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Leading from afar: Lessons of COVID-19 and the future of work

COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of a strong culture and an engaged leadership in being able to keep teams performing remotely. And while many businesses are preparing to return to the office, Baker Tilly’s experts say the lessons learned — and the positive spin-offs of lockdowns — should not be lost.

A lifetime ago, back at the start of 2020, most of us were living in a world where the option of working-from-home was a perk largely available to a relative few.

While countries like Finland were being highlighted for progressive legislation, giving most full-time employees the right to decide when and where they worked at least half their hours, many developed countries still lagged.

In 2019, only 5.4% of employees in the European Union said they ‘usually’ worked from home, a share that had barely budged in a decade. Even those who ‘sometimes’ worked remotely remained under 10%.

In the US for instance, data suggested only 7 per cent of workers had the option to regularly work from home, while in 2019 the Office of National Statistics found that only 30 per cent of UK employees had worked from home at some stage during the year.

But the evidence that remote working is not only possible, but often more productive and satisfying, is one of the lessons from managing workforces that have come out of COVID-19 — and a key positive that should be kept as lockdowns lift.

It’s one of several important learnings highlighted by Baker Tilly experts that could improve the way businesses manage their teams and create a more effective, happy and sustainable workforce.

But it also requires business leaders to rethink how they lead and how their workers feel about their roles and workload. While the lockdown was swift and gave little time to consider the ‘best’ way to bring about workplace change, the protracted return requires more thought.

Baker Tilly Canada’s Vice President of People Solutions, Kari Viglasky,  says the rapid transition towards remote work was exercise in “getting the job done,” which showcased the value of being able to adopt a more nimble approach to decision making.

“COVID has proven to us that we do not [always] need to study and analyse,” Ms Viglasky says.

“We can actually implement things and get things done immediately. And it took a pandemic to do this.

“I think the future will be better and also that from an accounting firm perspective, our new lines of business are going to be exponential.

“I think that our clients need us for accounting/auditing, and they need us for tax, but now they also need us for people solutions.”

Distance drives stronger connections

Like many human resources professionals, Ms Viglasky has spent the pandemic tackling the significant task of keeping a suddenly remote workforce engaged and connected through weekly meetings with the Canada-wide network of HR leaders.

Even before the onset of COVID-19, the World Health Organisation had been highlighting the global issue of mental health in the workplace and it’s been front of mind for Baker Tilly teams around the world over the past few months.

For Baker Tilly Canada, that meant linking mentors with mentees, structuring into smaller teams with daily virtual check-in meetings, and weekly town hall meetings to ward off the potential for workers feeling isolated.

“One of the things we’ve been very mindful of is this is physical distancing. It’s not social distancing.”
Todd Stokes

Meanwhile, in the US, Baker Tilly’s Managing Partner of People Solutions, Todd Stokes, has been working on how to connect thousands of staff over large distances, using technology to bridge the gap.

Mr Stokes has overseen electronic town hall meetings of up to 4000 staff and been at pains to adjust some of the language being used around COVID-19.

“One of the things we’ve been very mindful of is this is physical distancing. It’s not social distancing,” he explains.

“There’s been some silver linings. There are a lot of people who’ve said, ‘I’ve talked to my team more than I have before, because previously I thought we always had to gather in person’…and that’s been almost impossible the way we have had to work during coronavirus.”

Even in countries with limited official lockdowns, there have been changes in the way many employers work.

Bengt Johnsson, HR Consultant with Baker Tilly Sweden, says that while Sweden has not seen the same strict restrictions on movement as other countries, there have been changes in the way meetings and office engagement takes place.

“I think it’s important to have some social interaction,” he says.

“For example, we have office meetings two times a week, and limit them to approximately 30 minutes per meeting. Other offices do things differently. For example in southern Sweden, there is an office that has divided the workforce in two, and they work one week at home and one week at office, but not the same time.”

From 9 to 5 to 24/7

Another lesson to emerge from the coronavirus crisis has been the importance of allowing work and life to blur — without letting the day job overwhelm down time.

Throughout the pandemic, experts have warned of the potential perils of home and work lives intersecting without the usual boundaries that separate them.

Donal Laverty, Consulting Partner with Baker Tilly Mooney Moore in Northern Ireland, knows from his own experience how difficult that balance can be.

“There has to be a ‘home you’ and a ‘work you.’ If that means reconfiguring a part of their home to have an office space, then they should do that.”
Donal Laverty

“What we’ve been trying to reinforce to people is that work isn’t 24/7,” Mr Laverty says.

“There has to be a ‘home you’ and a ‘work you.’ If that means reconfiguring a part of their home to have an office space, then they should do that.

“Psychologically there has to be a separation.”

Mr Laverty says businesses which have gone above and beyond to look after the wellbeing of their people during the pandemic will be the ones that emerge with the strongest culture.

This may have meant reassuring employees about their job security or safety but there is also a multitude of research that suggests transparency is an important attribute that workers seek from their employers.

“In a crisis, engagement is what matters,” Mr Laverty says.

“Organisations which care for their people will be rewarded when we come through this in terms of loyalty and the employee experience of how they have been treated and looked after.

“That’s important because this is temporary. We’re going to come out of it soon.”

How businesses come out of COVID-19 is one of the most interesting issues from a people management perspective, both in mitigating the physical risks to staff and in ensuring people remain engaged and feel safe on their return.

“When you are rolling out the actual physical opening of the doors and transitioning more people into the office, it has to go back to being compassionate about each individual.”
Kari Viglasky

While the World Health Organisation lists 10 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation, the timeline for their development remains unclear. Researchers are still yet to identify an effective treatment for the virus.

In short, workers are likely to be returning to offices before the virus is resolved.

Ms Viglasky says it’s another exercise in which companies must engage closely with their employees.

“When you are rolling out the actual physical opening of the doors and transitioning more people into the office, it has to go back to being compassionate about each individual,” Ms Viglasky says.

“You have to look at their circumstances. Can they come back in? Do they have pre-existing conditions that make them more at risk to COVID?

“Who are the people identifying those risks and accommodating them to let them remain at home?

“I’m looking at the restructuring of the office spacing … and the deep cleaning. Who can do it? How do we do it?

“It’s about having those plans in place, and then having the contingency of what if, what if, what if?

“It’s kind of like a disaster recovery program. You ask the worst-case scenario questions but then you have all the answers, so that the plan is there and you are prepared.

Resetting rules for business as unusual

Mr Stokes says COVID-19 will have provided a learning experience for all businesses — provided they are willing to honestly assess how they have dealt with it.

“One thing we’ve been saying is ‘let’s not let this crisis go wasted’,” Mr Stokes says.

“We were having a conversation about the requirements to let people back into the office and if we had rewound that conversation to several months ago, it would probably have been about the requirements to allow someone to work remotely.

“Flexibility is something we have taken great pride in making sure we offer for our people. But you always have exceptions where’s it’s like ‘that doesn’t work for us’.

“I think those sentiments were eliminated in an eight-week period.”

For Mr Laverty, who has addressed conferences around the world in recent years about the future of work, there is a realisation that future is now here.

“I think for me, we will be renegotiating our relationships with technology, with the workplace and with travel,” Mr Laverty says.

“I think those three key relationships are going to influence how and where work gets done in the future and the types of work that we do.

“From a people perspective, going forward, I think I think we need to stabilise and heal the workforce because it’s been dispersed.

“Finally, we need to reconnect the workforce in terms of new emerging recruitment and emerging talent strategies.

“These are going to be the challenges both for our clients and ourselves as practices within the Baker Tilly network.”

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Meet the experts

Todd Stokes

Baker Tilly United States

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Donal Laverty

Baker Tilly Mooney Moore

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Bengt Johnsson

Baker Tilly Sweden

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