12 May 2020

Millions of Australians have quickly adjusted to working from home in response to social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For many businesses, the most surprising thing is how well it has been working.

“It’s been more positive than we ever thought it could be. Sometimes change needs to be rushed through: in this case we had no chance but to adapt,” says Paul Grubb, Executive Director of DPM Financial Services.

DPM’s 170 employees were ready to work remotely just three days after the measures were announced, once their own laptops were configured with the required security protocols.

“We’d had people working from home on an ad hoc basis before, but we’d never contemplated a 100% shift,” Grubb explains. “This is also our busiest time. We generate 45% of our income in the last three months of the financial year.”

The feedback from DPM’s team is overwhelmingly positive. “Over 90% of our people told us in a recent survey it’s been a good experience from a work perspective,” Grubb says. “Many people feel more productive. They are able to get through more work because there are fewer interruptions.”

According to a recent survey of HR leaders by Gartner, 41% of employees are likely to still work remotely, at least some of the time, once the virus is contained1. DPM’s own survey suggests one-third of its staff would prefer to have the flexibility to work from home at least some of the time – and while Grubb acknowledges this will be role-specific, he’s prepared to have that discussion.

“This crisis has turned traditional assumptions about how we work on its head,” he says.

Dominic Price, Work Futurist at Atlassian, believes this could be an opportunity to shape a better ‘new normal’.

“What are the things we want to stop, when this crazy experiment is finished, and what are the things we want to start? The danger is we just copy and paste from the past, and we don’t take the opportunity to learn.”

How work could transform for the better in a post-pandemic world.

The tech-enabled workforce

People are the lifeblood of a professional service business. Price says it’s important to acknowledge, “we are not working from home. We’re at home, working. There are bizarre constraints in place.”

Despite this, Macquarie Bank’s Legal Segment Head Richard McCabe says the lawyers he speaks with are also amazed at how well it’s gone. “Their people have adapted, and many partners are surprised by how well technology is facilitating the work.”

While many firms were already on a journey toward more tech-enabled flexibility, COVID-19 restrictions have enforced remote working practices across the board. This has challenged traditional assumptions about the way productivity is managed.

“The big question was whether client work could be completed successfully and efficiently. Notwithstanding the economic impact on transactions, this is the first time we’ve been able to clearly measure the impact of remote or flexible working on productivity,” says McCabe.

McCabe points to tools like BigHand, which integrates with legal practice accounting systems to analyse productivity impacts on working capital and revenue. “Often the argument to retain an existing business model or way of working is profit-driven. This experience definitely questions whether that is the case,” he says.

Given millennials see remote and flexible working as a requirement, not a privilege2, and millennials now make up the largest demographic cohort in our workforce, perhaps this shift is overdue. McCabe believes enabling more flexibility in the new normal could have a positive impact on workplace culture – and the bottom line.

“The work may be the same, but we now have the ability to do it differently, and this will allow for better balance. Financially, one of the biggest costs for firms (after people) is their lease. So if there is an opportunity to reduce the physical footprint, that can improve profit margins in an environment where billings may be eroded.”

DPM certainly sees an opportunity to reduce occupancy costs in the medium term by enabling those who want to continue working from home to do so. Being more flexible also improves employee experience. “It reduces time wasted commuting, and our people are now comfortable using tools like Microsoft Teams to meet internally,” says Grubb.  

He believes being more flexible will give DPM a recruitment and retention advantage. “We can cast a wider net geographically to find the right talent.”

What are the things we want to stop, when this crazy experiment is finished, and what are the things we want to start?

Dominic Price, Work Futurist Atlassian

The shift to conscious collaboration

With everyone working under the same restrictions, clients have certainly understood their advisers cannot be physically available. While McCabe says this means firms are “still winning business”, there is one limiting factor with the shift to remote working.

“Deal flow would often happen spontaneously on open floor plans, with people almost unconsciously cross-referring work,” he notes. “This now has to be done quite deliberately.”

DPM’s client-facing advisors have been busier than ever. Its core customer base of medical practitioners have needed help navigating government support packages, in addition to the usual workload leading up to the end of financial year. Grubb believes the firm’s values have been a critical part of its success through this period.

“Teamwork, collaboration, respect and passion have all played out in the most positive way with this experience,” he says. “The main thing is to maintain a rhythm of collaboration, and acknowledge the digital rhythm is different.”

Price recognises collaboration can be harder in a remote environment. “Perhaps because we’ve focused more on productivity than creativity. You have to tweak your ways of working to make creativity happen.”

And this is an important part of adapting to client needs. “All the certainty of what we do has gone. You may need to be able to step back and look at the skills and strengths you have, and whether there are new needs to serve,” says Price.

It’s important to recognise remote working is not just about a technology solution. It’s also about the firm’s practices – you can’t just copy and paste traditional physical processes into a home environment, or the experience will be clunky for clients.

Price says Atlassian addresses this by anchoring its regular virtual Town Hall sessions to its values. “One focused on ‘Don’t #@!% the customer’, so we talked about all the things we can do right now to help that broader community – because without them we don’t exist.”

Building the new normal

The way we work in our post-pandemic era is not pre-determined, according to Price. “The old constructs don’t need to exist anymore – Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.”

This approach could see firms build a truly flexible workplace that is inclusive of a diverse workforce – where people can choose whether they are wholly in the office, wholly working from home, or somewhere in the middle.

The current environment is an opportunity to experiment, and learn from the experience. As Price says, “the power of adaptation is the one skill businesses will need to stay in business in the future.” And adapting to new ways of working is just the beginning.

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