Question 1: In the midst of the pandemic, many countries are facing economic challenges that are directly affecting business financials, human capital productivity and much more. What is, in your opinion, and based on your expertise, the “10 commandments” that you would urge business owners to follow regardless of the size of their enterprise?
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly tested the resilience of organizations big and small around the world and put immense pressure on their systems, plans and operations. Business leaders’ priorities shifted quickly and dramatically at the start of the pandemic, putting their focus squarely on health, safety and business continuity, and that focus continues today.
I’ve been very impressed by the innovation of so many organizations, particularly entrepreneurs, who have stepped up to the challenge and redefined a path forward. A year into the pandemic, we’ve seen some remarkable stories of resilience, and we at EY Canada have learned many leading practices on how to rapidly respond to this unprecedented disruption.
I think the biggest lesson from the past year is that it’s never been more important to take care of ourselves, our loved ones and each other. We’re all in this together against a common enemy. I truly believe that trying times make us all try that much harder, in a spirit of resilience and hope.
Based on our experiences with our workforce and our clients, I would offer the following 10 considerations to help executives become or stay resilient and come through on the other side.
1. Don’t take a “wait and see” approach when it comes to having a strategy in place
: Many businesses in 2020 elected to wait and see what the impact of the pandemic on the market would be before making any concrete changes to policies around flexible or remote working. This has led to gaps in organizational culture, collaboration and productivity — ultimately creating the potential for long-term challenges.
Now, as we enter the new year, it’s clear that uncertainty is the only certainty. Vaccine distribution and indications of economic recovery are driving more optimism, but this shouldn’t distract from the underlying challenges employers still face. Every organization — regardless of their industry — must define their future of work to unlock growth and avoid the pitfalls of waiting to see what the future holds.
2. Equip your remote workforce properly for productivity and continuous development
: If your employees who would ordinarily work in offices are required to work from home during quarantine and lockdown, you can’t monitor their productivity the same way you can in the workplace. It’s important more than ever to ensure they’re keeping on top of work and available to their colleagues. They need the same or similar equipment to continue to do their jobs effectively. That includes the right technology so they can connect as needed for face time with colleagues, which is very important for morale.
At EY, we encourage our people to ensure their home office setup is appropriate so they can focus without distractions or interruptions, while still being accessible to those who need them at home, whether it’s children or elders. We provide assistance with supplies such as monitors and ergonomic chairs to help people be as comfortable and efficient as possible throughout the workday.
And don’t forget about your people’s ongoing development. Continue to provide learning opportunities and all necessary training. Feed their curiosity. Just because they’re working remotely doesn’t mean they should — or want — to stay still. In fact, what better time to make your people feel that you are concerned not only with their physical and mental wellbeing, but also their professional needs.
3. Accommodate workers and create a positive culture
: Businesses must also listen to their staff about where they feel most productive and take steps to accommodate them. Each worker is different, and some employees may long to return to the office. If so, organizations can consider hot desking — multiple workers using a single physical workstation during different time periods — while ensuring sanitation and safety protocols are strictly followed. Otherwise, they’ll need to increase office space to allow for physical distancing and to ensure employees’ health and safety.
Workplace culture is another important consideration. It can be tough to build bonds and culture when people are working remotely. Adapt your leadership style to act with urgency. Communicate more frequently and with transparency, even when you don’t have all the data. Transparency builds trust with your people, which in turn makes them feel empowered to be honest with their feedback, thus helping the leadership team make better decisions.
In a recent EY survey, we found that a large majority of employers — 86% — said they intended to create moderate to extensive workplace safety strategies. These types of efforts are likely to build positive morale and improve office culture, which can also play a key role in attracting talent.
4. Encourage your people to maintain sensible work-life balance
: Working at home full time means there's no set start or end of the workday. It's easy to work nonstop from morning through night since there's no commute time and the usual coffee or lunch outings may not be possible under COVID-19 restrictions.
Work-life balance needs to be much more intentional now. We encourage our people to take the necessary breaks they need to recharge and refresh. Whether it's caring for children, household responsibilities, exercise, medical appointments, walking the dog or simply running errands, we want to make sure people feel they can embrace flexibility without worry or guilt.
5. Reinvent your physical footprint
: While strategizing your return-to-work plans, consider how you’ll use your physical space amid a distributed workforce model. That starts by thinking through who comes into the office, and when and for what purpose. How your employees interact with physical office spaces shouldn’t be left to chance. The role the office plays as a service centre needs to be well thought through to ensure that the experience employees have in the office will be a productive and engaging one. And keep in mind that setting up your office for optimal collaboration can take significant time to renovate, shift and redesign spaces to meet the future needs of your business.
Once that work is done, many organizations may find opportunities to optimize real estate portfolios and lease agreements to improve cost savings. Those looking to reduce their real estate footprint must first have a plan and timeline for their employees’ return to the office in place to ensure a smooth transition to a new way of working or office design.
6. Put inclusion at the top of your agenda
: In ordinary times it’s important to foster inclusion and value the diversity of your workforce. But when you’re facing a major crisis like the pandemic, it’s even more essential. Many people have taken a great blow to their mental wellbeing, given the fact that they’ve been forced to forgo the intimacy of being together with their colleagues and leaders in the workplace. And that gets layered on to systemic issues that were already sore points before the crisis hit.
Embracing diversity and inclusion isn’t simply “the right thing to do.” It’s about giving all your people a feeling of belonging, so they bring their best every day. When people know they can be their authentic selves at work, they’re more open about sharing what’s on their minds and bringing their best ideas forward. Every professional deserves an environment that appreciates and accepts them for who they are — that’s something no one should ever have to sacrifice.
At EY, for example, we have a number of programs, processes and policies that permeate every level of our business to enhance diversity and inclusion, including:
Affinity networks: Formal networks aligned by common purposes, experiences or characteristics like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, abilities or interest. This includes our Black Professional Network.
Leadership awareness/training: Our leaders' performance measurements include inclusiveness criteria. All newly promoted managers attend unconscious bias training; senior managers and partners attend an inclusiveness course.
Firm-level assessment and evolution: To engage and retain our people, we seek to understand evolving workplace attitudes, expectations, generational and ethnic mix, and their impact on EY, and to adapt our practices to keep pace.
We know there’s always more we can do to enhance our culture of belonging. To continue improving, we measure our progress year over year through our Global People Survey, retention, partner promotions, ratings differentials, headcount and other valuable metrics.
7. Ensure your board provides backup
: On a daily basis, we see how invaluable boards are in guiding companies. Their response to this crisis is almost as important as the executive team’s leadership. From engaging with stakeholder groups, to compensating leaders, to looking for the opportunities as well as the risks in the COVID-19 world — effective board oversight has never been more important to navigating in this challenging market environment.
In their oversight role, boards are expected to address a broad range of other issues. These span everyday issues like strategy setting, stakeholder engagement, and approving leaders’ goals and remuneration, to broader and more complex challenges such as climate change, digital transformation and financial crime.
With so much to consider, it can be hard for boards to identify the areas that most need their focus. Now is the time for boards to show how effective they can be in responding — not reacting — to crisis.
8. Manage the short term, but plan for the long term
: More than ever before, society demands greater responsibility from the organizations they work for, buy from and invest in. It’s not enough to think in short-term financials, companies have to look further into the future and know where they’re going — and how they’re adding value to all stakeholders. Organizations that anchor their strategies to a meaningful purpose will achieve greater long-term value — and thrive now, next and beyond. That includes delivering on Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) commitments.
Each element of ESG has evolved in the face of COVID-19. People’s health and safety became a top priority in the pandemic, while social movements highlighted the growing inequality gap between our communities. Global supply chain disruptions demonstrated the need for greater governance and processes. Addressing all three of these ESG pieces will be the difference between winners and losers in a post-pandemic era.
In this context, it’s also important to assess your customer base, their needs, the products and services you deliver, tap into new opportunities and invest in innovation to address the challenges and emerge stronger on the other side.
At EY, we kicked off the new year with an exciting update on our sustainability journey. After becoming carbon neutral worldwide in 2020, we’ve set the bar higher: to become carbon negative by 2021 and net zero in 2025. We’re reducing our own emissions as well as investing in services to help our clients decarbonize and deliver on their sustainability plans.
9. Enhance supply chain visibility
: When the pandemic hit, it became clear that many, if not most, supply chains were extremely vulnerable and very quickly failed as consumers worldwide placed unprecedented levels of demand on essential supplies. In the year since, many of the gaps have been addressed and businesses have figured out stopgap measures to get products to market where they’re needed. But issues still linger.
In a recent EY survey, supply chain executives said end-to-end visibility is the number-one factor in creating a successful supply chain. Yet only 6% of respondents were very confident in their systems and capabilities for end-to-end supply chain visibility. There’s a significant space between the importance of supply chain visibility and the actual capabilities of most enterprises.
Visibility enables you to identify disruptions up and down your supply chain, and synchronize supply and demand both at the point of sale and at the required time of delivery.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen companies focus on safety and working closely with suppliers and production managers across their manufacturing footprints. Those with end-to-end visibility can perform “what if” scenarios to optimize production and use of materials. With improved visibility, some supply chains have delivered 20% to 25% cost savings and reductions in inventory while improving overall service levels.
10. Consider financial reporting challenges
: The impact on financial reporting is not the first priority when a crisis hits — but with one on the scale of COVID-19, there were several substantial challenges for anyone responsible for preparing financial statements, audit committees and auditors. From maintaining liquidity and assessing impaired assets and fair value to modifying contracts and seeking government assistance, such a large-scale crisis required a significant rethink of some of the fundamentals of reporting and effective compliance.
Applying current accounting and auditing standards will inevitably produce questions from all those involved in financial reporting. While existing audit and accounting requirements remain in place, some regulators have provided updated guidance, including relief in terms of deadlines.
Question 2: Professionals are striving to adapt to the “new normal” with a complete change of the “Business as Usual.” What are, in your opinion, the skills that young professionals and more experienced ones should acquire to meet the requirements of the job market?
There’s no question the pandemic has brought about a workplace revolution. At EY, we were able to pivot quickly, enabling our people to work from home thanks to the technologies we already had in place. And while many of our people had already experienced remote working in one way or another long before COVID-19, it was clear that navigating a completely virtual environment would take some adjustment. Now, a year later, we know the skills employees needed to embrace or adopt at the start of the pandemic will be the same they need going forward.
Change is the only constant, and the pandemic accelerated what was already an incredibly fast pace of change. To succeed in this environment, everyone — whether new to the workforce or with years of experience under their belt — will need to be able to adapt quickly to forces beyond their control.
What’s more, young professionals will need to be comfortable collaborating in a more virtual environment. We may have the opportunity to connect and brainstorm in person again one day but, as more organizations are likely to adopt a distributed workforce model, collaborating with team members separated by distance and technology will be the next normal.
Embracing diversity and showcasing what makes you unique will also help young professionals succeed in the changing job market. Employers know that diversity ignites innovation, and they’re looking for individuals ready to bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table.
It’s important to take time to understand the organization or industry you’re pursuing as well. Given the pace of change, organizations are looking for individuals that can hit the ground running right away. That’s good for you, and for them. There will always be a learning curve with any new role, but understanding the environment you’re entering – and showcasing that knowledge to potential employers – may help secure your spot and position you for success in the long term.
Last but not least, know what you want in an employer. Have a clear idea of what kind of environment will make you happy and ask the right questions to make sure any employer is a right fit. It may take some time if you’re at the start of your career, but honing in on what gives you purpose will make all the difference.