Professional services firms face plethora of post-Covid challenges
Many companies are not anticipating occupancy rates above 30 per cent for the foreseeable future.
The State may be easing its way out of lockdown, but the isolation is by no means over. Office buildings that normally resound with the clatter of human activity may never be full again and many companies are not anticipating occupancy rates above 30 per cent for the foreseeable future.
Professional services firm Grant Thornton normally has close to 800 people in its offices on City Quay in Dublin. With social distancing, it will be able to accommodate fewer than 300 and there is an expectation that even when things open up, staff will continue to work from home for at least some of the time.
“People have become used to working from home, they like it, they see the advantages, they don’t want the long commutes every day or maybe they’re just apprehensive about potential problems with public transport,” says partner Sinéad Donovan, who is also vice-president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.
Sorting out the logistics of getting people back into the office is probably the easiest Covid-related problem for professional firms to solve. A lot harder is flipping a business model that has traditionally revolved around face-to-face interactions.
“Strong and trusted relationships are really important and there is a concern that removing the physical interaction will undermine this, as the important cues through which you get to know your clients – such as body language and facial expressions – get lost,” Donovan says. “In my view, the risk of giving incorrect advice or not identifying the underlying issues correctly with purely remote meetings is too high. We will have to return to physical meetings to complement the virtual sessions.”
Less frequent meetings may also drive changes in who attends, as senior staff will have to make the most of every opportunity to interact with their clients. This may mean that juniors, who would normally have been sent to deal with clients on routine matters as part of their professional development, may lose out.
Kevin Collins is a partner with docklands law firm Pinsent Masons. He sees the loss of the informal learning that goes hand in hand with the development of professional skills as more collateral Covid damage to be overcome.
“The ‘osmosis’ learning which is an important part of the development of our people will be sorely missed,” he says. “Formal training can cover technical matters but client-management skills are often best learned by watching or listening to more experienced colleagues. With all communications now being deliberate rather than inadvertent, we will lose that overheard training.
“Knowingly or unknowingly, if you’re sitting near someone more experienced you learn about approach, tone of voice and managing client interactions just from listening.”
The other knowledge challenge facing organisations is finding ways to replace the informal information sharing that goes on when people just stop and chat.
“Covid is having an unquantifiable impact from a communications point of view,” Collins says. “Our formal communication has been maintained and probably increased but the casual ‘water cooler’ conversations are being lost. People tend to say a lot more in those situations than they do via more formal methods and we’re missing out on snippets about everything from market intelligence and business development to employee performance.”
Collins touches a nerve when he mentions employee performance as the impact of working from home on promotion prospects is a worry for people at this time.
“Since Covid, people no longer put the expression ‘working from home’ in air quotes,” says Collins. “The negativity that existed towards it in the past has gone now that it has become mainstream and, if you trust in the calibre of the people you’ve hired, then there is every reason to believe they will work as well from home.
“Where the anxiety kicks in is around fear of losing out if they’re not ‘seen’ by those who make the decisions about career progression, so reassurance may be required. In our case, we have very good supervision of throughput so we know what people are doing and how well they are doing it. However, we have been making a big effort to stay closer to people because this is obviously much easier when we’re all together.”
The transition to working from home worked pretty smoothly for Pinsent Masons, which already had flexible working arrangements in place. “The pandemic has tested the resilience of our systems but we were able to get out of the blocks quickly when things shut down,” says Collins.
“Our space availability is based on around 30 per cent of people not being in the office on any given day anyway and, for now, we’re not expecting to have more than a third of staff in the building to respect social distancing.
“Real estate is expensive. Our approach is that you dock your laptop wherever you sit.”
One other area that’s going to undergo a Covid-related shake-up is business development.
“Marketing departments will have to rethink how they promote the services of their firms and, perhaps most importantly, how to ‘sell’ the services of people in what will likely become a virtual business development playground,” Donovan says. “Again, my view is that this will fall to more senior team members with experience of building relationships, while the identification within firms of sales people as opposed to technical experts will become more critical.
“The need to distinguish between ‘finders and minders’ of work is going to become ever more important.”