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BDO Head of People Rob Worrall, Head of Innovation Dan Francis and Corporate Finance Partner Derek Neil discuss how the pandemic has transformed office culture.
COVID-19 brought with it the largest shift in working habits for a generation, not just in the UK but Worldwide, sending millions of office workers home as lockdowns swept the country. With coronavirus now less of a threat, office working is back on the agenda—but it is a subject that needs to be dealt with sensitively given lingering infection concerns and the benefits that remote working has brought for some. BDO has worked hard to strike the right balance, and in this interview Head of People Rob Worrall, Head of Innovation Dan Francis and Corporate Finance Partner Derek Neil discuss what learnings tech companies can take from the firm’s experience.
What is the current thinking around the need for COVID-19 safety and vigilance now we’re seeing some return to normality?
It’s about keeping people’s wellbeing a priority. We have a framework called ‘Workable’, which is an agile way of working that means our people are able to work from where they feel most productive, dependent on the task in hand and considering the client and business need. This may be a mixture of client sites, a BDO office hub or from home. After two years, some people may not immediately feel comfortable getting on public transport or being in spaces they're not used to, so you must ensure you’re having individual conversations with people, listening to them and understandinghow they're feeling.
For some, it may initially result in them commuting outside of core hours. Reasonable employers will know there might be people who have a medical condition, and there could be a situation where occupational health gets involved. Across the spectrum, there are different ways of dealing with it, but it should always start with individual conversations to help your teams.
IT-wise, we think about the business not as 18 offices but as 6,500 people. People were office based and now they work in an agile way at a hub (office), client site or home. Technology enables people to work anywhere they can; you don’t necessarily need to go to an office to perform a specific task.
"You don’t necessarily need to go to an office to perform a specific task."
In terms of productivity, what's been the experience at BDO?
At the beginning of the pandemic, 6,500 individuals went from working in an office to working remotely overnight, so it comes back to technology. The IT team did a phenomenal job getting everyone working remotely. Due to strict lockdown restrictions at the time people didn’t have much else to do outside of work so we did see people working longer hours. We know our people worked exceptionally hard to help their clients come through this unprecedented time.
But, we didn’t expect people to be working much longer hours and whilst we value effort and dedication, we don’t want people’s wellbeing to suffer from overworking.
Has there been a loss in the creativity you get in an office environment?
Yes, a little bit initially. We had issues about being creative in a distributed environment, at scale. It depends on the individual and this is where it comes back to the importance of engaging with people. Some have done a daily catch-up via Teams, while others have adapted in different ways.
What's more challenging is moving from everyone being online to being in a hybrid environment. It’s massively democratic when we’re all taking our turn to speak in meetings and putting our hands up on Teams but if you're not in the room it can be harder to join in. This is a time where our values come to the fore. We talk about being bold, collaborative, genuine and acting with integrity. It’s about making sure that if someone's working at home, you're collaborating and genuinely engaging with them.
We also talk about ‘Be Yourself’, which is our ED&I [equality, diversity and inclusion] agenda, and one of the things we want to make sure is that everyone in the firm can be themselves. It's up to us to ensure that we work with colleagues in a truly collaborative way whether working in the office or in a hybrid way.
How do you continue to build upon that culture when people are spending less time together in the office?
Our core purpose is ‘helping you to succeed’. Starting with Paul Eagland, our managing partner, through all the partners and the leadership team, everyone has been committed to this. When we talk about how we can succeed, we're not just talking about our colleagues and clients, we're talking about society as a whole and the ESG [environmental, social and governance] agenda because it’s becoming more important for people.
Having moved through the most challenging part of the pandemic, we’re now facing an uncertain geopolitical climate, the so-called ‘great resignation’ and the cost-of-living crisis. You can’t blanket everyone, but some colleagues’ resilience may not be at the same level so that's where we’re engaging to help people succeed.
We’ve got a People Proposition that sets out our philosophy for our people, with the ESG agenda and ‘Be Yourself’ as key elements of that. We've also introduced a people manager accreditation, which is a five-step programme based around helping our people managers be successful in this evolving environment.
"We've also introduced a people manager accreditation, which is a five-step programme based around helping our people managers be successful in this evolving environment."
We’ve done that because we want to capture the culture, keep the values alive and make sure we're engaged with people. At the same time, most people are now comfortable with many aspects of business being conducted remotely. And there are some advantages in having short calls rather than travelling around the country; it depends on what works for our clients and teams.
What technology tools and processes do you currently use to transmit the culture?
One is the use of Teams because we've all become very used to having conversations with our laptops. Teams is important because you get the chance to see people. We also have an internal content hub called Insite, updated with news and stories from the firm every day as well as a weekly newsletter that covers everything that’s going on within the firm, whether it's cultural news, client news or the ESG agenda.
We have a culture report that people can find on the website, which is useful if people are thinking about joining us as it helps them to understand who we are and what we value.
And earlier this year Paul took part in a live video where he was interviewed by an ex-BBC news reporter and streamed to the firm. A number of partners have done question-and-answer events and there have been listening events as well for different groups. Technology has been critical.
One thing we've done well, and that technology has facilitated, is to establish communities. We have different networks, which are fantastic, where you can build a relationship with like-minded people. Our Coffee Connections app allows two people within the firm who may never usually cross paths to be ‘matched’ and meet for a virtual or in-person catch-up.
What were you doing before for people joining the company, and how do things happen now?
We used to do an in-person induction, which would be at any of our 17 hubs and facilitated by a variety of people, including the leadership team. That induction had to become remote. Coming back to technology, we had to make sure that people had their laptops and essential equipment delivered to them the day they started work, so you have a whole different structure in place.
Now we do online inductions, and in the coming weeks we will likely revert to partly in-person and partly remote.
We have now introduced a 100-day survey, so we check in with anyone who has been with us for 100 days to ask about how they are, their objectives and if they understand the strategic narrative.
Is this a case of an improvement born out of necessity during the pandemic?
The 100-day survey isn’t a formal interview; they get reminders by Workday, which is the technology we use. We want to make sure that we're engaging, listening and responding to feedback, and it’s a great way of doing it.
It comes back to do they have the equipment they need to be successful and making sure they feel they can ask for stuff as needed? They can order their IT and other equipment over an internal online store, a bit like Amazon. We are also running two events this summer with our 2020 and 2021 early career intake, to bring them physically together as a group in the summer. We want to make sure that the collaboration and connectivity is there.
"We want to make sure that the collaboration and connectivity is there."
What's been the impact of hybrid working arrangements on how you organise people in the office?
We totally reconfigured the London and other hubs; we have some “standard” desks and a real variety of breakout spaces. These are areas where people can sit in groups around large desks, breakout coffee areas, high desks where people can do some work over a short period of time, and booths where you can have more private conversations or focus-time.
There's a good mix of space and it works well. We’re still adjusting but you get a real energy from coming into a great office space and seeing colleagues. For businesses that have totally given up offices, I think the jury's still out on whether it's worth it.
Do you think people are coming into the office now because it's a place they want to go to rather than because they have to?
We have definitely tried to ensure our offices are a place people want to be. Pre-pandemic, people could have a free breakfast in our London office, free fruit and free coffee throughout the day, and these kind of perks have been retained coming out of the pandemic.
If you look around now, there’s a real buzz and people are enjoying the opportunity to have a chat and a catch-up.
I think the way the office has been reconfigured works well. But we've all got to remain agile over the coming six to 12 months. We're in a period of continuing change as all firms and industries adapt to new ways of working, but we also have a very positive outlook. We want to help our clients and our people succeed.
KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR TECH COMPANIES
- It can be hard to keep connected with your people in hybrid and homeworking situations. Make sure you are checking in with them regularly and they are not overworking or missing out and they see the benefits of what they are doing for themselves, their teams and their clients.
Returning to the office after COVID-19 may be a challenge for some. Engage with your employees individually and be flexible in catering for their needs.
Building and communicating a strong culture is more important than ever, particularly for employees who have joined during the pandemic.