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Student Insights

The future is flexible

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 30 Jun 2021

Flexible working

In the wake of the pandemic, many businesses are adopting hybrid working patterns. Flexibility brings opportunities, but also challenges – especially for those starting out in the profession.

After more than a year of home working, it will be a cautious return to the office for many over the coming weeks and months. And speculation is rife about exactly what that office and working week will look like. Some analysts, such as the think tank Centre for Cities, are predicting a gradual shift back to pre-Covid working patterns, with the return of a five-day office week within two years.

For most people, however, the expectation is that many businesses and organisations will adopt some sort of flexible – variously known as hybrid, adaptive or agile – working policy. In March, PwC was the first of the Big Four firms to announce a hybrid model, giving staff in the UK the option to work from home half the time, as well as decide their start and finish times. Others quickly followed suit, with KPMG announcing in May that it planned to allow staff to work from home six days in every fortnight, and Deloitte embracing an ‘ultra-flexible’ policy in June that lets people decide ‘when, where and how they work’.

ICAEW, too, recently announced a new hybrid model for staff from September. “Colleagues will retain the flexibility to work from home, with an expectation that most people spend at least two days every week in the office,” explains Dabinder Hutchinson, ICAEW Chief Financial Officer. “I think this new approach will make a real difference to our people, supporting our commitment to employee health and wellbeing. It will also help with our drive to achieve carbon neutrality.”

For many firms, this flexibility is nothing new. “We’ve always had an agile approach, in that you could work from home when you were able to,” explains Jo Ritchie, Head of Early Careers, People & Culture at Grant Thornton. “It meant that, while the pandemic was horrendous on lots of levels, that particular aspect wasn’t so bad because we already had the collaboration tools set up – everybody already knew how to use Teams and Zoom.”

As restrictions lift, staff are keen to keep a balance, with an internal survey in May revealing that 88% of Grant Thornton employees want to continue working from home at least half the time. “It was a big number,” says Jo, “but interestingly, they all wanted balance. There were very few people who said they wanted to work exclusively from home, but there were very few people who wanted to work exclusively from the office as well.”

The survey also found that an overwhelming majority of staff – 94% – felt that a mix of remote and office working would have a positive impact on them. The work-life balance benefits are clear, from dispensing with the daily commute to setting hours that suit, and there are advantages from an inclusivity point of view too. “It’s worked really well for a lot of people that needed flexible working patterns for personal or medical reasons,” says Jo. “We’ve also seen an increase in trainee-level applications for part-time work, so it might be those with families, or with cultural reasons that mean that they can’t work full time. We’ve never seen that before in quite the same way.”

Firms may be willing to embrace flexibility, but accountancy is, of course, a service-based industry. “We’ve been really clear that we are still here to service the needs of our client base,” Jo says. “So while there will be periods of planning and periods of completing various bits and pieces of projects where you can be super flexible with the way you work, we do still have to understand that if a client needs to see us on x number of days of a week then we need to work with that. And then when we’re working with ourselves and in our own time, we should do what brings the best out of us. It’s about being agile.”

While there are some aspects of the job that are well-suited to home working, collaboration is crucial – something that is being reflected in changing office space. “We’ve already redesigned most of our office space – we’ve taken away the desks and computer screens and replaced them with sofas and big tables,” explains Jo. “If you’re going to go in you need to be talking to people and listening and learning, and then for more focused tasks, we’re trying to encourage people to go home and do them.”

For students in training agreements, that regular face-to-face contact is particularly important. One thing Grant Thornton has found, explains Jo, is that it’s the more senior staff who are keen to continue working from home – but those are the same people who need to be present and supporting more junior team members. “We can’t expect our younger talent to work in this flexible, agile way if our more senior staff aren’t training them correctly,” she says. “Quite a lot of our associates have asked for face-to-face working and are already in the office two or three days a week. But what they’re struggling with is getting the right level of support from management, because it’s the more senior people who haven’t been coming in as regularly.

“So we’ve had lots of conversations with those line managers to say if you want to carry on working in this agile way, you need to find coping mechanisms to coach that junior talent pool, whether that’s an agreed one day a week in the office together, or inviting the junior staff to every client meeting. It’s given everybody the focus on coaching.”

Part of learning is context: seeing and hearing what’s going on around you – Grant Thornton’s workarounds over the past 15 months have included setting up all-day Teams meetings in the background in an attempt to recreate the office environment. The firm has also tried to replicate the networking and social aspects of working life for their new intake as far as possible. “We did virtual inductions, and we’ve done everything possible in terms of live events to try and bring them together and make them feel valued,” she says. “We’ve got a few new collaboration tools in the mix as well, which promote socialising and networking in local areas – a bit like a dating website for various interests. We’re trying to get people communicating locally so that they can go out and meet each other and do things.”

Workplace interactions are not only good for our wellbeing, they can have a positive impact on productivity, too. According to new data by hybrid workplace specialist Chargifi, spontaneous office interactions between co-workers can boost wellbeing and productivity for over an hour, with 45% of employees reporting feeling happier after such encounters, and around a third saying they feel more motivated, creative and productive.

The key is finding the right balance: maintaining the productivity and flexibility of remote working, while embracing the collaboration and wellbeing benefits of face-to-face connection. “Our organisation is shaped by the interactions we have with each other, our members, students, member firms and stakeholders,” says Dabinder Hutchinson. “While the majority of employees have successfully worked from home since the first lockdown, a Zoom call isn’t the same as face-to-face contact. Our offices are where we come together and work in teams, build and strengthen relationships, foster professional and personal development, and also socialise.”

Jo Ritchie agrees. “Working exclusively virtually in the industry that we’re in is not going to work in practice,” she says. “We need to get young people – and senior staff – interacting again and communicating and coaching each other. That involves getting back into colleges and education centres as well for those crucial social interaction and peer-to-peer learning points. It has to happen again.”

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