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Business spotlight: COVID-19 response - more about people, less about brand

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 29 May 2020

The coronavirus crisis has driven many changes to the way organisations work, but for one practice it will mean no return to the office as the team shifts to homeworking on a permanent basis.

“It takes a crisis to see the very best and the very worst of people, and I’ve been very lucky to see the best”.

That’s the message from Tom Ahmad, co-founder and partner at insolvency and business recovery outfit Bailey Ahmad Business Recovery, on what the COVID-19 pandemic has meant for his company and his team.

For the president of the ICAEW’s Croydon branch, has – after consulting with his team members – decided that there will be no return to the office.

But not a single job has been cut or a member of staff furloughed because the majority of Ahmad’s team will all be working from the safety of their homes, not just for the duration of the lockdown period but forevermore. Or at least until they decide otherwise.

“Everyone has really stepped up despite the challenges and they have given me space to try and fix them,” says Ahmad. “And they’ve really helped too, suggesting new ideas to think about to help make it work even better.”

The situation first arose, explains Ahmad, when one of his team at the Beckenham-based independent, expressed concerns about the virus as they travelled into work by bus, had elderly parents, and asked if he could work from home. 

“He was someone who’d never worked from home, but I was fine with that.

My issue was that not everyone had laptops or computers at home,” said Ahmad.

He duly sorted him out with a laptop before ensuring that via his external IT suppliers that everyone was set up with remote desktop capabilities to the office with full cloud-based server migration – a move already on the cards, but now pushed forward.

48 hours

“Within 48 hours everyone was functioning but to different degrees, everyone had access to their emails and working files, what wasn’t necessarily working was the fact we had some office-based processes.

“The team were really positive,” says Ahmad. “They saw that it was an indiscriminate human and health crisis that affects us all.”

Ahmad, a self-confessed early adopter of all things technological, soon realised that the pandemic “could go on for a year or longer” and that a vaccine was many months or longer away, “so we are in for the long haul”.

A key early win for the business was that it has been paperless for the last 10 years, while “the response from our IT guys was fantastic – we were lucky that they took us seriously and looked after us a small firm when they had much bigger clients.”

What quickly became clear, Ahmad recalls, was that “productivity improved with our team working hard to overcome some of the challenges”.

The team quickly adapted many of its processes to the home environment, but Ahmad knew that “running the business in such a temporary state wasn’t ideal” and that the team “needed to become as slick as we could be in a remote flexible space.”

“I started by trying to understand peoples’ issues, concerns and practical problems. In an office, you can walk in and see what the problems are by observing what isn’t working and you are able to suggest solutions, but I couldn’t do that in peoples’ homes. I also wasn’t clear exactly how Heath Robinson their set up was as it was all very rushed.”

Questioning approach

So he created a questionnaire via MS Forms within MS Teams to take the pulse of how the team wanted to continue.

The questions were:

  • What challenges are you facing working from home (no matter how small)’
  • What is the preferred time of day for working? Normal 9-5, earlier, later or mix it up 
  • Any suggestions on how we can improve your home working arrangements? 
  • What do you miss most about working in the office? And what do you think we could do to reduce the impact? 
  • When lockdown is over, where would you most like to work? Mainly office, Mainly home, or mix 
  • Are there any tasks that you find particularly difficult to complete whilst working from home?
  • We have chosen to use MS Teams as our main internal comms and collaboration tool. What personal difficulties are you having with MS Teams (and remember we are all learning this new platform)? 

The responses “were really positive in terms of how they felt about the firm” and highlighted problems that were “all very much home environment issues such as poor WiFi, not having twin monitors and no allocated home working space”

“I could buy kit and address many of those issues,” said Ahmad, while among the many positives responses about working from home were the eradication of the commute and the ability to create a personalised space, “which they felt made them more productive”. 

“We are working through the technical and practical aspects based on people’s different working patterns,” says Ahmad, “and we are able to accommodate their home life and their families and discovering how to compensate remotely as we aren’t getting the usual office social interaction. 

He says the team now virtually engage in “kick-start and follow-up chats” on a Monday and Wednesday with the occasional “socially distanced walking one-to-ones”. 

Admitting to being somewhat surprised that the team, who were previously all so delighted to be office based but are now so keen to keep on working flexible hours at home, has been pleasantly revelatory to Ahmad.

So what’s his key takeaway from the pandemic so far and what it says about the human condition? 

“I’m grateful for the team’s positive and proactive attitude and I’m grateful that they have supported one another. It takes a crisis to see the very best and the very worst of people and I’ve been very lucky to see the best. Everyone has really stepped up, despite the challenges, and they have given me the space to try and fix them while helping me too, giving me ideas.

“A lot more humanity is coming through because of this crisis. It’s now more about people and less about brand”.