Totum recently hosted another virtual networking session for marketing & business development leaders. The objective, to continue to share some of the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to discuss trends that might emerge when the crisis has passed.

Making plans, managing uncertainty

As always, the conversation was far reaching, with the following themes prominent in the discussion.

Going back to offices

The consensus is that firms won’t be rushing back to the office and instead prioritising the health and wellbeing of their staff and families. While offices may become operational again, employees will not be there regularly. The main challenge is transport, particularly in London. Most firms are looking at plans for more to return in September, but this will still only be 25-30%.

Firms with a global presence shared their insight – for example, offices in China are still only at 60% after an initial 30% of staff returning. Some employees are keen to return including those who have been living on their own and / or away from home in a different country, such as those in the Middle East. Germany have just opened but it looks a lot different to pre-Covid with social distancing measures and no more than two in a lift, etc.

Social interaction / team motivation

New ideas of how to socialise are happening – and positively, there is more appetite for these to be work related and less around simple Friday drinks or Zoom quizes. New ideas are focused more on career development or knowledge sharing. Some teams have been able to set up virtual workshops around issues like what clients will need post-Covid.

Everyone has spent considerable time thinking about how to engage and motivate teams. Some people are struggling with motivation as home lives are not conducive to home working, particularly among junior employees. Plus, senior members have developed their networks so have lots of touch points compared to junior members of staff. For many this is the first time they have gone through this kind of crisis and some are fearful they will be made redundant.

Everyone is different so a bespoke approach is needed but there is an appreciation that this is time consuming and challenging.

Mental health and wellbeing

The initial shock and adjustment seems to be petering out and many are settling into working from home but there is a recognition of the ups and downs this new way of life brings and at times there’s a sense of fatigue setting in as people become aware that this is a long-term normality. In the last week or so, motivation has been waning and directors are being vocal about their own struggles so that their teams are not frightened or anxious to communicate if they’re not coping. Firms are in the main doing a good job of supporting mental health and wellbeing right from the top. There are apps such as Unwind and councillors available for some firms.

Although a few months ago it may have seemed impossible to miss a commute – some are now hankering for the respite it brings both from screen time and for that natural pause in work and concentration.

Time off / annual leave

Firms are encouraging staff to take their holiday and half days. Partners are actively telling teams when to take holiday.

Reducing hours

Some firms are talking about reducing hours on a temporary basis with the equivalent reduction in salary. In this context, teams are anxious about workload management so directors will need to provide support to ensure staff understand what can and can’t be done. Any change in terms like this will be done on a voluntary basis, otherwise consultations would need to take place.

Reviews / appraisals

Encouragingly reviews and appraisals are still going ahead. Managers are struggling to give meaning to appraisals and reviews as talking about long-term objectives is hard. It’s also difficult to have a conversation around salary rises if they are currently unrealistic. Some have communicated they will not be paying salary increases or bonuses as their focus is protecting jobs.

The solution seems to be to have reviews that are very individual – ensuring they are more concise but with key aims, and objectives for the next 6 months, rather than further ahead. Many have ended up being more about welfare than career development but this may change. Prior performance issues are now being overshadowed by the general situation and so are even harder to address than before. Some firms are still promoting and some are still giving bonuses but splitting them into tranches.

The general consensus is that everyone wants to retain good talent but there’s also knowledge that in the financial crisis of 2008, promotions were delayed and careers did stall because of the recession. This may well happen again – especially if there’s no knowledge of how long this may go on for.

Work / Life balance

The attendees all appreciated that they need to be firm with some partners around defining working hours for their teams. Just because everyone is at home does not mean they can work at weekends, etc. The pressure and intensity of the current situation is unlike anything anyone has ever known and everyone has to be mindful of the extra stress and anxiety it may cause.

Work levels and redeployment

Firms are looking into redeploying staff to busy practice areas. Although this makes sense, it’s a challenge. Events teams have been upskilled in some areas to undertake webinars and link up further with the AV team. Others have been redeployed to the digital team. And a client listening team in one firm are interpreting data and doing more client analysis.

Conversations are happening across the board to fully understand people’s skill sets and give them work that fits. Firms are doing a lot to retain jobs and to live by their firm’s values. In most firms, partners are taking the lead with many lessons learnt from the 2008/9 financial crisis.

Some firms have focused on upskilling partners and employees in how to pitch and sell virtually. More coaching and workshops have been given to enable this.

Virtual conferences and events

Events have been moved online and clients are more interested in webinars. It’s been proven now that these are well attended so the question is whether engagement will continue. Some events are seemingly well attended but it is difficult to know whether they have achieved the desired impact.

Everyone in agreement that smaller groups with limited people and discussions work better than large scale webinars. Some have attended large conferences with break out groups via the platform Hop-in (virtual stands, meet for coffee, etc) but shorter sharper sessions seem to be well received as clients want to share and compare notes.

Recruitment

Whilst firms are cautious, and the volume of recruitment is a lot less, some business critical roles are still being recruited for. It is widely acknowledged by firms that those in business development and marketing, and the wider business services teams are perceived very valuably and in many ways the opportunity for profiles of these individuals is particularly high at this time. If any lessons have been learnt from 2008/9, it is that if staff are not looked after, they will still exit.

Certainly, Totum has not had any calls from disgruntled employees saying they are unhappy with the way firms are managing employees or the situation. This is a great testament to the conduct of professional services firms in these difficult times.

For further information please contact Rebecca Ellis at rebecca.ellis@totumpartners.com