In a piece first published in Legal Abacus, Totum Consultant Carolyn Beckford Balogun looks at latest approaches to hybrid working, implications for the finance function, and its impact on wellbeing and culture.

Hybrid working has dominated our market conversations at Totum for many months. At our frequent virtual networking meetings, bringing together professional services firms to share experiences and insights, the topic of how they will ‘return to the office’ nearly always tops the agenda, with firms still debating the logistics of remote versus office working. But if there is a consensus, it is that hybrid working – in which weeks are made up of days spent at home and others in the office – will be the norm for some time to come.

For those leading and working in finance teams, understanding and responding effectively to the implications of this longer-term shift will be critical for success.

Our research findings

In 2021, we conducted two ‘Return to the Office’ surveys, one in the spring and the other in autumn. Largely asking the same questions, we were able to compare changing sentiment over the year to draw some interesting conclusions:

  • The favourite option for hybrid working is three days spent the office, two at home, followed by a 50/50 split with specific days decided by employees.
  • Most firms want their employees to live within a commutable distance of the office (77%).
  • Firms think that the most positive impact of moving to more hybrid models is improvement in wellbeing and morale (67% in the autumn compared to 71% in spring).
  • There was a drop in the number that think hybrid working will cause cultural challenges (from 54% in spring to 33% in autumn).

Overall findings suggest firms continuing to prioritise wellbeing, with a genuine desire to meet everyone’s needs paramount in the planning. At the same time, however, our conversations into 2022 point to increasing uncertainty as to how the hybrid workplace might play out in practice longer-term.

Mountain to climb?

Firms are expressing concerns, particularly around how they can nurture culture and wellbeing in an environment where some people are working remotely while others are in the office. Questions abound around training and development (particularly around more junior members of staff who need more face-to-face support and opportunities to learn by ‘osmosis’). We know of some firms that are encouraging people to come into the office more often to better manage these issues.

At the same time, however, we ae finding candidates at all seniority levels asking about hybrid working arrangements at the start of their search. More senior candidates may have benefitted enormously from skipping the commute, both in terms of work productivity and work/life balance. They are showing little inclination to return to the office in any kind of full-time capacity. But our more junior candidates are prioritising hybrid-working arrangements too – even accepting lower salary offers to secure the flexibility they want. Those firms that cannot accommodate such requests will lose out on talent at a time when candidates are already in short supply.

But what does this mean for the finance team?

Finance goes hybrid

Finance functions in professional services firms have played a pivotal role in their firm’s success through the pandemic – and will continue to do so through further change ahead. There are specific challenges to face, however.

We conducted research in 2021 with CFOs and Finance Directors from among UK headquartered law firms with annual revenue of £20m or more. Over a quarter of respondents (26%) are concerned about ‘competitors hiring existing staff’ at the same time that many finance functions are planning for growth. A third of respondent firms (33%) intend to increase their headcount in an existing finance function in 2022/23, with 9% planning as much as a 16-20% increase in headcount into 2022. A further 13% are planning to put a new team into the function.

Alongside this, when asked about the biggest impacts of Covid on the finance team, respondents chiefly chose managing team wellbeing, adjusting to remote working and motivating the team. As most continue to implement hybrid working within their own functions, it will be critical to balance the need to bring people together, add new talent into the mix, while also investing in the technology that will allow teams to continue to work seamlessly no matter where individuals are.

For finance candidates/employees too, there will continue to be change and adjustment. We are finding that communication skills are of paramount importance in a hybrid world. Those that can proactively ask for the help they need and interact confidently online are those most likely to succeed in a world in which support may not always be physically close at hand.

The road ahead will be tricky but there is plenty of opportunity too. Given the level of sophistication in finance teams today, finance leaders are in a good position to use their considerable experience to align the many requirements of employers and employees – to secure and retain the very best finance talent for a new hybrid working world.

Click here to see the article as it appeared in Legal Abacus magazine.

If you would like to find out more about latest developments in the finance function, or to discuss your finance career options, contact Carolyn at [email protected]