partner at Grant Thornton UK. “Planning is underway for the restart post-COVID, and this takes many forms.

“Initially, logistically, there’s a need to be compliant with government regulations in physical workspaces. But then there are much more long-term considerations. Considerations which have been brought to the forefront during the pandemic, and that can be carried forward long into the future.”

Setting the tone

Indeed, to look forward, we must first look back and introspect on how the professional services world has responded to the pain points associated with COVID-19, and its launch into remote working.

Two overriding themes as part of this discussion revolve around mental health and employee wellbeing; and improved acknowledgement of employees as individuals.

Addressing the former, Justin continues: “Employee wellbeing really was the first thing that all professional services firms – to their credit – kicked into gear with.

“We had been forced to send everyone home at a very delicate and challenging time and, for the most part, they were still having to produce high-performance work regardless of their home environment.”

Not just establishing but communicating resources in this sphere was therefore imperative and time sensitive. There may have already been employee benefits programmes or medical support available through the organisation, but to make these more visible and accessible was a primary aim for most.

“There was an immediate focus on making those systems and resources available and clear, and then they were complemented by new systems and programmes such as wellbeing champions; to further hit home the commitment to people at such a stressful time,” Justin adds.

“It also set the tone for that second factor – to embrace the individuality of all our employees.”

This focus builds on the recently coined cliché that we’ve gone from 5,000 people working in 30 offices, to 5,000 people working in 5,000 offices. Each person with their own strains, homelife, pets, children, capacity, space, digital infrastructures, technical proficiency, health scares and so on.

“Everyone has been effectively working as individual siloes, despite still working for the one organisation,” Justin continues. “This required a response built around more than just transparency and communication. It required acknowledgement that everyone is different. And that has actually always been the case even in ‘normal’ times.”

The transparent, clear, communicative, helpful and conscientious steps put in place to help people during lockdown will hopefully have set a precedent, to this end. Instilling relief, confidence or a sense or support in workers shouldn’t be a short-term reaction, but a culture.

And organisations certainly seem to have realised this as we enter the transition phase out of COVID.

Reimagining new ways

We’re not hailing the death of the office, however. Far from it.

Peter Gamson, global head of professional services notes: “Professional services firms are telling us that while they would prefer this ‘experiment’ not to have been imposed on them (and indeed the world), it has highlighted how some of their beliefs around ‘what wasn’t possible’ have changed to ‘what can work better in some instances’.”

It seems that professional services firms are – perhaps belatedly – realising that an improved balance and flexibility around how the industry operates can benefit both the firm and its people, if enacted appropriately.

“It’s not a black and white situation, but this period has created a catalyst to think about procedures and processes that were a given before, but that now have been proven to be unnecessary or even ill-advised,” Justin notes. “Because of that, many organisations – including Grant Thornton – are determined not to just fall back into those old ways by inertia.

“There is now an intent to cherry pick the best of what we’ve discovered over the past few months and integrate that alongside elements of tradition that do still have their place.”

Justin affirms that some aspects like client relationship building, or training and development of staff, may still be better to conduct face-to-face. However, more dynamic operations could be interchangeable depending on client and employee preference.

“We’re not suggesting a complete do-away of office life,” he adds. “Instead, a reconsideration of what the office is needed for.

“If it’s geared up for hundreds of people to be sat at desks answering emails and making calls, then we now know that’s not vital in most cases. So why not redesign and reimagine how that office will look in a more agile infrastructure where the critical face-to-face, office-based, aspects are championed and developed instead.”

Trusting agility

Despite the tone of ‘newness’ or ‘revelation’, we all know that agile working isn’t a new concept in general. However, for most professional services firms, it certainly is a step change away from tradition.

Until now, the resisting factor has been trust and accountability; compounded by an outdated model which only really rewarded time, not performance.

This period has undoubtedly brought a new perspective on both these fronts.

Justin explains: “COVID-19 has removed one of the biggest barriers that firms put up against remote, agile working; in the form of trust. Trust that employees would have the same focus, drive and productivity outside of an office, as they do inside.

“This period has forced them into that no-go area, though, and the results are hard to argue now.”

While efficiency has been impacted in some areas, it hasn’t in others, so there hasn’t been an across-the-board drop-off in productivity, even in spite of the stresses and strains of pandemic life. Commuting times have been replaced by earlier starts for some. Others are working later after putting their kids to bed, with renewed focus.

So, if firms can understand where this flexibility works well in their teams, and harness it, efficiency could be increased in some areas.

“Being measured by output, productivity and creativity, instead of hours, synergises with this realisation that employees can be trusted to work just as hard, and perhaps more effectively, when left to their own devices,” Justin adds. “And as a result, the trust among firms is now there to embrace agile working – to maybe even improve productivity, and to also enhance levels of employee satisfaction.”

Preparing for life beyond lockdown

Again, it should be emphasised that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this transition. Just as some have thrived under recent conditions, others will be excited to get back into a social environment where they’re not hosting video conferences from the end of their beds.

The key word is ‘agility’. The agility to facilitate employees’ individual, optimum working conditions when the situation allows.

“It’ll be a journey, but this time has definitely helped to create a vision of what the future may look like,” Justin affirms before pinpointing some of the key steps that companies can take to prepare for life beyond lockdown.

  • Firstly, reassess internal models to establish whether paying for hours and duration is still the best way, having seen during COVID-19 that people can still produce the same – if not better – output when given more flexibility.
  • To do so, we need to reanalyse how we measure productivity. It will be unique to each organisation and requires introspection on what is critical, what can’t be compromised on, and what can be conducted via a new flexible structure.
  • Give people who are managing this transition the tools and training to consistently guide. Agility doesn’t mean ‘chaos’ or ‘ad hoc’ and will only work if those in charge are adhering to the same, consistent, transparent strategy.
  • Identify what you want the workplace to be. Is it for productivity around your core business model, or is it a space to collaborate, train and develop, socialise, onboard, and host clients?
  • Don’t forget the tech! Digital proficiency, as it has been during the pandemic, is a wide-ranging and infrastructural development that will need to take on a new dimension to accommodate both a new office dynamic and long-term remote working.
  • “Cash is King,” adds audit partner at Grant Thornton US, Bryan Merrigan. “Businesses should review their forecasted revenues and spending to get a handle on their cash runways. It’s essential to develop an overall strategy which balances cost-cutting initiatives with reduced revenues, while generating additional liquidity.”
  • Finally, don’t forget your culture. ‘Agile’ isn’t a tailormade regime. It’s being more flexible in alignment with your organisation’s own goals, targets, reputations and strengths. Make sure that any transformation is geared towards those elements, as it’s the culture that attracted those clients and employees to you in the first place.

A golden opportunity

Organisations should look at the coming months as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to look at their approach to people management, from the perspective of all the above considerations.

From the elements of mental wellbeing and personal care, to the more overriding facets of performance remuneration, work agility and cost control; the answer resides in listening to the workers themselves.

“Undoubtedly, their expectations will have also changed during this period,” Justin concludes. “In the same way that firms have been exposed to new ideas and situations, their employees have too.

“From the surveys we’ve conducted, vast numbers of people are against the idea of simply returning to ‘normal’, and for organisations to ignore that would be to quite quickly diminish their appeal as employers.

“So, take this chance to challenge previous norms, create better feedback loops, indulge those who are ready to return to work, engage with those furloughed staff who may feel even more disconnected during this time, and show tangible signs that you’re looking to exit this period stronger than when you entered it.”

To discuss these and any other matters impacting professional services firms contact our global head of professional services Peter Gamson, or your local Grant Thornton firm.