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Cross border trade, coronavirus and working from home: can a crisis be made into an opportunity

Cross border trade, coronavirus and working from home: can a crisis be made into an opportunity

By Lucy Franklin, CEO of Accordance 

The finance and professional services are sectors rarely renowned for their progressive working practices. Traditional set ups with long hours, hierarchical management structures and enforced suit wearing are usually synonymous with our industry.

Some of these assumptions are fair and do take place in some businesses while others are rooted in stereotypes that don’t do justice to the fantastic work being done by employers and employees alike.  Either way, they are a far cry from what I have tried to create since I took up the position of CEO of Accordance, the pro-European cross border VAT specialist, in 2018. I believe that the best work is done when people are fulfilled personally and professionally, when they are able to balance their work life with time at home and with friends and family, when their hobbies aren’t crushed into the brief fleeting hours of the weekend but can be enjoyed throughout the week, and when having diverse interests is celebrated in the workplace, not something to be hidden and discussed in hushed tones on occasional lunch breaks.

These beliefs feed into the clear vision I have for Accordance. Fundamental for me is to put people at the heart of the organisation. This means considering individuals as more than just their workplace attributes, and recognising that people need full lives to be outstanding professionals. But even with a clear vision, changing established working and sector practices can be a slow process. We can alter behaviours reasonably fast, but it can take years, decades, even generations to really change attitudes.

Barriers to business operations

Lucy Franklin

Lucy Franklin

However, my plans for Accordance, like those of all business leaders, met a substantial obstacle in the form of the coronavirus tragedy. First and foremost, Covid 19 is just that – a tragedy of real and human proportions. The lives lost, the families forever shaped by illness, the global economy in decline with everything that this means for individuals and societies – these are wounds it will take us a long time to recover from. But if we fail to step back from the range of unprecedented circumstances to see how we can turn some aspects of this crisis into an opportunity, then we simply compound the tragedy. This is not about capitalising on misfortune, it is about salvaging a silver lining of positivity from a situation which we all wish we hadn’t faced.

In my position as CEO of an international business, the silver lining arrives in the form of the entire company now operating out of their spare rooms, living rooms, or bedrooms.This has never happened before. Added to this, we have parents working around childcare, pulling early morning and evening shifts and really doing an incredible job to meet objectives while under significant time pressure.Clearly, neither the entire business being at home nor the circumstances in which it’s happening are ideal – I believe the camaraderie of the office is important (though I don’t believe it should be mandatory 9-5, five days a week), and face to face time with employees is essential. But for me, this is a golden opportunity to trial a move from a system based on hours to a system based on ‘output’. Even the most progressive of modern workplaces are still predominantly shackled to a system based on days and hours – even if those hours are reduced in number or weeks are shortened. New Zealand’s Prime Minister has just hailed the four-day week as the way forward to rebuild their country but for me, after such unprecedented changes to the way we all have to work, this potentially doesn’t go far enough anymore. An opportunity has arrived to really remake the workplace, basing systems of objectives and output rather than the slavish devotion to the clock.

From the four day week to the output model

To make the most of it, we’re currently data gathering and using the unexpected occurrence of the workforce working out of their homes as an opportunity to complete a pilot. We’re focusing this pilot on working parents, for whom hours are understandably reduced or working patterns altered. Should the results be favourable, I would look to make a shift from hours and days to a progressive ‘output’ business; a permanent feature of Accordance’s working life.

However, if you want to achieve real and lasting change it can’t just come from the top.

It requires workers to be bought into the ideas and have the tools with which to make them work. Flexible working – in all the senses it encompasses – means empowering staff to be proactive, to be independent, and to ask for help when they need it. This in turn requires a strong governance structure and well-prepared line managers, who can anticipate and flag issues both up and down the line.

For myself as for many other businesses, the experience of working from home has helped clarify the importance of stellar communications – they must be regular, but not too regular, clear and understanding, and human. Proposing major changes to working patterns requires a rock-solid internal communications practice and an ability to engage and inspire the entire team behind your vision. Doing so digitally is a little more of a challenge, as it means entrusting yourself to digital communications, with the benefits and challenges they bring, but for us, this meant another silver lining –  we were able to work with agility and launch our staff Intranet ahead of schedule to meet the communication needs of our staff.

To conclude, though many organisations are trying to make changes to working practices, both employers and employees often find themselves stuck in traditional ways of operating. The coronavirus crisis offers the opportunity to reset and shift the way things are done. It is likely that some people in the UK will not step foot back in an office this year. Some workplaces have already signalled their intention to abandon their office spaces for good.The way we work will change as a result of this – as employers, it is our responsibility to affect changes for the better.

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