With thanks to: Maria Cunningham of Whitley Stimpson, Will Axtell of Penningtons Manches Cooper, Stuart Crook of Wellers, Jessica Mason of Chapman, Robinson & Moore, Nicola Wallbank of Julian Taylor, Darren Green of The MGroup, Rupert Beazley of CMC Partners, Cara Simmons of Grant Thornton and Stewart Elliston of Freeths.
“We all faced challenges which resulted in radical shifts to our lives – the way we communicate, work, and interact with each other. While for many of us, colleagues and clients, the impact of 2020 might have seemed like an inconvenience, for others, this year has brought profound hardship with people facing financial difficulties, mental health challenges, physical ailments, and heartbreak.
“Businesses have had to pull together to facilitate and support employees with remote working, providing a COVID-secure work environment for the original return to work, and also for those times when staff have had to return to the office for essential work. One of the challenges for us and all businesses has been to continue to provide a quality service to clients, and at the same time considering, more than ever, the health and well-being of our employees and their families.
We’ve all had to follow and review the Government guidance at every turn, consider the planned return to workplaces in line with that advice when it happens, and make sure people feel supported and voices heard.
“Keeping the lines of communication open between employees and directors, as well as administration teams, and IT, HR and Marketing functions has been paramount to helping us all to feel well-supported.”Maria Cunningham
“Keeping the lines of communication open between employees and directors, as well as administration teams, and IT, HR and Marketing functions has been paramount to helping us all to feel well-supported. Right from the start our directors held regular meetings to discuss the impact of the changes that were happening and communicated how they would affect us all. Another thing which worked well for us from the beginning of the first lockdown was the ‘Whitley Weekly’, which was put together by the HR team and issued every Friday via email. These informal few pages succeeded, in some way, to try and make up for the lack of face-to-face conversations, keeping people up to date with everyone. This has continued and each week a member of the team puts together a short write up of their experience of life in lockdown, giving everyone an insight into even the most senior of staff’s life and feelings on the whole situation. There are of course quizzes, and also guess the photograph of the baby competitions, news of the baking competitions and other activities, other photographs, suggestions for activities people might like to try, walks to be done, etc. This works well alongside the intranet, which is another excellent form of communication.” Maria Cunningham
“2021 plans were dealt a blow with the news of the current lockdown and, aside from obviously delivering for our clients, our main focus is our staff on that, their changing attitudes and, in general, changing attitudes. We feel we’re in a bit of a lull at the moment to be honest – the world seems to have been put on hold, waiting to see what impact the vaccine has and the implications for the economy. I think everybody’s waiting for that. It’s very difficult to plan going forward.
“We’re all waiting on the budget changes, whatever they might be, and trying to work out what we’re going to do for our clients.”
“We’ve been doing quizzes and the other staff bonding events but, in all reality, I think everyone’s fed up with zoom by the end of the day so to keep their attention for a race night or a quiz night isn’t easy. Mind you, we did a cocktail making for our team before Christmas, which was quite cool, something a bit different. That seemed to go down quite well with staff, although I would rule out the next day generally, if I were you!
“I would say that after going on the recent B4 walk at Blenheim Palace, I came back and thought, ‘actually that’s a really good idea, maybe we could do that.”Stuart Crook
“I would say that after going on the recent B4 walk at Blenheim Palace, I came back and thought, ‘actually that’s a really good idea, maybe we could do that’. So, once restrictions lift, maybe just meeting up with staff and fellow partners for a walk will be nice…you might then be able to tie them down to that Maria!” Stuart Crook
“I think the most challenging thing is staff wellbeing and morale. We had all started going back to the office on a rota basis but now we’re working from home mainly and maintaining team morale is a challenge, especially at the moment when we’re particularly busy. We’re also finding a lot of clients aren’t getting in touch about their accounts, tax returns or day to day queries, they’re wanting more support and guidance from us as accountants. We’re having to communicate regularly; we’re having to help clients do business plans and planning for the year ahead. There is a lot of uncertainty out there. It’s just about being that extra pair of ears really and providing that support.
“We are trying to do a quiz every week to keep in touch with everyone, taking time out at lunchtime to catch up with each other and we have ad hoc challenges….we’re doing squats at the moment.”Jessica Mason
“We are trying to do a quiz every week to keep in touch with everyone, taking time out at lunchtime to catch up with each other and we have ad hoc challenges….we’re doing squats at the moment, which I still need to do today. Keeping fit and mentally agile is key and getting everyone to detach themselves from their desks from time to time is important.” Jessica Mason
“The struggle I’m finding at the moment, with my clients, is that they want to be talking about positive stories, they want to be talking about how they as a business are going to recover, and some of the strategies they’ve got to grow, to market themselves differently, to perhaps diversify a bit in the future. But there’s a nervousness to do anything that is a commercial story or that has a marketing focus. They feel they should still be communicating the ‘we’re in this together’ message, ‘let’s support each other’.
“The challenge we’re therefore seeing with our clients is finding the right balance between dealing with the immediate issues with team members, staff that are on furlough, staff that are on reduced hours and pushing out the more positive marketing stories to drive their businesses forward. It’s finding the right balance which is the challenge.”Darren Green
“I haven’t actually met one of my clients for over a year now. I’m still meeting them on a zoom call, regularly on a monthly basis, but it’s just getting rather turgid in terms of interaction. I’m struggling with that and wondering if there are any other ways that we can meet…but I think I know the answer! It’s very difficult trying to get new clients as well when you can’t actually meet them face to face, especially when you’re trying to engage them with business advice, because a lot of the body language and a lot of the interaction that you undertake in an initial meeting can help close the deal. I think that’s been a struggle. But having said that, I’m still pretty busy and I’ve got a couple of businesses I’ve taken through to sale at the moment. I can’t complain that I’m busy, it’s just turgid at the moment.” Rupert Beazley
“I haven’t actually met one of my clients for over a year now. I’m still meeting them on a zoom call, regularly on a monthly basis, but it’s just getting rather turgid in terms of interaction. I’m struggling with that and wondering if there are any other ways that we can meet…”Rupert Beazley
“I have to agree with Stuart. I’ve noticed, in the last few months, people are ‘zoomed’ and ‘teamed’ out. For us, we try and do anything, zooms or teams, during the working day … past 5pm you’ve got very little chance of engaging anyone. Let’s face it, that’s quite right…. Dolly Parton had it spot on!
“The biggest challenge for us is staff wellbeing and we were very much braced for this very early on last year. We created mental health first aiders and subgroups that were all about coming up with tips and guest speakers talking about things that you could do as an individual whilst working at home.”Stewart Elliston
“The biggest challenge for us is staff wellbeing and we were very much braced for this very early on last year. We created mental health first aiders and subgroups that were all about coming up with tips and guest speakers talking about things that you could do as an individual whilst working at home, to help your mental health and keep your focus. Tips and tools and things to do, it’s just been really helpful, I have to confess in April last year, I really struggled going from an offline platform to an online platform and all of these tips have helped get me through these months, especially the third lockdown.” Stewart Elliston
“We are quite lucky in as much as we’re a large company and have a team of people, internally, that deal with wellbeing. I think that’s the number one challenge for people at the moment. We did a walking challenge where the whole company ended up walking to the moon and back!
“There’s also the challenge of keeping on top of what’s going on in the world at the moment. During the first couple months of the pandemic we talked with everybody about what you need to do right now to survive and we started talking about what we were going to do beyond the pandemic.”Cara Simmons
“We held an event before Christmas on the science behind good mental health and that education is key for everybody – staff and clients. We have an expert internally and she talked about how the impact of exclusion on the brain is the same as actual physical pain.
“There’s also the challenge of keeping on top of what’s going on in the world at the moment. During the first couple months of the pandemic we talked with everybody about what you need to do right now to survive and we started talking about what we were going to do beyond the pandemic. We’re now sat here waiting for that ‘beyond’ part where we can help our clients and we’re just having to keep that momentum going during this third lockdown.” Cara Simmons
“It’s certainly about survival at the moment and getting through the next few months.” Maria Cunningham
WHAT HELP IS OUT THERE TO SUPPORT YOU SUPPORTING YOUR STAFF?
“We have a service that we subscribe to, a confidential helpline. I think BUPA have just updated their policy, so they’re doing a similar confidential helpline. In my profession, in the ICAEW, there is additional support for members, so there is quite a lot out there. I think the key point is making all of the staff aware of where this support is and that it exists. We looked at this very issue last week and reminded staff about the four or five areas they could draw support from if they wanted support outside of Wellers.” Stuart Crook
“Lots of larger employers have employee assistance programmes – helplines that staff can contact if they are looking for support. Some occupational health providers are also providing wellbeing services. For smaller organisations that don’t have that set up, the charity Oxfordshire Mind, has got loads of brilliant materials on their website that employers and staff can tap into.” Nicola Wallbank
“The charity Oxfordshire Mind, has got loads of brilliant materials on their website that employers and staff can tap into.”Nicola Wallbank
“We also have a regular wellbeing drop-in session run by our ‘mental health champions’ who are members of the team from across our offices. This is a zoom call you can attend, no pressure to contribute, and check in and hear about how others are coping, share your thoughts and challenges. We also encourage staff to think about the importance of good IT, data security/confidentiality and also good ergonomics re desk set up.” Will Axtell
“This is a zoom call you can attend, no pressure to contribute, and check in and hear about how others are coping, share your thoughts and challenges.”Will Axtell
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE DIFFERENTLY THAT HAS HELPED YOUR COLLEAGUES?
“I went for a physical business development meeting today, a one on one, with another corporate finance contact who actually lives in my village. We went for a bracing walk on the Ridgeway at the top of our village – it was very refreshing”.
“We have a Happy News publication that circulates internally focussing on positive, good news stories. A counterbalance to all the bad news we hear at the moment! It could be new baby arrivals, engagements etc. We also have a “Coffee randomiser” – each month staff who sign up get randomly paired up with someone else in the firm and talk about anything they like over a cup of coffee or tea. It is a good way to make new connections, to encourage collaboration and to hopefully make new friends along the way. We’re also doing the PMC quiz; Run PMC challenge in aid of The Change Foundation – running 5k every day of January; PMC book club; Photographer competition; PMC Got Talent – so lots going on! We have also rolled out Yammer, which is a social collaboration channel on our intranet with different hubs – cycle hub, pets club, football chat. So another way to find connections and human interaction whilst we are all working from home. I expect to see a lot of this continuing post-Pandemic and no doubt we will be a more fulfilled and happier firm as a result! Let’s see the silver linings!” Will Axtell
“When everyone is feeling a bit fatigued on zoom, just going back to a good old fashioned phone call can be refreshing. I think not being able to see people can assist listening too. We know everyone is finding it tough so keeping up communication is key.” Nicola Wallbank
“Spot on Nicola. I’ve set up my Friday calls as calls, not on zoom. I much prefer it and I know the people I speak to prefer it. You’re not worrying how you look, or being distracted by what’s happening in the background. Your focus is on the call and listening…that’s crucial now more than ever.” Stewart Elliston
IS THERE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
“Definitely. My key observation is that whilst it’s right to talk about survival and resilience and what we need to do to protect ourselves, but we should also be talking about being the leaders and talking about longer term recovery, growth. I think there needs to be more stories coming out for the benefit of staff, clients and suppliers that we do have a plan, we know what we’re going to be doing in 12 month’s time. We need to inject confidence. We’re hopeful that the vaccine programme will be a huge success and as that starts to spark more hope then the more business-like content needs to start coming out. I think the sooner we’re talking about other things other than the pandemic, the better for us as a community.” Darren Green
“I think the sooner we’re talking about other things other than the pandemic, the better for us as a community.”Darren Green
“We need to have some positive proactive suggestions as well; it seems to me that’s a month or two months down the line at the moment, but certainly the right way to be thinking.” Will Axtell
“I do think that the timing of that is when we have a little more clarity, which might come after the budget, when we can have something more certain to talk about. It would be nice to be leaders at that point. The workplace has been changed forever and remote working will be a big part of our futures so we will continue to support this into the future. There is a lot to be positive about as a nation, and in Oxford, with the vaccination offering a light at the end of what was a very long, dark tunnel. Maria Cunningham.
“Employers and their staff have shown amazing flexibility in adapting to this new world and I think this situation has opened people’s minds to new and more flexible ways of working.”
“There is – positive news of the vaccine is lifting the spirits, and we are seeing some really interesting work coming through in sectors that are doing well in this tough environment. Employers and their staff have shown amazing flexibility in adapting to this new world and I think this situation has opened people’s minds to new and more flexible ways of working that will impact the future world of work. That should be welcomed and I think will be a change for the better.” Nicola Wallbank
Keeping engaged with our clients: social events such as cocktail making on Zoom (https://thamesiderum.com), webinars on topical issues.
Summarising key COVID related issues in a user-friendly format – e.g. https://www.penningtonslaw.com/media/1553306/resources-roadmap-uk-government-support-to-businesses.pdf
Working from home: some legal issues:
HOW TO GET INTO THE RECOVERY MINDSET – ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM THE MGROUP
2020 and 2021 so far has been hard, and while there are sadly still many businesses in the thick of survival mode, there are some that are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
While recovery will not reach everyone at warp speed, it is coming, and it is important to plan for.
It’s not easy to look up and think about your future when you’re fighting to survive, but it can make a huge difference in where your business heads.
- Take stock of how your competition has changed.
- Take some time to reassess the competitive landscape and see where opportunities may have opened.
- Reflect on where you want to go.
- Sit down and reflect on whether your goals have changed, and whether you’ve communicated this to your team.
- Reflect on your internal processes.
- Businesses across the world went online in a whole new way in 2020. You need to look at what you’re doing and if you could be doing more or better in a digital environment.
- Update your business plan.
- Include your market strategy, marketing strategy, and financial plans – planning for both the short term and long-term.
- Get your team on board.
It’s been a long, hard slog for everyone. Ensure that you share your plans with enthusiasm and optimism to get them motivated, engaged and trained to get you moving forward.