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Remote working part 5: workplace of the future

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Mar 2021

The concluding part of ICAEW’s remote working series picks the brains of two finance professionals who have worked remotely long before COVID-19. What can they teach chartered accountants?

Remote working for the traditional five-day office worker is a huge shift, especially in the short space of time companies transitioned as the pandemic took hold last year. Today’s technology certainly made this changeover a lot smoother, possibly seamless for some. But imagine working remotely three decades ago in a time before Wi-Fi and superfast broadband, where dial-up access was how workers stayed connected. This was the reality of actuarial consultancy OAC, which has been fully remote since 1995. 

“We’ve never had an office”, said Sally Palmer, Head of Finance at OAC. “The firm was founded by an actuary and his son and has always worked remotely, which 26 years ago was quite an unusual thing. We operated using a system of databases that replicated. Dial-up access was limited, so you would operate using local copies which would replicate across in a managed way.

“The company started small, with a father and son who worked from home with other people joining down the line. The father was the actuary while the son was very into technology and believed it could help the company avoid being bound by geography. We now have people from all over the UK that work for us and feel we can get the best people wherever they are.”

Geographical barrier

This idea of breaking down geographical barriers is shared by ICAEW’s second interviewee, Ken Chan, Global Head of Tax at Finastra – a firm that provides solutions to financial services providers. Chan said: “I’ve been here two months and I’ve only met one person face-to-face – everyone else I have met in 2D over Microsoft Teams (MT). We work through a mixture of MT and emails because my tax team is based in four countries across London, Toronto, Florida and Bangalore in India.

“One of the challenges of working remotely is simply down to time zones and that I haven’t met any of them before. It’s just a case of respecting different people’s time zones – sometimes the solution is simply to alternate it between early for some people and late for the next. The best way is to agree a time well in advance.”

Digital balance

Finastra has introduced an initiative for workers to establish a ‘digital balance’ because with everyone sitting at home and staring at a screen all day inside the same four walls, it’s quite a different environment to the office. 

Chan explained: “It’s all about finding the balance between digital and wellbeing at home. I was really impressed with this when I joined. It comes right from the top, where they ask the Finastra leadership team to set an example. It started with me posting a video explaining who I am and how I find my digital balance. For me, it is about taking my little one out for a walk. It’s definitely not an immediate solution but the more we talk about it the more it becomes a part of our normal working life.”

Deliverables over facetime

Some companies may believe that work is done in the office: if you can’t see employees working then you can’t be sure that campaigns are getting done. Chan disagrees with this method and believes deliverables are all that matters. 

“I’ve always been a massive advocate for this, to not focus on face-time but concentrate on clearly measurable deliverables. This is a huge selling point for attracting talent – it’s accepting this is not about facetime, it’s about finding a balance between home and work”, he said.

“The starting point is having a really clear mission objective and then guiding the team in the right direction, but also giving them the autonomy and the trust get the work done. This is great for people’s motivation and good for leaders because you don’t have to keep micromanaging. You don’t really care how they do it, just if they are hitting those objectives.”

Workplace of the future

A recent PwC Survey highlights that 84% of employees feel able to perform their role just as effectively when working remotely as they would in the office. However, even the most die-hard of tech enthusiasts admits that in-person contact may still have its place in the workplace of the future.

As a business, Finastra has been trying to lead in terms of building the future of work before the pandemic. It recognises that people don’t need to be commuting and working in the office five days a week. 

 “We see the workplace very much as a hub for collaboration,” added Chan. “Even though remote working is partly here to stay, office time is still important. That’s where we hold our social capital, build connections and learn to work together effectively.” 

Sally Palmer believes future companies can operate adequately without a physical office, but facetime is an absolute necessity. “One thing you wouldn’t expect me to say from a remote working firm is how important we value face-to-face communication”, stated Palmer. She outlines how OAC makes the effort to get together when they can, usually one day out of the year, especially for new starters. 

“We have remotely onboarded people 100%, but it is always better to meet somebody in person and have a cup of coffee. We’ve really missed that this year. Working from home, the main thing I’ve learned is the value of face-to-face communication. Ultimately, I think the work environment has changed forever, but face-to-face meetings remain important and need to be used wisely going forward”, she concluded. 

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