Lessons for professional services firms from COVID-19

Paul Jaffa

There’s no script and no collective experience for the COVID19 lockdown – we are all making our own management consultancy up as we go along to make us better and more effective when we work in the “new normal”.

Ironically but unsurprisingly, our biggest lesson at Myddleton has been about effective communications. This highly complex, fast-paced and uncertain situation requires transparent, concise and empathetic communications.

Not just singing the praises of Zoom and the myriad other tech platforms that have allowed us to work in isolation and yet not be isolated, but the multi-faceted communications with our teams, our clients, prospective clients, the journalists we work with, social media and everyone else that makes up our world of work. Working from home has allowed us to analyse and re-appraise our workflow and, as we are no longer physically in the same space, to develop processes to ensure a consistent high quality in all our client communications and all our interactions with the market.  

Interestingly, the lockdown has not been negative for us. We all miss aspects of office life, but we have performed well and supported our clients with creative communications tailored for this new and different world we now live in.

Firms may also be able to reduce the amount of office space they need in expensive city centre locations, and without the limit of geographic location, they can widen the pool of potential recruits.”

Indeed, for many firms and staff, the experience of remote working on a long-term basis has been a pleasant surprise. Many, particularly in London, have enjoyed skipping the commute, and have increased their productivity. Others though have found working from home to be a lonely experience, and they have missed the opportunity to meet with their colleagues and clients in person.

A number of companies, particularly US tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook, have announced plans to allow their employees to work from home permanently. Whilst only one law firm has so far stated that their London employees will do likewise, there are clearly potential advantages to allowing staff to work remotely for at least part of the working week. Staff may prefer the flexibility this provides, particularly as regards their lifestyle and, in some cases, family responsibilities.

Removing the daily commute opens up alternative locations where staff can live, and some may take the opportunity to move to better value or less densely populated areas. Firms may also be able to reduce the amount of office space they need in expensive city centre locations, and without the limit of geographic location, they can widen the pool of potential recruits.

However, there are inevitably going to be some downsides. Working from home may have proved easy for some because they had already built up “social capital” with their colleagues and clients before lockdown and this may decline as time goes on. Maintaining relationships with clients, and meeting new clients, may also prove more difficult for as long as social distancing remains in place.

RBS has announced this week that it does not expect its office workers to return until 2021 at the earliest.”

Remote working may also prove a problem for more junior staff. Much of the practical training juniors receive is from working closely with more senior colleagues and observing how they operate.

Even if the juniors are still required to attend an office every day, their development may suffer if their senior colleagues are working predominantly from home. The right mix of remote and office working will be different for each firm and we expect to see professional service firms of all sizes experimenting with this in the coming months. Nevertheless, after the lockdown experience, increased flexible working is likely to be here to stay.

Beyond that key problem lie a plethora of wider issues about the provision of professional services in the new era. The financial pressure on clients is likely to translate into pressure to offer alternative fee arrangements in place of the traditional hourly rate or fixed retainer billing model. Similarly, the way in which technology has enabled remote working is likely to intensify the focus on the ways in which new tech can automate work done by junior members of the account teams.

This in turn will lead to a focus on the ways in which more senior professionals add value to their client in ways no machine can replicate – for example through judgment, empathy and creativity – and raise questions about how that value can be recognised in a way that both makes the client happy and makes a profit for the firm. These were shifts that were afoot already, but they have undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic. As if to emphasise the point, RBS has announced this week that it does not expect its office workers to return until 2021 at the earliest.

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

President John F. Kennedy, April 1959

For Myddleton, the working from home experience has been both a happy and successful one to date and has no doubt brought forward a work/lifestyle choice that we have been considering for some time. The emergence of effective tech solutions and the lockdown requirements that everyone has experienced has made the transition much easier and whilst productivity is increased, client relations has been crucial while the team has benefited from no more commuting and an improved lifestyle.

Since lockdown has been lifted, we have discovered the value of advice from an old friend who has been doing this for years – meet regularly face to face. We are all fortunately UK based and so meet weekly to discuss client issues, work in progress, new projects, new business ideas et cetera but even if we were in different jurisdictions, we would arrange to meet regularly maybe every quarter as that personal interaction is really important.   

Professional firms which emerge best from the current crisis are going to be those which recognise and respond to these changing dynamics rather than simply seek to return to the previous status quo.  The pandemic has undoubtedly brought all sorts of personal and professional difficulties – but in the aftermath of those challenges comes the opportunity for reconsideration and renewal. As John F Kennedy said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

Paul Jaffa is the managing director of Myddleton Communications, having founded the company in 2003

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