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Top 3 professional service trends for 2021

As we emerge from the upheaval, embracing an ‘anywhere operations’ model will be a vital component for business success, according to Gartner’s  Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021.

This digital-first, remote-first model “allows for business to be accessed, delivered and enabled anywhere – where customers, employers and business partners operate in physically remote environments”, the report states.

While physical space still has a place in the post-COVID era, the combined pillars of digital and remote should define decision-making. This extends to the workplace model: according to the Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, 83 per cent of workers prefer a hybrid model, leaving employers with the challenge to create a productive work-from-anywhere culture.

Susan Ferrier, Chief People Officer at NAB, says that COVID-19 “radically impacted” how the organisation’s 40,000 employees work. In Australia, where the majority of NAB’s workforce is based in Victoria and New South Wales – two jurisdictions that experienced prolonged lockdowns – 95 per cent of staff worked from home during 2021. “We’ve had to work in completely different ways throughout the pandemic,” Ferrier says.

While Ferrier says NAB “has been a flexible employer for a long time”, the pandemic has demonstrated that “you can go even further – a lot of jobs can be done from different locations, and our technology has been able to support us to do so”.

With professional services businesses operating in a similar – albeit smaller-scale – customer-facing, service-based environment, we examine three takeaways in NAB’s move, and that of Deloitte Australia, to the work-from-anywhere model.

1. Technology and flexibility are key

The sudden shift to remote work in 2020 triggered by pandemic restrictions required employees to have access to the right technology, tools and resources.

At NAB, that entailed the rapid distribution of laptops equipped with secure access platform Zscaler, alongside the development of hybrid working guidelines and toolkits to support staff in the departure from the traditional office. Another critical undertaking was the upskilling of staff. “We had to run some rapid Zoom skills webinars in the first month or two,” Ferrier says.

At Deloitte Australia virtual teams are now the norm. Sue Solly, Deloitte’s Experience Design Director in Customer Strategy and Applied Design, says a suite of flexibility policies underpins the organisation’s shift to a digital workplace. “It’s empowering our people to have true flexibility in not just where we work, but when we work and how we work,” she says.

2. There’s a talent recruitment dividend

An anywhere operations model dramatically broadens the talent pool available to professional services firms. “Geography is no longer a limitation,” Solly says, which means organisations have a better chance of finding “the best people for the right roles”.

A digital-first, remote-first workplace also gives firms an edge in a competitive labour market. “Employees are looking for more than salary,” Solly says. “If there’s an organisation that’s offering a similar role with a degree of flexibility, that’s going to be attractive to employees.”

Flexibility delivers an engagement dividend too. “People feel they have more autonomy over when and how they do their work,” Ferrier says. “Our colleagues feel they can manage work in and around life.” As a result, she says, “people feel more productive, happier, more prepared to go the extra mile”.

This observation is borne out by surveys showing that engagement at NAB has increased from 74 to 77 during the pandemic, despite the dislocation of working remotely. Ferrier attributes this increase in part to “the greater trust and autonomy that’s in the system as a result of the pandemic”.

The shift to digital and remote workplaces can foster increased productivity – by as much as five per cent, according to one estimate. Another 2020 study examining the effects of a flexible work-from-anywhere model – referred to as ‘smart working’ – found that “for the same number of hours of work, workers who engage in smart working increase their productivity compared to workers who continue working traditionally”.

3. Culture has to keep pace with change

While technology plays a crucial role in an anywhere operations model, fostering a supportive culture is just as critical. “It’s starting to develop new etiquettes and cultural norms around how we work collectively, and part of that is training leaders and managers in how to run virtual teams,” Solly says.

Ferrier says NAB is driving the cultural change needed to support a dispersed workforce through its people leaders. A new leadership program focuses on skills and capabilities such as trust, accountability and inclusion. “What we’re saying to our people leaders is that we need you to step up and lead in new and different ways in a hybrid world,” she says.

Inclusivity takes on new dimensions in a digital-first, remote-first environment. The challenge for organisations with people both on- and off-site, Solly says, is to determine how to “make sure you’re having inclusive meetings and collaborative sessions, so it doesn’t matter where you’re located”.

“That’s more than just tech,” she adds, “that’s about behaviour and norms and rituals that you need to establish in a virtual environment.”

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