Amanda Digne-Malcolm, Director of Practice at ICAEW, outlines how companies need to manage employee and client expectations when considering new ways of working.
Technology has been the big enabler during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing countless companies and employees globally to continue working remotely. Even before the pandemic, increasing digitalisation and technological advances were leading to changes in working practices.
As businesses plan for a return to the office, to what extent will hybrid working become entrenched and how will companies manage increased employee expectations around flexible working?
Across the profession and other sectors, various companies have started setting out new working arrangements. PwC announced in March 2021 that employees would be given more freedom to choose working patterns, such as earlier start and finish times, and expected that they would spend 40-60% on average of their time working in offices or at client sites.
Meanwhile KPMG UK is launching a “four-day fortnight” in the office, with staff able to spend the remainder working at home or at client sites and most UK staff from EY will be able to work remotely at least twice a week. Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Facebook and Google are among other employers moving ahead with flexible arrangements or hybrid working where roles allow for this.
Amanda Digne-Malcolm, Director of Practice at ICAEW, who is chairing ICAEW’s Virtually Live “Ways of working” panel session on 17 June, says: “Some firms are very much light touch, whereas others are looking at a more structured approach, and then everything in between. Almost certainly, many firms will have done surveys with their teams or asked how they want to work in the future, and they will have had a range of responses.” Employers then have to consider how they manage these responses in a fair and effective way.
For some companies, varying degrees of flexibility were in place before the pandemic started. For example, Price Bailey already had a “Smart Working Culture” approach that gave employees flexibility to work where and when they wanted, as long as it did not disrupt clients and their teams, or considerations such as supervision or study.
Nevertheless, not all companies or employees will want to maintain remote working over the long term. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has previously called it “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.
An April 2021 Deloitte survey of 1,248 UK workers from various industries aged between 16 to 75 found that 42% would like to work from home twice a week or more, 23% (Deloitte estimates could equate to 7.5 million UK workers) hope to work from home all, or almost all, of the time and 28% “don’t ever plan on working from home once lockdown restrictions have lifted”.
There are various factors that companies will be considering under hybrid working plans. Productivity and how you measure and monitor it has been a talking point during the pandemic, as well as how to maintain work culture and team spirit. Another key issue has been staff wellbeing, with some employees finding it more difficult working from home or missing the physical face-to-face connection.
Digne-Malcolm also points to potential training challenges. “In terms of the profession, if you’re early on in your career and training, it’s quite difficult if you’re not then face to face,” she says. “How do you get good training time? When you’re in the office you can just lean across the desk and ask if you have an issue, you can shadow your colleague and see how they operate and then adopt that approach.”
What clients expect is another consideration. “When you’re looking at the future of work in firms, you’re looking at not just how the employees want to work, how the organisation is looking for people to work but also the clients. So it’s all of those things wrapped up together, and being mindful of the wider working environment as well, because it inevitably influences all of those other three factors,” says Digne-Malcolm.
She adds: “Some client’s expectations of the people they work with may well be driven by how they are planning to work. I’ve heard some clients say: ‘Look, for the past 14 months you’ve not been able to be on site, and actually we like the remote working opportunity. For future audits, we won’t expect to see you on site except for key meetings.’
“Others have said: ‘You’ve not been on site and we’ve really missed it and it’s been really challenging. When can you get back to coming on site?’ So how do you manage that flexibility for the client and manage expectations of the employees and make sure you’re being fair to all.”
Different types of work will present their own set of challenges when conducted remotely. Digne-Malcolm highlights auditing as an example of where potentially challenging conversations with clients can be harder when they are not face to face. The challenges can be overcome and there are alternatives, but it’s not necessarily as straight forward as it could be if you were on site, she says.
Re-evaluating office requirements
The rise in remote or hybrid working has also led companies to evaluate how much office space they need, how they will use it or how best to reconfigure it. Some companies have already announced a reduction in branches or offices as they expand flexible working arrangements, or have suggested that office spaces may become more collaborative environments and be used for learning and training.
According to KPMG’s 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, fewer global executives may seek to reduce their company’s physical footprint compared to six months ago (17% compared to 69% of CEOs surveyed in August 2020). This, it says: “…demonstrates that either office downsizings have taken place or, as the pandemic has drawn on, strategies have changed.”
Digne-Malcolm says: “We’re in a period of massive transformation, which presents its challenges but also opportunities for the profession. Each firm will have different considerations.”
The “Ways of working” session at ICAEW Virtually Live is an opportunity for practitioners to hear from others facing the same challenges, she adds.
Panellists confirmed for the virtual session include: Johan Jegerajan, Partner and People Leader for Risk at PwC; Matt Clarke, HR Director for Audit and Assurance at Deloitte and Martin Clapson, Managing Director at Price Bailey.
Digne-Malcolm hopes the session will provide attendees with practical support for their future plans. She says: “Each of the speakers will be sharing their experiences, how their thinking has been shaped and hopefully that will then help others shape their thinking.”
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