Andrea Tomlinson participates in the IR Global Guide – Crisis Management: Surviving and thriving in a post-pandemic world

Foreward by Andrew Chilvers

Businesses across the world are undergoing the biggest remote working experiment since Europeans first sailed from their home ports to set up trading posts in Asia 500 years ago.

This time around, however, companies are moving colleagues out of their plush city centre locations to set up offices at home. What was unthinkable only a few months ago is now the new modus operandi for professional services firms and their clients. Crisis management and business continuity have indeed come of age thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this may be difficult for businesses that prefer traditional ways of operating, but most are changing their habits of a lifetime out of necessity. The old adage of preparing for the worst while expecting the best has never been more apt. 

Will the professional service business model change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since the outbreak and the worldwide spread of COVID-19, our former predominantly personal world has been replaced by a mainly digital world. Conferences are cancelled due to travel bans, client appointments can no longer be attended personally in order to comply with hygiene regulations, contacts with colleagues, institutions and clients are limited to telephone and video calls.

Currently nothing seems certain, except that the world will be different in the post-Corona times. However, this crisis offers a great opportunity to rebuild, to leave behind what is outdated and to tackle structural and technological changes that have long been necessary.

To take advantage of the opportunities arising, companies must ensure that employees and customers are enabled to work digitally with each other in high quality. For this purpose, not only the technical equipment in the form of remote workstations with the corresponding hardware and software is essential, but training for its use and the new etiquette for customer relations must be provided.

Our company has long relied on secure remote connections, whether for the use of laptops in the home office or for direct access to all data during client meetings on site. It is not only in these times that it has become apparent that our emphasis on internal digitisation, ie the paper-less office, and the conversion of our mandates to digital document exchange is proving successful.

However, it will not be possible or desired to completely do without personal contact in the future either. Trust and confidence between parties are essential for a flourishing working relationship and both are mainly built in personal meetings. On-site meetings have always been a crucial part of understanding our client’s business and for finding tailored solutions for their needs. Those expectations will not change after the world has found the new normal. At the end of the day: It’s a people business.

Remote working is being seen as the new normal, how will this affect the culture of professional services firms?

The implementation of the home office as an integral part of new working processes involves not only opportunities but also risks for both companies and employees.

While companies will be able to save on rent for office space, other formally unknown challenges will arise. Not every home can offer the high demands on the spatial and technical conditions for a smooth workflow. There’s the possible lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas, the lack of space for hardware or the lack of peace and quiet to work in, as the partner also works from home. When
the goal is to provide constant and consistent qualitative performance for clients, such unequal location factors can result in high performance discrepancies, which are difficult to eliminate by the management.

In recent years, aside from the high-quality service to the client, the management’s focus has increasingly shifted to employee satisfaction and loyalty. In addition to financial incentives, social measures such as employee events have increasingly taken their place in a company’s planning. In times of remote working, it will be a challenge to continue to form a collective from all colleagues and not to lose sight of the social aspects of a workplace despite the physical absence.

The service sector will have to put in place new standards and guidelines to ensure that the work delivered will remain at a high level and that employees will feel motivated and as part of the company even when they do not work at the offices. In our opinion, the current practiced approach to workplace sharing might become the future ‘part-time-office work’-model. Shared office space might no longer be restricted to freelancers and start-ups but will be practice in the company’s own office buildings.

With so many people now working from home using unsecure internet networks, should there be updated rules for data protection compliance? If so, should they be more relaxed given the crisis wrought by the pandemic?

With the ongoing digitisation in recent years, more data protection regulations have been issued. With good reason – not every country attaches as much importance to data protection as Germany. Large companies use all kinds of private and business information from apps and the internet to turn it into money. It has not been uncommon for personal rights and data protection to be ignored.

So while the protection of such data is more important than ever, reasonableness must not be lost sight of. Neither companies nor their customers have sympathy for the ever-increasing number of regulations, declarations of consent to be signed, processes to be created and the associated loss of productivity. In some cases, the workload to meet data protection regulations exceeds the workload of the actual task at hand.

Assuming that working remotely will increase significantly it should not solely be the company’s responsibility to ensure secure access for their workers. Just as with industrialisation and the digitisation, the switch to a widespread remote-working- landscape will have to be supported financially and organisationally by governments. Instead of imposing heavy fines for non-compliance, governments should provide incentives and digital solutions to ensure data security for all stakeholders.