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Adjusting to the ‘new normal’ for ICAEW students

As workplaces move towards the next phase of the coronavirus recovery - the so-called ‘new normal’ - firms, leaders and managers need to address the challenges facing their junior staff. CASSL Secretary Tim Reilly, writes.

September 2020

During the last six months, junior employees have faced several major challenges, including mental health, poor remote working environments, and reduced learning and development opportunities. With the way we work likely changed forever, and no imminent return to the office as we know it, innovative solutions are needed to ensure the current - and future cohorts - of ACA students do not feel the impact of this crisis for the rest of their careers.

The ‘Death of the Office’?

Many firms, including PwC, have already confirmed that they will allow the vast majority of their employees to work from home for the foreseeable future, even if restrictions are lifted. In announcing the decision, Kevin Ellis, the PwC Chairman, said that the past six months has “shown many business leaders that their people can be productive, engaged and happy working from home”. Longer-term trends towards remote and flexible working patterns seem to have been accelerated by the pandemic.

The office, however, is a great leveller. Coronavirus has highlighted inequalities across our society, and intergenerational inequity when it comes to remote working environments are stark.  Junior staff, especially in London with high costs of living, are likely live in rented accommodation with limited space. While many senior leaders and decision-makers can enjoy the peace and quiet of a private office, younger employees (myself included) have to make do with a desk set up in the corner of their bedroom. This cannot be good for mental health or productivity.

Community and Collaboration

The office is also indispensable for community and collaboration. Relationships and chemistry with our colleagues developed prior to lockdown have sustained us through this period. Without a return to regular face-to-face interaction however, there is a danger that these connections may strain. This is particularly hard for less experienced staff. A key finding from a recent survey by recognition provider Achievers confirms this, as while UK workers as a whole feel less connected towards both their company culture and colleagues during the pandemic, the group that feels the most disconnected are those aged between 18 and 24.

Collaboration has also suffered. For ICAEW students on training contracts, learning and development is an essential part of our role. Not only through formal training courses, but learning on-the-job from experienced colleagues. The formal training can be moved, if imperfectly, onto virtual platforms. The casual observations, the listening in to conversations and picking up snippets of knowledge through osmosis, are much harder to replicate.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

All this is taking its toll on mental health and wellbeing, especially for young people. While the pandemic has taken a toll on the wellbeing of employees of all ages, according to the Office of National Statistics, young people (aged 16 to 29) were much more likely to report being bored and lonely, as well much more likely to say the lockdown was making their mental health worse.

This is not a surprise as the widely cited benefits of lockdown, such as spending more time with family and reduced commuting time, are less relevant for young people who are missing the social aspect of working and living in London. Even if, as many have, junior employees have moved back in with their parents, this can cause problems such as feeling a loss of independence and infantilisation.

What can firms do?

Firms must play a role in supporting their junior employees into the next phase of adapting to a post-Covid landscape. There have been many innovative policies already suggested and implemented that employers can take to engage with and tackle the challenges facing ICAEW students.

Some firms, for example, have a policy where they leave Zoom on all day, so people can lift their heads up and ask a question, as if they were in an office. Training courses delivered online are combining insights from gaming, to design online dashboards with progress bars, awards and achievements to motivate users to complete the course. Providing opportunities for virtual mentoring and networking is also essential to revive the benefits foregone in a remote working environment, to replicate those water-cooler conversations. Deloitte’s “Coffee Club” is a good example of how this already being done.

Most of all, however, leaders need to listen to and understand the challenges faced by junior employees. A suggestion recently by the ICAEW to tackle this is to create a dedicated Non-Executive Director role to be filled by an under-30 on the Board. While any change creates winners and losers, there is a real danger that the greatest victims of this shift to remote working will be those of us just starting out in our careers. Therefore, ICAEW students must be at the forefront of any conversations involving the future of work.

Resources and ways to get involved

The Chartered Accountant’s Student Society for London (CASSL) is a great platform to raise and engage with these issues. We are in the process of establishing a ‘buddy’ network, connecting ACA students across a variety of firms to increase networking and mentoring opportunities. We are also we are also co-hosting a ‘Managing Change and Uncertainty’ webinar with CABA on 22 October aimed at ACA students. To keep up to date with CASSL's activities, join the LinkedIn group.

As well as your local society, there is a wealth of online resources and support available to ICAEW students regarding your well-being: