Here we are, at about six to eight weeks after the U.S. practically shut down to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Workplaces are starting to open back up in some regions. The worst seems to be behind us at this point. The question on many leaders’ minds right now is where to go from here. What is post-pandemic leadership going to look like?

In times of crisis, the truly effective leader shines. Our readership and social media followers have been put to the test during the coronavirus pandemic. You’ve shored up your firms. Been there for your teams. Adjusted to a radical new normal. So what happens when we return to work? This is an opportunity to create a new normal, not rely on our old mindset.  

Are changes made in the last eight weeks going to stay put?

Gretchen said to think of it as an open-ended question. “In what ways will it change? In what ways do I want it to change?” she said. In her company, pLink Leadership, one of the questions they ask all the time in their strategy sessions is ‘no matter what changes in the future, what do you want to be sure stays the same?’ At this point in time, she said, there are going to be things that will absolutely change.

What sort of adjustments should we be thinking about as we reopen and go back to work?

Let’s think about this as a shift in mindset. For many organizations, and certainly for CPA firms, we have still been working. More than ever, in fact. This shift in mindset is as subtle as saying we’re going to be opening up the office again, and you have an additional space to work. This is opposed to saying let’s get right back to it.

There will be some people who feel like they just want to get back to the way that it was because that’s comfortable. And as humans, we are very attracted to things that are comfortable and familiar to us. But the mistake we make is to assume that the familiar is safe.

So if you’re feeling like your firm can get back to work, consider the last eight weeks like a shot across your bow – a ship reference to those who didn’t listen live! If it didn’t sink you, it’s at least a sign telling you that things need to change. We got a glimpse of our future world, our future work. It’s technology-enhanced. We knew this already, right? There are ways to automate component parts of our business. So instead of thinking about how to get the business back to full capacity, start thinking instead how to do it differently.

How should we be looking at this new world we’re living in?

It’s digital. It’s tech-forward. And CPA firms will need to go back and rethink what it truly means to be a digital workforce. From how it affects your customer experience, your team, all of it. Because just using Zoom is not “being digital.” It’s unsustainable. Part of that is because the stuff we used to pick up in the office, when we could just feel what was happening, we don’t get when we’re working remotely. We’re isolated and disconnected from the bigger picture. How are the CPA firms going to figure that piece out? Right now, it’s not happening. Work doesn’t happen in Zoom, or in Slack. It happens in the hallway.

A hybrid approach is one solution, where capacity is limited. Firms are going to have to think about what that looks to manage social distancing in the office. Think about a rotational schedule, maybe a changed floor plan to allow for social distancing and one-way traffic. It’s a legal responsibility now to create a safe work environment.

In addition to that, CPA firms will need to think about how meetings will be done. It can be hard to do when some people are physically present, but some people are virtual. Which meetings will be done virtually, which ones in-person, and why? As it relates to your communications platform, firms will need to be really intentional about the channels they set up so they can capture that essential chatter.

What should leaders be doing differently now?

Be purposeful about sharing your thinking out loud. In Gretchen’s company, she established a virtual channel called Best Current View, where she shares her thinking each week on what she’s seeing, what she knows or doesn’t know, her thoughts and questions, observations, and the direction of the company. Another channel, called Health, is where she and her team put updates related the larger environment and COVID-19. She explained that she wanted her team to be intentional about separating that so that people could manage the information on their own schedule.

They also have project-specific channels for clients, group-specific channels, and a random channel where people can share the kind of stuff they normally would at, say, the water cooler in the office. It’s the virtual water cooler. They also have a Kudos channel. Leaders will want to think about these things so they can do them on purpose.

When we don’t think about these things, miscommunication happens.

How can leaders make sure that employees feel safe as they go back into the office?

We know that everyone has a different risk tolerance when it comes to their health and of course, COVID-19. Some people are very risk-averse and will do full-on lockdown whereas others will go about their normal lives. Among your teams, you will have both ends of the spectrum and your job as the leader is to keep everyone safe and keep everyone feeling safe.

This is a test of a CPA firm’s ability to be flexible, Gretchen said. If you want to hold on to everyone, be very strategic and intentional about what a hybrid space looks like as well as hybrid policies. Pre-COVID-19, a lot of people may have seen work-from-home policies as a luxury. Some of the people thought that it would be impossible for employees to be productive at home. We know that’s not true. In fact, data is showing that productivity is going up.

Let’s use this time to think about what a hybrid policy looks like, so people can retain that autonomy. If anything, in the short-term it’s still a childcare issue because summer camps are still closed, you know?

What does it mean to be prepared?

Two things. One, prepare for the long haul. The things you do right now better be preparing you for a permanently digital future. These strategies aren’t going to work against you. What do those rotational policies look like, what kind of hours do you want the physical office to have, what’s your capacity, and how would you manage that flow for the people working from home?

At pLink Leadership, Gretchen explained they have something called the Cadence of Communication. It’s a workshop where you think through the types of communication that need to be happening on a regular basis in the organization. Other workshops are about Momentum, or Problem-Solving. The point is, it’s not business as usual, and it’s important to think through what some of these meetings should be so the organization keeps moving in a positive direction.

Being prepared means asking whether something can be automated or enhanced. Everyone is going to have to move quickly. The coronavirus removed the resistance because people had to adapt. This is an opportunity for CPA firm leaders to take a step back and look at everything they’re doing on a regular basis. If something shows up on your calendar three months in a row, it’s a piece of infrastructure that could probably be made smarter or done virtually.

What we’ve been missing is intentionally setting that vision. We’ve been living in chaos. So now, what we need to do is think about what we want our firms to look like in six or 12 months and start moving toward that. We’ve been getting used to the world we’re now living in, but our firms still need us to reset and think about the future. Let’s take what we learned in the last eight weeks and put it together for a future-facing vision versus just picking up the pieces.

It’s tempting to feel like the storm passed. I think we’re in the eye of the storm, though. Consider this scenario: we go back to the office. We have a big meeting the next day, and then someone gets diagnosed with COVID-19. All of a sudden, everybody that was in that office is now quarantined for 14 days.

Even if we’re quarantined for 14 days, how do we just keep going?

It’s a different kind of volatility, but business keeps going. This might continue for two years until we have a vaccine, which is unsettling. But if that is part of your plan, as opposed to being shocked by it, then it’s an option that’s always going to be there. Pre-pandemic, not everyone had systems set up to handle that disruption well.

The really good news is all the tech that already exists to make this transition easier. Google Fiber is coming, 5G is coming. Now is the time to say, what we are we doing well and where are our opportunities still?

How do we deal with clients who are concerned about their ability to pay our fees?

As a whole, accounting firms are going to be okay. There’ s this short-term blip and then we should get back to normal. During this time, we want to let our clients know that we’re concerned about them and we want to help them, but we also can’t do everything for free. This is hard, and the answer might be on a case-by-case basis.

As a firm, you probably want to have a conversation about clients in a particular industry that maybe were hit the hardest these past eight weeks. And then consider what your approach might look like. Maybe it’s a delayed payment until their pipelines are full again. Maybe it’s discounted services during a certain period of time. But you need to be very clear on what your boundaries are and what you can and cannot do.

How are we going to keep the human connection going?

We’ve been seeing the human side of people lately. Maybe it’s the kids running around during meetings, or the cat walking in the background or something. Sometimes we like the human side of people, and sometimes we don’t. Now that we’re heading back into the office, maybe this human connection becomes more part of our culture. Maybe it keeps the human side of business there, which may or may not have been there in the past.

When we think about how we want to plan for the future, we want to build human-centric organizations, because people do their best work when they’re at the center of that. As a team, have a conversation about what parts of the last eight weeks were actually good for you and the team. And talk about, as a team, what do we want to hang onto and how do we want to do that?

In this new normal, how can we deal with having less formalized rules?

One example from the live session we talked about was the CPA industry introducing dress-down days. If you had a meeting, you wore a suit. If you didn’t, wear whatever you want (with parameters). And how that upset a lot of HR people because they couldn’t control it. Now, moving into a post-pandemic world, we will have to expect our people to use more judgment in a system with less formalized rules.

Gretchen reminded us that one, we can still have rules, and two, we can hire for a judge. She told us about a model they use called inner game, outer game. The inner game is our mindsets and beliefs, and the outer game is what people see as a result of that. It’s our competency. And our context is what we’re operating within. So as we go through life and evolve, our context changes. And if your context changes, your output or game has to change, too. If your outer game is to change with less effort, your inner game needs to change. That means adjusting mindsets and beliefs.

As we return to the office, recognize that the context has changed globally because of COVID-19. Get super creative with that, she said. What are the mindsets and beliefs we have to shift? Bottom line, if you want your folks to stay authentic and connected with each other, then create the space for that to happen, from the inside out.

If you missed the live session on May 18, the recording is down below.

Big shout out to botkeeper for sponsoring this episode, and for Gretchen Pisano of pLink Leadership for talking to us about how things are changing, and could change, as we head back into the offices.

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