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?
Without doubt the professional services business model will change, but not just as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes had already taken place some time ago, but it’s just been accelerated, and managers have quickly had to reinvent their businesses. In Russia, people are used to that type of revolution where businesspeople see a crisis = an opportunity. In Western Europe, and definitely in Belgium, business managers do not have that kind of outlook. The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled a lot of these old structures down and the real entrepreneurs in the next few months and years will be those who can rise above the current crisis.
Prime office locations will still be important but will no longer have the same value for a professional services business. Smaller office space and online video conferencing will now be the order of the day. Why travel several hours in your car or on a train/taxi/plane if you can book a meeting on Teams or Zoom or use WhatsApp as the main communication platform for colleagues?
Office colleagues will now be working from home and will need all the relevant equipment and communications applications. Technology will be essential to enable all this to happen. Along with remote working will come new ways of ensuring that the working day is carried out as efficiently as possible. Above all, consultants must have the self-discipline to be able to work from home and not get distracted. An important part of this new office landscape is the immediate rise of electronic documents. Remote working will mean that the paperless remote office will take over from all those paper files and cabinets back at headquarters. For an accountant, it’s critical to have two screens. On the one screen documents are presented, while on the other the documents are processed. Furthermore, clients will need to deliver their documents in a digital format, and this will largely be an automated process.
Consequently, it’s essential to have a centralised cloud environment so all consultants can gain access to the digital workspace. All data that is processed will be published straight to the client and approval must be organised digitally between the manager/partner and the remote consultant.
Remote working is being seen as the new normal, how will this affect the culture of professional services firms?
People are sociable by their nature, but the focus of the new ways of working via online video conference and mobile apps will cut that traditional social tie with colleagues.
When I asked my staff about COVID-19 and the idea of remote working, everybody was immediately motivated to work from home. Nevertheless, this initial enthusiasm wore off after a few weeks and people were more eager to get back into the office to meet their colleagues. We organised, from time to time, a few day’s work at the office, keeping social distancing measures. This proved to be a
hugely successfully experiment and most people said they preferred to work back in the office for 2/3 day’s a week and to work from home for 2/3 days, so splitting the week. We discussed all these issues with all the partners and managers via our video conferencing facility. In those online meetings we also learnt about each other’s remote working experiences, questions around the technology and, of course, how we all worked with our families around us. These discussions were hugely important and helped each of us understand how our colleagues coped working from home. This also helped us to plan a blueprint for working practices in the future.
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?
For all our colleagues working from home we set up a dedicated computer workstation – this was solely reserved for work. The network is set up on a private VPN with a firewall and access to a private cloud solution on Microsoft Azure.
We have set up the relevant software on all home computers and control all data on-premise with Intune. In the cloud, all security level 5 software is provided by Microsoft and all documents have their own security. All the phone and data communications are on this private network. For any outsiders who communicate via the cloud, they must be identified over the AWINGU platform, with controlled access with triple identification. The private phones of the employees are also included in the network but separated between professional and private. We do not have any access to their private phones or data.
Complying with GDPR standards is essential and security in our business is a high priority. We are aware that we cannot block hackers at the firewall. Therefore, we designed a security level inside our Cloud, so in case of any intrusion the data is still safe. We also insured our company against data-loss and hacking.