Navigating flexible work in 2021

Article Seldon Rosser - Navigating flexible working in 2021

Many of us, Seldon Rosser included, heralded with much enthusiasm the new era of the working world this time last year – predictions of completely remote roles within teams, smaller real estate footprints in CBDs, and a completely agile working ethos. Now, further on in the journey, what is the current expectation of professional services firms and of their BDMC employees, as well as candidates seeking to join them? Do these expectations align? How do expectations and realities compare in different major centres globally and how is it playing out when candidates relocate to another market?

This is certainly a hot topic for 2021 and is becoming a must to discuss with clients and candidates at the start of any interview process so that expectations are properly managed.  Some of the most common queries and scenarios we’re encountering are shared here.

I am currently based in the UK / Singapore where remote working has necessarily been the norm for some time. My current employer and the market here generally are talking about a fully agile workforce.  However, I’m planning to return to Australia/New Zealand – can I expect the same approach to flexibility from firms there?

This is an interesting dynamic. The reality of firm’s expectations in different geographies is not consistent, even for those firms that have developed global agile working policies.  This is directly aligned to the COVID-19 lockdown experience in each market.  As well as the living arrangements and broader culture, for example in Hong Kong where many employees live very close to work often in reasonably small apartments, the desire to work from home is lower.

In Australia, Sydney and Melbourne have had longer and more frequently lockdowns (including now at the time of writing) than Brisbane and Perth, though still nothing like the UK.  In Sydney & Melbourne the general expectation of employees / candidates is to seek more flexibility to work from home than those in Brisbane & Perth.  Whilst in Brisbane & Perth, most people are working in the same way as pre-COVID; in Sydney & Melbourne we are sometimes experiencing a disconnect in what candidates are ideally seeking and what firms are requiring.

Firms have certainly been varied in their approach to encouraging employees back to the office – with 3 / 4 days in the office being most common in our experience (when we’re not in lockdown of course).  In returning to Australia, it’s best to work on this expectation (though also see the question below re starting out in a new role).

In terms of New Zealand, one BD Director said it best in a recent roundtable we ran “we only had a 6 week lockdown when this whole thing started and we’re still talking about how awful it was!”  If you’re moving back to New Zealand, expect most people to be working in the office 4/5 days, and enjoying doing so.

I have worked at my current firm for almost a decade and the last 5 years (even pre COVID) have been very agile – working 2/ 3 days a week in the office and on my own terms.  I’m looking for a new challenge and finding it hard to convince new employers that this will work.  Why is this?

Two things about flexibility that it’s important to remember when changing jobs are:

  1. it’s important to be flexible with your flexibility
  2. flexibility becomes easier once you have depth of relationships with the Partners and your team

It is incredibly common when speaking to firms during an interview process for them to say “we can offer them “X” flexibility from day one, with a view that after six months or so we can discuss this again and there is potential to build in more flexibility“.

Firms want new BDMC professionals to be very present with the Partners (and possibly their team) during the first few months.  In this situation, much like offering a salary review after six months, there is no guarantee of a change, and, exactly what that change will be down the track is undefined at the moment you join the firm.  It requires a leap of faith from the person joining the business to trust that they will be able to build relationships quickly and demonstrate their value in the role. Once you’re engrained in a business it’s then much easier to continue adding value remotely.  Most of our clients would say that it’s much easier to build relationships from scratch in person than in a series of scheduled Zooms.

Whilst we’re aware that there would be people in the UK for example who may have started roles during the extended UK lockdown who might disagree with this – whether perception, reality or both – this tends to be the current thinking of our clients in Australia and New Zealand.

So our advice to candidates is to be flexible in your approach too.  Trust that the firm just wants to set you up for success – take the leap, and trust that you’ll be in a better position to deliver in the role, build your profile and relationships and enjoy more flexibility later.

How often do you see completely remote roles in professional services BDMC teams and is it realistic for me to seek to secure such a role?
(Sometimes asked by those with visions of moving further into the country and away from CBD proximity.)

We are certainly aware of instances of fully remote roles – we have seen these negotiated and secured for existing employees in order to retain someone and in faith that they already have the relationships in the business.  However, we are not seeing an openness to this at the time of hiring new employees.

Situations we have seen have primarily been with international firms where perhaps someone is in a regional or global role and seeks to relocate to another part of the world and the firm does not have an office (usually to be close to family) and their employer has allowed them to continue in their role from this remote location.

Whilst we are seeing some more flexibility on exact location of roles (eg any major centre in the APAC for regional roles, or anywhere on the East Coast of Australia for national roles), we don’t believe we are close to a future where we can hire completely remote resources into professional services BDMC teams.  Perhaps in ten or more years from now things may have changed in this regard.

In saying this, we’re talking about Manager / Senior Manager / Head of and Director roles focused on coaching, advising, facilitating and guiding Partner groups.  This doesn’t take into account the growing trend of offshore / out-sourced solutions for more operational and administrative aspects of BDMC.

I’m going to market to hire a new BD professional – I know it’s very competitive and I want to give myself the best chance of securing a fantastic person.  What will candidates expect in terms of flexible working and how can I differentiate our offering?

Most candidates speaking to us (Australia & New Zealand) would have a preference for a 60/40 model – allowing them to be:

  • 2 days at home
  • 2 in the office
  • make a weekly choice about the remaining day

The desire is about choice and control.  If you can genuinely offer this to your staff and a new team member coming on board then you’re in a good place.

However, we understand that you can only offer what is possible. And that different parts of a firm (eg practice groups) may have different realities in their expectations, regardless of your firm policy.  It’s important to be honest in the briefing and with the candidates about the expectations. It’s much better to find the right person who will also thrive and be happy working in the same way, than have it go wrong in the first six months based on mismatched expectations.  And if you do have a partner group that expects full time in the office, whilst certainly a lot less usual, those people do exist in the BDMC community who also prefer to work this way.

Candidates hope to have an open line of communication about flexible working with their direct managers, whether a MP, COO, Head or Director of BD, or BDM. It can be an awkward thing to bring up in an interview process as candidates rightly want to focus on asking questions about your firm’s clients and growth strategy.  And so pro-actively raising this when explaining the role to the candidate in the interview process will be valued – and set expectations early – rather than be disappointed at offer stage if mis-aligned expectations are uncovered.

In summary, we are certainly seeing the working world change when it comes to flexibility.  So far in some markets – the UK being the prime example – signs still indicate that COVID will have caused firms to leap-frog forward to the future of a much more agile workforce a lot more quickly than some other parts of the world.  In Australia, our experience so far mirrors the adage that most people over estimate short term change but under estimate long term change.  And so for now, if you’re hiring, or, seeking a new job – don’t make any assumptions and talk about this in the same way you would salary expectations right from the outset.

Feeling usure about setting and managing expectations properly? Talk to us about the best way to approach flexible working.

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