Laura Miller on how the Covid-19 crisis has made it necessary for firms across many professions to adapt
Solicitors, accountants and financial advisers have sometimes kept a strange truce in business, jostling in clients’ priority list of who to call first when the worst happens. Turns out, terrible events are a great leveller.
Describing the depth of recession likely to follow a near total 12-week lockdown of Britain, the Office for Budget Responsibility said it may be the worst for three centuries. Who, when their client called in recent weeks, could say hand on heart they had planned for that?
“There will be fundamental changes in the way we work arising from this experience,” says Nick Paterno, managing partner at McBrides Chartered accountants. “I think it is too early to say how these will evolve but they undoubtedly will. When you are faced with a crisis or a challenge, you are forced to innovate.”
Clients have never needed guidance more, while many advisers must now also adapt their business model and way of delivering services at breakneck speed. No one is immune – other professions are learning too, and what works for them could work for advisers.
Solicitor Jodie Hill, managing director at Thrive Law, says she would encourage advice firms not already doing so to give their clients free stuff, because it has worked with hers.
The coronavirus lockdown is forcing employers to confront the truth that home life and work life are intrinsically linked, and it is possible to be equally effective at your job away from the office
“Where you can share free information and updates, it is important that you do. It adds value to what you are doing and people will really remember those leaders who stepped up,” she says. In quick succession, the government announced the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and then an alternative version of support for some self-employed people. Everything was new and everyone had questions.
Ms Hill co-created content using the Champion Health tool to issue regular emails with advice on the day changes came out. “They went directly to clients, linking any new blogs to provide more context and discussion on some of the grey areas,” she says.
Professional services can rely on face-to-face communications but in a world of social distancing, Mr Paterno targeted the next best thing. “We have been constantly on the phone to clients helping them react financially to the lockdown,” he says. “This is particularly for those at the immediate and sharp end – retail, leisure and hospitality, whose businesses have effectively been brought to a halt.”
Pivoting staff to deal with a new way of working – forget client chats once every six months, or even monthly – was crucial.
“With government announcements coming out at any time of the day including weekends, our comms team had to react immediately so we could update clients at the earliest opportunity,” says Mr Paterno.
An urgent response to the onslaught of new assistance programmes, Herculean at the best of times, could only be achieved by first massively accelerating remote working.
Financial companies have been slow to promote flexible working as a viable alternative to the traditional nine to five, a policy that especially affects women who disproportionately do the majority of childcare.
Across employment, that does seem to be changing. Three quarters of workers polled by Aviva last year said they were offered options like increasing or decreasing hours, working remotely or job sharing. A year earlier, just 64% said they had such choices.
The coronavirus lockdown is forcing employers to confront the truth that home life and work life are intrinsically linked, and it is possible to be equally effective at your job away from the office.
“We’ve learnt working from home for the whole team really works, and that using tech in the right way can improve productivity too,” says Ms Hill.
Staff connectivity in the age of coronavirus cannot be overlooked. Mr Paterno arranged weekly partner meetings – nicknamed McCobra – to discuss planning and implementation.
“Our HR team sprung into action,” he says, “talking to employees, fine tuning working arrangements, making everyone feel included despite the remote working and isolation.”
Ex-SAS commandos do a good trade selling books on management techniques to everyone from tech entrepreneurs to Prime Ministers in waiting, because sometimes the best lessons come from extreme circumstances far from your own profession.
No sector has had to adapt more quickly to the effects of coronavirus than hospitality. The first forced to shut down, restaurants, cafes and bars saw their revenue disappear literally overnight on a warm March day.
Conor McCarthy, CEO of online ordering company Flipdish, has been helping them survive, by transforming in situ operations into online takeaway businesses, doing in days what normally takes weeks.
His advice to financial advisers is the same to restaurateurs: “Don’t be afraid to ask for support.”
He adds: “Stakeholders, clients and even the public, want to see you succeed. This is unchartered territory for everyone so, when you make mistakes, learn from them and share your experiences with others. Widespread cooperation is essential to survive this crisis.”
Laura Miller is a freelance journalist