The best advice comes from lived experience and with EY moving to remote work before the mandated lockdown, its lessons will permanently impact how it operates and what it advises clients.
The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has seen three general response types from organisations: resilient responsiveness from essential services; reinvention from organisations capable of remote working or reassigning workforces, and an endurance response from those that need to pause or close their operations.
EY Australia Partner Dr Sonia Sharp, who is leading the COVID-19 response for its People Advisory Service, says EY falls within the ‘reinvent’ category. In mid-March, it decided to move its nearly 8,000 staff to working from home, before the federal government mandated its policy calling on people to stay at home.
While some staff and clients were surprised by the move, EY’s pre-emptive measures allowed it to quickly begin trials within its own teams, to understand issues around productivity, wellbeing and technology challenges that arise when working remotely at scale.
What the teams are learning is providing a foundation for broader changes to some of the organisation’s own processes, and a new basis from which to advise clients in their own transitions to flexible working models.
EY had already invested in secure cloud-based infrastructure, laptops with 4G connectivity, and larger than average capacity for remote connectivity licenses. Even so, those needed to be ramped up to cope with a move to an entirely remote workforce.
“We flexed that up pretty quickly and did work with internal quality and risk parts of the organisation to make sure the changes met our requirements,” EY Australia People Partner Kate Hillman, who sits on the organisation’s COVID-19 response team, said.
“That was a bit of a shift for us because we did it so rapidly and dynamically. People recognised that the business as usual way of doing things wasn’t going to work and that we needed to quickly free critical people up to work solely on specific challenges and questions,” Ms Hillman said.
While moving so many people to a remote work environment in under a week provided some tech challenges, Ms Hillman said the most surprising upshot was nervousness from some clients, who expressed concern about EY working from home while the clients were still working at their own sites.
“The pandemic has provided an opportunity and a platform to be more dynamic and creative in how EY provides, and what it provides, which will carry through into its working processes even after the crisis is over.
“What we did for them was say, use us as a test case,” she said. “We told them, we’re going to move to remote work, and we expect you’ll need to too eventually, so we can help you practice that, and when the time comes you’ll be ready to move that way.”
Hillman and Dr Sharp believe the pandemic has provided an opportunity and a platform to be more dynamic and creative in how EY provides, and what it provides, which will carry through into its working processes even after the crisis is over.
That includes how teams are managed, with presenteeism still an ever-present challenge for any organisation with flexible working arrangements. “For the majority of our workforce they can do their work out of the line of sight,” Ms Hillman said. “But it was a big piece to help all managers feel comfortable that just because you can’t see people, it doesn’t mean they’re not working.”
The experience has solidified for her that managers need to be incredibly clear in what they’re asking of people, and that it needs to be a natural extension of any conversation about flexible working, whether in a crisis environment or not.
“How do you have confidence that people are succeeding? We want great clarity about the outcomes that we’re asking of people, and we’re giving our managers the skills to check in around outcomes by asking questions like ‘what have you achieved? How are we getting what we need? rather than, how many processes have you completed?’,” Ms Hillman said.
Videoconferencing has provided visibility into everyone’s non-work life like never before. That greater melding of the personal and professional will have long-term flow on effects around attitudes more broadly about team members who choose to work flexibly. Everyone is now experiencing the reality that work can be done at home effectively, without it compromising their professionalism.