ARITA: Best practices for working remotely - Michelle Gibbings

Michelle was delighted to be asked about making the most of working from home. In this article written by Alexandra Cain, Michelle offers her thoughts and suggestions on how workers can be best placed when working from home.

McGrathNicol had somewhat of a first mover advantage when COVID-19 hit early last year. The pandemic was declared a week out from its annual graduate development program, when the 24 new graduates starting work at the firm around the country would normally come together to meet each other and form bonds and friendships that last throughout their career.

‘Unfortunately, we had to cancel that a week out, replacing each session with online training,’ explains Chief Operating Officer Paul Sweeney.

At the same time, the advisory and restructuring firm was due to start recruiting at universities for the 2021 graduate intake. But this also had to go online. ‘We quickly decided to do it virtually and that gave us a bit of a jump start on some of the larger firms. We got great engagement and coverage with the virtual campaign, which we are about to do for the second time.’

Having to rapidly move to a virtual world for its graduate program gave McGrathNicol skills to help all its staff make the transition to working from home. Staff first started to work from home in March 2020, about two weeks before it was mandated by governments. It wasn’t too much of a shock to the system, given the business had explored the need to work from home as part of its crisis management preparation.

‘We’re also lucky in that we’re used to working on client sites, so we had our technology set up. Once we started working from home, our objective was to make sure we could work effectively and stay connected. Technology played a big role. We gave everybody work-from-home kits including large monitors to make the home environment feel as close to the office environment as possible,’ says Sweeney.

When it comes to managing performance, Sweeney says the team is highly motivated and committed to clients anyway, which helped them to remain productive.

‘Engagement is key and that’s all about communication. We have teams working on projects, so there’s always multiple levels of communication. We have small teams working together and it’s essential they communicate with each other regularly through the day. Then we have a series of structured service line teams. So, there are multiple touch points for people to stay in contact and remain engaged and that reinforces motivation and performance.’

McGrathNicol is still running its normal performance management process, through which it runs formal goal setting once a year and performance management discussions twice a year, which have been virtual rather than face-to-face.

‘To a large extent, we haven’t seen any great difference in performance. There’s a perception if people are working from home, they’re going to be less managed and you’ll see a performance difference. But really, we haven’t seen any performance difference with people working from home.’

Andrew McCabe, a partner at insolvency firm Wexted Advisers, says a busy workload also helps maintain productivity across the firm, with the firm kept busy with safe harbour engagements and a large voluntary administration. ‘These matters helped to keep up team morale and productivity during the initial working from home period.’

Ensuring people are productive while working from home starts with setting clear expectations, says Karen Gately, founder of leadership training firm Corporate Dojo. ‘People are more
likely to work effectively when they know what they need to get done. Regular dialogue about priorities and progress is just as important. Most people are more focused when they know they will be held accountable for delivering on agreed outcomes.’

Gately recommends leaders step into the role of coach and proactively stay in touch with every staff member. ‘When you don’t have the opportunity to observe people in the office each day, spending time one-to-one and also as a team is essential to measure how well they are performing and identify team members who are struggling. Managers who are disconnected from their team miss the opportunity for early intervention to get things back on track.’

She says having honest conversations is key to helping anyone who’s underperforming to understand the gaps in their performance and take steps to fill them. ‘Irrespective of the fact they are working offsite, people need and deserve honest insight to how they are performing.

‘While it can be tempting to avoid the conversation until next time you’re in a room together, recognise you are delaying the opportunity to understand the truth and do something about it. Ensuring they feel supported through regular interactions and guidance plays a role in determining whether they are able to improve.’

According to workplace expert Michelle Gibbings, making progress is a huge factor in keeping employees motivated. ‘Employees are frustrated when goals continually shift, and accountabilities are unclear. Effective leaders work with team members both individually and collectively to identify, set and then track goals. It helps to maintain motivation by making progress visible. The process to do this can be as simple as having visual display boards or online tools, where tasks are allocated and tracked, and progress celebrated.’

Sweeney says when it comes to communicating with staff at home, it’s important to achieve a balance between staying-in-touch and communication overload. ‘Most of our offices have structured
whole‑of‑office meetings. They’re typically fortnightly or monthly. We also have smaller teams who have regular catch ups, some weekly or more frequently. We also have national hook-ups.

‘Previously, if we wanted to run a strategy roadshow it meant flying executives from office to office. Those events are now run virtually, which means we can do them more easily, more frequently, bringing in guest speakers to talk about industries or economic themes. For some of our events we’ve had near complete attendance by everybody in the firm, and that’s fantastic.’

Wellbeing and mental health initiatives have also been a priority, Sweeney says. ‘This has always been a focus as part of our social responsibility. Everybody has had their personal lives disrupted to some extent by COVID. That has really raised the focus on wellbeing and mental health.’

Part of supporting good mental health has been continuing to hold social events. ‘We’ve had virtual lunches, virtual drinks and virtual group exercise. We’ve also brought in organisations like The Resilience Project, which provides support through our employee assistance program. So, we have an extensive framework to support people beyond the more business-focused get‑togethers.’

McCabe says holding occasional online staff drinks also helped stay in touch on an informal basis. ‘But client needs were the team’s main focus, in particular our safe harbour clients who were updating cash flow forecasts almost on a weekly basis.’

Onboarding new team members has been one of McGrathNicol’s biggest challenges through COVID, with 30 staff joining the firm since the start of the pandemic. Some new staff in Melbourne had to wait six months to meet colleagues face-to-face.

Ensuring new hires can access the network and be trained on how to use McGrathNicol’s systems required careful planning – everything from making sure new staff had all the equipment they need to participate in induction and onboarding, not to mention developing online training materials. ‘One of the things that makes it work is that when you’re in this type of environment everybody puts in a little bit of extra effort,’ says Sweeney.

A concerted effort also must be made to maintain company culture. Sweeney said it was important to make sure new hires were involved in virtual events, introduced to other team members and partnered with a buddy they can have casual conversations with to understand the culture.

‘Over the coming months and years, we’ll have to wait and see how easy it is to maintain culture when everybody is working remotely. We hope to get back to a hybrid model where we are again face-to-face, to help support that culture.

‘A big part of culture is immersion, so it’s easier to maintain when a smaller number of people come into a group with a strong culture. This would be harder to manage over a period of years, which is one of the reasons I don’t think working from home in perpetuity would ever work for organisations where it’s about people and interpersonal collaboration and learning.’

When it comes to onboarding new staff, Gibbings recommends spending time understanding the new employee and structuring a schedule that ensures they get to meet key stakeholders and colleagues and set priorities to facilitate a smooth transition to the new working environment. ‘Ensure they have all the appropriate technology to set them up for success.’

Given McGrathNicol staff often work from client offices, the firm had to consider how to manage this dynamic during lockdown. ‘We wouldn’t normally work with a new client if we haven’t met them face-to-face. But video conferencing helps,’ says Sweeney.

As businesses transition back to offices, McGrathNicol has had to ensure staff going to work at client offices are working in a safe environment. ‘We had to rethink how we normally execute on day one of a formal insolvency engagement where we might traditionally have more people on site than we do at the moment. We also developed a range of checklists and protocols to get a good understanding of COVID management policies at client sites. Most clients have a very high level of corporate responsibility and desire to do the right thing,’ he adds.

The firm is guided by state government requirements around the country when it comes to the number of people it can have in the office at any one time. For instance, in Sydney now it has a notional cap of 75% capacity. ‘When you’re in an office building, for social distancing purposes, you have to think through what would happen if everybody came in, and how many people there would be in lifts and common areas. So far we haven’t had any issues.’

The long-term expectation at McGrathNicol is a full transition back to the office, still accommodating some form of flexibility. ‘We’ve been very mindful of people’s circumstances. While we can make the office COVID-safe, people might not feel comfortable on public transport or they might live with a high risk relative and they want to reduce their exposure. So, we’ve been very respectful of that. I think our balance has worked in that most people have been comfortable coming back into the office, particularly once they get back into the routine.’

Wexted had transitioned all staff back to the office by 11 June 2020, with staff who were concerned about contracting COVID on public transport given car parking spots.

‘We continue to monitor and follow state government guidelines, review COVID hotspot locations and take the necessary steps where staff live or attend these areas to keep them safe. We continue to ask our staff to remain vigilant and comply with the state guidelines,’ McCabe says.

His advice to other firms when managing staff at home is to ensure the firm’s partners regularly communicate with other staff. ‘This was more effective by phone, to ensure each staff member had an opportunity to express concerns or discuss any matters with the partner. Maintaining training for the team was challenging, although taking advantage of online training such as the ARITA sessions assisted staff to maintain their CPD hours while working from home.’

Sweeney has four tips to help manage staff working from home. ‘Ensure people have the best physical setup and equipment they can at home, regularly communicate with all staff, empower and encourage managers to stay close to people and plan for unpredictability.’

Gibbings notes ‘workplace 2021’ will be a hybrid with businesses and employees seeking to retain the best of both worlds in being at the office or working from home. She has some advice to make the most of the hybrid working model. ‘Examine your operations and workforce to determine the best options by role and for critical processes. Not everything can be done remotely or executed as effectively remotely. It helps to identify where face to face is more productive and where remote will work be just as effectively.’

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