Surviving and thriving in isolation: Tips for business owners
In a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19, many non-essential businesses around Australia have been required to shift into remote working patterns almost overnight. While some businesses and industries are realising this model is more feasible than previously imagined, others have found it a difficult adjustment to make.
Employees in more client-oriented roles - such as accountants - are all too aware by this point, there are significant difficulties associated with nurturing stakeholder relationships over Zoom.
But for owners and supervisors, these issues are compounded.
These same questions of how to effectively and professionally engage with the firm’s clientele remain, but employers are also having to grapple with employee management and formulating an effective remote working strategy.
Owners and supervisors are even having to rethink the nuts-and-bolts of workplace logistics: day-to-day basics like tech platforms, workplace communication style, and company culture.
COVID-19: SME impacts
Recent ILO and OECD forecasts paint a grim picture for the global economy.
Figures released on 27 March by the latter indicate that “the initial direct impact of the shutdowns could be a decline in the level of output of between one-fifth to one-quarter in many economies”.
Moreover, talk of a global recession no longer comes from fringe voices.
For small-to-medium-enterprises (SMEs), the challenges posed by both the shutdown and a further recession are magnified.
Unlike large-scale corporations, they are less able to sell off assets, downsize, or furlough staff in order to make ends meet.
SMEs operating in industries typically associated with longer-term project timelines and cash flow challenges – such as the energy or legal sectors, for example – may find themselves cash-strapped through no fault of their own.
According to the OECD’s March survey, more than half of SMEs already face significant revenue losses, with “many having only a few months reserves to withstand the crisis”.
To analyse the effects on SMEs within the accounting industry specifically, we spoke to Findex’s Bradley Motteram, client service manager.
SME impacts in the professional services sector
According to Mr Motteram, it may take some months for flow-on effects to translate through to accountants.
“Firms are a downstream business,” he notes, “and it’s our clients and their circumstances that will likely be impacted first.”
Even for businesses that seem to be not just surviving but thriving under current conditions, he suggests precautionary steps need to be taken sooner rather than later.
Mr Motteram also indicates that SMEs, which may depend disproportionately on a small client base or even a handful of key clients, need to stay abreast of their clients’ commercial positions and circumstances.
“Clients situated in volatile or low-margin industries such as tourism and retail will ultimately suffer more,” he says. “Those on the other end of that stability spectrum, such as utilities and agriculture, will be better positioned to weather the crisis.”
Remote engagement - challenges
The term ‘remote engagement’ might seem almost an oxymoron, but for many business owners it is fast becoming a key component of their strategy to adapt to current circumstances.
Most workplaces have already transitioned from traditional IM services (like Slack or Google Hangouts) across to virtual face-to-face technologies such as Zoom and Skype.
While these programs contribute somewhat to maintaining a sense of personal connection and accountability at the owner-employee or supervisory level, Mr Motteram cites a number of other difficulties owners are identifying with the platforms. One of the most prominent ones is how these platforms tie in to the concept of client engagement.
After all, he says, the integrity of the owner-client relationship is more crucial now than ever before, as SMEs look to shore up against potential future losses in revenue.
Key challenges he cites include:
- A lack of protocol for remote client interactions, and/or associated levels of etiquette.
- An oversupply of options in terms of communications channels. Many start-ups and SMEs have embraced these enthusiastically, but adopting too many simultaneously can confuse the communication relationship.
- Difficulty in goal setting and/or task management. This is particularly important on the client side, where Mr Motteram notes “the value of face-to-face interaction is hard to replace.”
- A difficulty in maintaining personal connection; ‘water-cooler chat’ amongst employees; and a congenial business relationship with clients help to build trust and a positive work culture.
- A lack of employee oversight and common awareness of progression on tasks.
‘Remote engagement’ - possible solutions
- Mr Motteram suggests ensuring clear lines of communication as a first port of call.
This is easier said than done, however, when much gets lost in translation over instant messaging programs and text. Hence, owners and supervisors are advised to proactively engage with their employee base and clientele, and ensure that all stakeholders are aware which channels are prioritised.
- Implementing clear task management protocol. Workflow tools like Trello can be a great option for this.
- Mr Motteram points out that reaching out to employees to ensure they have adequate access to online access tools should not be overlooked. This may mean allowing employees to loan required office equipment, and can even include adding a remote working stipend to workers’ salaries.
- Remote extracurricular activities also help to maintain healthy working relationships; depending on the level of formality in the client relationship, they can also be brought into the fold.
- Formalising a remote working strategy at the owner or managerial level. This can combine any or all aspects of the above, and should be related to employees for maximum effectiveness.
A silver lining: carving opportunity out of the challenges
For some business owners, Mr Motteram says that this “may provide a timely opportunity to sit down and reflect on their stakeholder engagement strategy, or even look to redefine or overhaul their work culture.”
By definition, working remotely draws on a foundation of trust and candour - businesses which have failed to establish positive working cultures in the past may see productivity flounder in the weeks and months to come.
For SMEs, it may also prove an opportune moment to evaluate their client base and overall business strategy moving forward.
Mr Motteram’s point on the ‘downstream’ nature of accountancy firms is applicable across the board to most client services. Businesses need to account for client liquidity and adjust their strategy accordingly; real estate, for example, is one area in which sales usually take some months to materialise as revenue.
Mr Motteram also suggests that logistical changes to workplace function may carry over into the post-pandemic business environment.
“Owners are finding ways to accommodate remote working conditions,” he says, “that may have real consequence for how we do business going forward.”
An example cited recently in Time magazine shows how one Silicon Valley-based start-up, Spatial, is leading the charge.
The agency identified difficulties in remote collaboration unique to the design space, which relies heavily on interactive modelling in client-facing meetings and presentations - one issue where Zoom or Skype simply don’t cut it.
The company’s solution?
3D holographic modelling, allowing clients to interact with augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) models of products.
The platform has been used by BNP Paribas’ real estate division, for example, to “demonstrate 3D models of land purchases around the world, allowing agents to meet alongside a piece of property and look at it from the same angle.”
The technology is even showing promise in terms of the client-business relationship more broadly, with projections of presenters being beamed through to recipients to personalise the sales pitch.
With more tough times ahead, many businesses are realising that some of the necessary cost-savings can be found in technologies like these.
Business travel being off the cards for the immediate future, tech start-ups in particular are finding ways to overcome client engagement barriers typically associated with remote collaboration tools.
“Micromanagement culture and more traditional notions of employee oversight may fall by the wayside as businesses bounce back,” suggests Mr Motteram.
To this end, he estimates that more and more firms will look to formally articulate task management expectations - a point he sees as a positive.
Implementation of clear deadlines and priorities through various platforms or solution, will lead to more effective and timely operation.
In the age of COVID-19, this may make all the difference.