Karel Nijs & Joris Lambrechts 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?

The COVID-19 pandemic had a tremendous impact on the Belgian professional service business model. We saw a rapid shift to remote working when the Belgian federal government ordered that remote working would no longer be the exception but the rule. Companies whose activities contributed to vital aspects of Belgian society and the population’s wellbeing were still allowed to have their employees physically present at work, but only if needed. Accountants and auditors were considered ‘vital’ in that respect. They were obliged to implement remote working and safeguard the rules of social distancing (1.5 m) as much as possible. Companies active in non-vital sectors were forced to shut down if they couldn’t comply with the social distancing-rules.

Surveys show that Belgian employees and executives immediately saw the obvious benefits of remote working and want to keep on (at least partially) doing so after the pandemic. It doesn’t take a genius to see that such aspirations and an already earlier growing awareness on the financial and climatological impact of daily commuting, could impact rental prices/m2. Yet, social distancing could question the so-called positive effects of the open space offices. Moreover, companies might rent more m² per employee. On the other hand, it seems too early to jump to conclusions on how our economy (and by consequence also the rental prices) will evolve.

As certified auditors, we were just developing a ‘remote working policy’ whereby we decided not to allow structural home work (defined as ‘working a fixed day per week from home’). We frequently work ‘on site’ in our client’s offices. We did, however, heavily invest in paperless processes in previous years including but not limited to electronic working papers, allowing clients to post information on a so-called file cloud server. An effort that clearly paid off in the last few weeks.

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

We don’t expect remote working itself to be a driver of change as long as professional service firms don’t change their mindset. It remains ‘business as usual’ when they don’t see the possibilities of automated production and data driven decision-making. If one sees ‘remote’ and ‘digital’ as just a different location to work from (the fact that one works from different locations leads to a paperless office), they’ll continue to miss the countless opportunities to minimise input and maximise output through personal contact. To see those opportunities, you need an open-minded-culture within your organisation where employees are willing to adapt and executives are ready to support bottom-up formulated and IT-driven suggestions for improvement.

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?

When remote working increases, so do cyber-risks if the remote working isn’t the result of a well thought out policy that creates awareness and provides the necessary IT-infrastructure.

In this regard, secure networks aren’t a magical solution if they are not backed up with awareness. Companies should foster a culture of privacy and IT-security-concern. To be clear, this isn’t about employees understanding each and every legal aspect of the GDPR, but about them knowing when you should or shouldn’t open an e-mail attachment, that you shouldn’t access a public WiFi-network (especially not if your laptop/smartphone is linked to sensitive information) and that forwarding company documents to your personal hotmail or gmail account isn’t a ‘best practice’.

If companies fail to meet such requirements, we don’t see why the authorities should refrain from imposing fines. As long as the fines come with a prior warning so companies can adapt. Compliance based on sanctions is a start, but compliance based on culture and self-motivation should be the goal.

The question if healthcare should prevail on privacy, might be a false question. One of our clients (Rombit – www.rombit.be) provides industrial companies such as the Port of Antwerp with a safety bracelet with COVID-19 functions. It warns when employees come too close to one another and allows contact tracing by a health advisor or trusted confidant. As long as we as a society don’t have a vaccine ready, such privacy-compliant contact tracing monitored by trusted gatekeepers could be the solution to have both concerns reconciled.