They Don’t Teach Pandemics in Business School

How a professional services firm shifted its operations and culture overnight.
Jim PekoFebruary 24, 2021
They Don’t Teach Pandemics in Business School

When COVID-19 hit, no business or working household was spared. All of us had to quickly adjust to the new reality of working from home and keeping ourselves safe. It was a monumental challenge, and many struggled, even contending with personal loss, financial hardship, and depression. As a firm focused on client engagement we didn’t know how we would succeed without on-site interactions. Our professionals spend a lot of time with our clients understanding their businesses and with each other collaborating. 

As the firm’s chief operating officer, I had to help develop alternatives that allowed our almost 8,500 home-bound professionals to thrive when the lockdown happened. And, critically, I had to help find ways to meet clients’ needs and generate new business for our firm.

There was no playbook to follow. Let’s face it; they don’t teach you about pandemics in business school.

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Go Small to Go Big

The first thing I discovered is that the best approach to an unforeseen crisis is to strip down the number of people who have to make decisions. This is hard to do. Many organizations are used to large, collaborative, and inclusive management structures, and for a good reason. It’s vital to have a strong web of leaders who are part of decision-making and are accountable for execution.

However, we found that having a focused team dedicated to always-on information-sharing and decision-making was an enormous strength in a crisis. We established a COVID-19 project-management office that allowed us to share information and act swiftly in areas such as information technology, cybersecurity, and client outreach.

And somewhat to our surprise, we found that we could serve our clients exceptionally and even win new business without traveling and face-to-face contact.

All I Saw Was People

We also had to worry about keeping the critical gears of a professional services firm functioning. You’d think my focus would be on things like financial details, IT, security, and workspaces. But as it turns out, when I looked at any operations issue, all I saw were people.

Whatever the issue, the first and most essential step was to protect our people’s safety and well-being and build out from there. All the metrics that executives track — quality, performance, productivity, innovation, client experience — are human outcomes. They depend on people.

It was so simple: We could not weather the storm without first tending to our people.

To be sure, our firm took steps to cut costs and ensure our balance sheet was strong; the partners and principals at our firm made sacrifices, and we made the hard decision to forgo offering our usual year-end bonuses and raises to employees. But when we did it, we practiced what I would call radical transparency: we told people what we knew about the virus, how it was hurting our business, and what we would have to do to react. A lot of our messages were tough. But we felt our people needed to know the good alongside the bad so everyone could be on the same page.

It soon became apparent that many employees felt skipping a raise was worth it if it meant others could keep their jobs. It turns out most people also want to put people first.

The ‘Long Tail’

As the pandemic wore on, we faced what I would call the “long tail” of the COVID crisis — what happens to people when they’re working remotely for months on end.

We continued to focus on keeping our people safe by keeping them at home. Our auditors found ways to conduct on-site audit functions virtually. In the few instances where in-office work was necessary, members of our firm’s partnership structure handled that work instead of employees. And we saw that our people received the additional equipment they needed, beyond their laptops, to work comfortably at home.

But keeping people safe is not the same thing as keeping people happy and sane, especially when you factor in daily challenges such as childcare, home schooling, caring for elderly relatives, and glitchy home Wi-Fi.

Sometimes what is best for people’s health and safety is not best for their wellbeing. So we are finding ways to help people connect. And we’ve rolled out additional benefits, such as enhanced childcare resources, subsidized meal-delivery services, and tutoring benefits for those parents with children at home.

These gestures have been widely appreciated and have gone a long way to letting our people know their sacrifices and continued engagement matter.

Three Ways to Succeed

Businesses should do three things as they continue to wrestle with the pandemic.

First, communicate with radical transparency. The biggest risk in a crisis is that misinformation and rumors will fill the void if you don’t flood the zone with facts. By telling our teams what we knew about the virus and our business, we had one thing going for us: We weren’t hiding anything. It won us the trust and dedication of our people.

Second, don’t sugarcoat bad news. We found that people were ready for it. We told them what they needed to know to plan their own lives.

Third, businesses need to adapt and then adapt again and again. Accept that you are going to make some mistakes. People will accept mistakes if you own up to them and correct them immediately. The key is not to make the same mistakes again.

So, while they may not teach you about pandemics in business school, it’s undoubtedly true that experience is the best teacher. And we’ve all learned a lot. 

Jim Peko is the chief operating officer of Grant Thornton LLP.