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What we gain (and lose) from remote working

18 August 2020: Andrew Sandiford, managing partner at Bishop Fleming, says the firm has learned the benefits of remote working, but also its limits.

Despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus lockdown, Andrew Sandiford, managing partner at Bishop Fleming, insists it's been a valuable learning experience in new working practices, particularly around remote working and communication. 

"Lockdown has accelerated the path the firm was on before. It hasn't taken us in a direction we weren't already heading in, we've just ended up in an extreme situation," he explains. 

There had already been conversations within the firm around flexible and remote working, but no concrete plans or policies had been made. That all changed following lockdown. Sandiford describes it as an interesting illustration of how circumstances force change. 

Expecting staff to work nine-to-five during lockdown when they had family or other responsibilities became quickly anachronistic. The firm switched its focus from input to output: as long as work was getting done and client expectations were met, it mattered less when or where staff worked.

Technology, whether cloud-based, knowledge hubs or webinars, has enabled Bishop Fleming to adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic. The firm makes regular use of Microsoft Teams and other video conferencing platforms to keep in touch with staff. Management uses frequent weekly internal communications and blogs, and Sandiford now arranges weekly online catchups with other partners in place of visiting offices in person. 

On the client side, the firm now runs regular webinars for clients in lieu of physical events. They've put a lot of work into two dedicated COVID-19 knowledge hubs, with some online webpages ranking higher in Google search than the Government's pages on similar topics.

But it's not all been plain sailing. Video conferencing, in particular, has been a real learning curve. "It was a case of necessity forces innovation," Sandiford admits. "We hadn't universally accepted video conferencing previously. At the start of lockdown, we were spending ten minutes at the beginning of every meeting trying to get the technology to work. Now every meeting starts bang on time and everything works."

Despite video conferencing becoming second nature and the firm arranging 'flurries' of social evenings on Zoom, another issue quickly emerged: e-meeting-fatigue. Employees were becoming fed up and exhausted with online meetups, even if they weren’t always work-related. It became apparent that while technology was useful in enabling remote working, it would never be a good substitute for face-to-face communication. 

"We've learnt a lot about the value of human interaction," says Sandiford. "We undervalued it previously – we took it for granted. Ours is a people business; people need contact and they need interaction. All those great client ideas come from people in the office. Coaching opportunities come from looking over shoulders and asking questions. Remote working inevitably means spontaneity gets lost."

Sandiford believes the firm's COVID experience shows that total remote working, while necessary in an emergency, is not sustainable in the long term. While in some ways, team working and collaboration has never worked better across Bishop Fleming's seven offices, in other ways, it's also become, as Sandiford describes, 'adversely impacted'. Unless there's a real opportunity to talk to someone, it just doesn't happen. Casual chats over a coffee or at the water cooler have become a thing of the past, but it's something the firm is keen to bring back as they encourage staff to return to the office, where possible.

"We've learned what we're missing from an internal perspective. Team chats aren't quite the same if you do them online; they're just not spontaneous."

Many of the emergency measures they put in place are likely to remain, to some extent. But as Sandiford points out, it's about finding the right 'blend' to gain maximum efficiency and using remote working where it's appropriate to do so.

"I don't think going back to the old ways of doing things is the answer, but neither is working entirely remotely," he says. "There's no point driving 150 miles to sit in a client's office when you can carry out the work at home. Equally, it's just as inefficient to deal with email queries from a financial director five times a day when you can run through everything with them in person."

Even so, the traditional nine-to-five working hours is now gone forever. Instead, the flexibility to work remotely is something that will stay. But Sandiford insists that the notion of entire remote working is a terrible idea because human interaction is so crucial to the business. "We need to retain flexibility but understand the value of being in the office. Humans thrive on social interaction and that's what we've been lacking."

Lockdown, says Sandiford, has demonstrated the 'extreme' and the extreme he insists, isn't healthy. "I have a wry smile when people claim to have the answer and can find the right balance. I don't think we have the answers yet. But I do think it's been an interesting experiment and when things settle down, we'll have compressed five to ten years of learning into five to ten months."