Predicting the future of work post-coronavirus
The Covid-19 crisis, subsequent lockdown and the range of restrictions that have impacted every business in every sector, for better or worse, will have long term consequences. Blaire Palmer analyses what this will mean for accountants who employ other people.
We’ve been exposed, over the last few months, to people’s homes. We’ve seen colleagues interrupted by the doorbell, the toddler, the husband. We’ve talked about our struggles. We’ve done lockdown quizzes together, ‘wine-Fridays’ and many, many zoom meetings.
Every one of us has evolved our own strategy for making this work, or at least, adapting to circumstances that don’t work. What works for you doesn’t work for a peer and vice versa.
There’s been no operating manual for businesses either. Firms have experimented with how to support furloughed staff, how to stay connected with direct reports, how to run meetings and collaborate across teams.
And then we’ve been learning how to support our clients. How much of our time do we give for free to those who’ve been hit hardest? What is our role now beyond doing the annual tax return? Without face to face interaction how do we grow the firm, or keep afloat? What new products and services do clients urgently need now that weren’t on the agenda six months ago?
My number one prediction as we look to a post-coronavirus world of work is the personalisation of the employee experience. One size does not fit all. It never did, of course, but we tolerated not-quite-fit-for-purpose solutions because we were used to it.
Increasingly customers have expected a more bespoke approach. Log in to Amazon and you’ll be presented with products you might like, unique to your search history. And you can have your coffee any one of 100s of subtly different ways.
I anticipate that we can transfer this personalisation of the customer experience to personalisation of the employee experience. So what might this mean?
Forget flexible working policies
There’s a lot of excitement right now about the opportunities for remote and flexible working post-coronavirus.
I think we have to go much further. What might have seemed a cutting edge work-from-home policy pre-lockdown, will seem very outdated when offices open back up again. Every one of your staff will seek a unique arrangement to suit their circumstances and the needs of their clients.
A client of mine calls it a Martini culture: anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Work-from-home policies used to mean a prior agreement that, say, Monday-Wednesday were in the office and Thursday and Friday were at home. Every week.
Flexible working used to mean a prior arrangement to work specific hours. Every week.
Now we can anticipate that staff will want true flexibility – getting the work done at whatever time works best for them and for their client without the need to commit in advance to specific working hours.
The same applies to remote working: one of your accountants might wake up on Thursday, look at his to-do list and feel he needs to be in the office today. But next week, he might feel that the work would be best done from home, or from the coffee shop, or from the client’s office.
You’ve probably noticed that it’s impossible to keep track of your team like you did when they were all in the office. You can’t see them. You don’t know when or whether they are working until you see the results. You have to trust them.
Leadership needs to transform to what it should always have been, from supervision of people and their activities to removing the obstacles to people doing their best work, offering wise counsel and coaching, creating a vision and empowering people to deliver that vision and pastoral care.
You’ll have to measure people on outcomes rather than inputs – results versus how many hours they did, how early they arrived in the office, how many fires (of their own making?) they put out.
So you’ll have to get much clearer about what success looks like. And you’ll have to ignore the discomfort that comes from finding out one of your team took their children to the park after school. What matters is what was delivered for the client.
Personal awareness and inner work
The mechanics of working from home or managing a remote team aren’t that complicated. Yes, we could all benefit from some help designing better online meetings and working out which technological solution is best for our own firm.
But the real challenge is to our mental health. Isolation and loneliness, feelings of exclusion, lack of real-time feedback, difficulty switching off when work and home are the same place, feelings of guilt and simply the difficulty adapting to a very different working world have been the hardest aspects of this lockdown for accountants.
As people put together bespoke flexible and remote working solutions all of us will need to rewire our brains. Many beliefs and assumptions about what hard work looks like will have to be rethought. We will have to learn to manage our feelings of guilt when we knock off at 3pm because we started at 6am.
We will have to withhold judgement when we call a colleague and find they are out, who knows where, all afternoon. We will have to resist the temptation to answer emails sent at 11pm if we prefer to start early and finish early while other colleagues prefer to start late and finish late.
The mental and emotional shifts are far harder to accomplish because we don’t know what beliefs and assumptions we have until we crash up against them. Expect to be frustrated by other people and guilty about your own choices before you realise that you’re operating from an outdated mental model which needs adjusting to the new reality. This is probably a lifetime’s work.
Your client’s world is changing too
And while you are adapting to this new personalisation, so is your client. The knock-on effects of personalisation will impact every business. This throws up some meaty challenges for accountants who will still be operating within a conventional tax system (until the system catches up).
Expenses and benefits systems weren’t created with mass remote working in mind. What about remote workers working from other countries? Will the whole idea of employees be rethought as the distinction between employed and freelance is eroded?
What will differentiate those working flexibly from those working part-time? What opportunities do flexible, remote and other personalized arrangements create to reduce a client’s tax bill? Do you need to become an expert in the implications of personalisation in order to serve your clients better? And how will you feel when a client decides to relocate to the Bahamas for six months a year and work from there, just because they can?
Accountants can’t be behind the times here. Because clients will need help as they navigate these uncharted waters. Unless you’re willing to embrace the future as quickly as them, or be a step ahead, you’ll find yourself increasingly irrelevant.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...