Ramanand Mundkur & Divya Balagopal participate in the IR Global Guide – Crisis Management: Surviving and thriving in a post-pandemic world

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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?

Almost every professional services firm in India was forced to adopt “work from home” practices as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns in India. Yet, the change wasn’t as disruptive to the provision of services as the earlier ubiquitous use of centralised offices might have suggested. Work still got done, contracts and briefs were sent out to clients in time and life moved on. In fact, a number of firms have been able to adapt quickly to the new remote working normal. News reports now suggest that with physical distancing norms becoming mandatory post lockdown, a number of firms are likely to continue to use “work from home” practices for a significant majority of their staff.

But how will this affect the business model of professional services? For starters, office space requirements will clearly be affected. Even after considering the additional space that may be required to ensure physical distancing in offices post-lockdown, it is likely that firms are not going to need as much space as they did, or be willing to pay the premium office rents they did. There will also inevitably be concerns with issues around contact (think of coffee machines and photocopiers) and air filtration systems in these offices, which in turn will lead to needs for (and incurring costs for) design innovation/office renovation to comply with physical distancing requirements.

Even so, centralised offices might not be completely written off just yet. Rather, it is likely that firms will initially maintain a mix of remote working and a reduced presence at a centralised location (at least until technological and medical advances make the use of one option over the other a ‘no brainer’). But even in this transitory period (if it is transitory), the broader business models of professional services firms will change.

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

In the past a fairly significant part of an organisation’s culture came from or manifested itself in the spontaneous and informal gatherings that were both common and frequent at all offices. Those water-cooler moments may soon become a thing of the past as more organisations move to remote working as the new normal. The way in which office colleagues interact is bound to be affected by these changes.

Professional services organisations invest a significant amount of time and effort in the way new joiners learn the culture of the organisation and its ways of working. This learning culture is likely to change. For example, young lawyers fresh out of law school, who learned from watching their senior colleagues, will have to adapt their learning methods to meet the expectations of the organization they are engaged by.

Other areas of culture will also be affected. Conducting ‘difficult conversations’ is going to become even more difficult if the conversations have to be conducted by telephone or videoconference. A recent edition of The Economist magazine ventures that remote working will also reduce the scope for office politics.

In this changing environment it will therefore be very important for people managers in professional services firms to not just be mindful of the likelihood of these changes but be watchful for the impact of these changes on morale, productivity and team spirit.

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?

Most organisations were equipped to allow remote working even before the COVID-19 lockdowns. While this was intended to supplement centralised office work, the real change effected by the lockdown is in the amount of remote working now required relative to the amount previously practiced.

Therefore, while organisational IT security systems should be able to cope with the data security required to allow remote working, it might still be helpful for organisations to revisit the robustness of their existing security systems given the more widespread use of remote working.

Here too there is likely to be a sharp learning curve. As the widely reported security concerns with the popular Zoom platform demonstrated, when applications are used at scales that were not previously anticipated, security arrangements need to be updated quickly.

Rules on these issues have been and are likely to be updated too. For instance, the Indian Government has taken to using Zoom for a number of official purposes, including conducting court proceedings. To address the security concerns associated with the use of this platform, the Government issued a set of standard operating procedures to address the security issues (such as the use of passwords and waiting rooms for access to the videoconferences). Similar changes in rules or standard procedures are likely in other remote working related areas as well.

Natural disasters, like the pandemic, should not provide a reason to dilute the guarantees and protections of personal rights – if anything, they should be treated as an opportunity to start doing things better.