As I write this a roadmap out of the third UK lockdown has been published with hope that the country can re-open shortly. However, while offices may re-open, it is likely how they are used will change dramatically.
A recent event by the UK Women in Tax organisation brought together speakers to share their practical experiences of working in tax during a pandemic. Speakers shared their advice on dealing with recruitment, changes to team dynamics, and building new client relationships remotely.
Key themes impacting our working days
Many of us have experienced the biggest change to our working environment and being fully remote has been a very different way of working. Some of the key changes in how we work are:
- Connections – the loss of connections with colleagues has been profound for some. Working in a collaborative and interconnected office environment is very different to working alone for long periods of time.
- Spontaneity – anecdotally, I’ve seen far more organised meetings and fewer impromptu catch ups with colleagues, which previously added variety and interest to a working day.
- Vulnerability – new joiners can feel more vulnerable, and established employees too are often nervous about the implications of the pandemics on jobs.
- Personal circumstances – while there have been some very obvious changes for working parents, most people have had some change to their personal circumstances, such as taking on more caring responsibilities or experiencing loneliness.
While working day-to-day in a pandemic can bring challenges, it is doubtful that many businesses ever planned to make their recruitment processes fully digital. Yet, the tax recruitment market is active with continued growth in some sectors and specialisms and movement in roles.
Assessing technical tax skills can be more readily transferred online by asking the right questions and proven experience. In the case of graduate recruitment, many companies were already adopting the same online assessment process and practices.
The more challenging aspects of online recruitment involve assessing a candidate’s cultural fit with an organisation and establishing how to bring out the best in an interviewee who will almost certainly not have experienced an online-only interview process before.
Key components of an online interview include:
- Seeking to replicate the ‘meet and great’ aspect of interviews by spending a little time getting to know a candidate before launching into questioning; and
- Flexing your interview style by being aware that an online process will be more stressful for some people.
Wholly online working has been a big shift for individuals, but also for teams, and has also highlighted different home circumstances. For junior team members this often involves being locked down in shared accommodation without a dedicated workspace. For those working in a bedroom, it can be a lot of time to spend in one room.
Organisations are working hard to replicate both the “learning by osmosis” that takes place in the office, as well as the social aspects of working collaboratively. Without specific interventions tax technical learning can be restricted to immediate work rather than wider team projects and meetings frequently discussed informally in an office.
Some of the ideas that teams have used to overcome these problems include:
- Holding specific meetings to share details of interesting projects and sharing reports across the team;
- Having a chat function running in the background to give an opportunity to share information and ask questions; and
- Remembering to invite junior colleagues to meetings even if they are video conferences.
New solutions are also arising to replicate the informal social role of an office, with organised virtual coffee connections or ad hoc team calls to break up the day.
Finally, the impact of lockdown on mental health is still emerging, but it is unsurprising that in many cases this has had a negative impact. Business leaders can set the tone here. New cultures and norms are emerging through the pandemic. Some of these are more positive, such as spending more time with family, but in other ways our working days may now be longer with an ‘always on’ culture being more prevalent. It is a pivotal time for businesses and leaders to decide what example to set, both for remote work during the lockdown but also for the future as we emerge back to the office.
Businesses have had to quickly adapt their processes to onboard new employees remotely too. This results in an amplification of the usual feelings and experiences when starting a job, such as how to get to know the team, understanding performance levels and a new culture.
The good news is that there are some simple ways to make new team members feel welcomed including:
- More regular, detailed feedback – new recruits always need this, but even more so working entirely remotely because informal feedback and ad hoc comments are less likely; and
- Unprompted invitations to connect – while the formal on-boarding process might involve a boss and buddy, being asked to connect or have a coffee by a new team member can be a real boost and help someone feel welcomed.
Developing new client relationships
Business development in the pandemic continues, with businesses now appointing advisors they have never met in person. This brings challenges in both how to meet potential new clients and how to build a trusted relationship only through video conferencing.
Many law and accountancy firms are hosting more webinars as a way to attract new business, with social media channels also now more active as a way to connect. Webinars can be a good way to identify potential new clients and to start conversations because the advisors are able to demonstrate their expertise and be open to questions or discussions. The remote working period also offers everyone a good time to re-connect with people they may have lost touch with.
In terms of building relationships, the reality is that the key parts to developing relationships online are the same as in the ‘real’ world. This involves developing trust and connections. Often, many people are starved of real connection, and asking a deeper question can be a good way to open up a wider conversation.
Indeed, with existing clients, one of the advantages of working remotely for advisors has been seeing them ‘at home’. This has deepened existing relationships as advisors and clients learn more about one another. In addition, the increased use of video conferencing, rather than calls, has allowed advisors to see more of their clients.
What is next?
As more businesses announce a reduction or elimination of office spaces, the lessons we’ve learned while working remotely are going to be important for the future.
What is hard to determine now is how a hybrid version of remote and office-based work will work practically, and how the workplace culture may shift again.
This article was written by Katy Rabindran, tax director of innovation and technology at BDO and part of the Women in Tax network. Women in Tax is a group seeking to raise the voice of women working in tax, making visible their knowledge and experience through a supportive network. For more information search for Women in tax UK on LinkedIn.
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