Growing and moving forwards, virtually and literally

October 2, 2020

As the country went into lockdown, Armstrong Watson – like so many other professional services firms – embraced technology to support its clients, and it sees video conferencing as a crucial communication tool for the future. But as corporate finance partner Chris McCourt reports, the firm remains committed to its office network and has recently moved into larger premises on Tyneside

To say that 2020 has so far been an unusual year would possibly be the understatement of the century. Who could have imagined as 2019 became 2020 that we would see businesses across a whole range of sectors have large parts of their workforces at home – either working remotely or on furlough – or that the Government would have been providing extensive finance to businesses of all sizes, and paying (indirectly) up to 9.6 million peoples’ wages and salaries through the Job Retention Scheme?

When the Prime Minister put the country into lockdown on March 23, at a stroke pretty much every business in the country had to think about how they were going to adapt.

At that point, Armstrong Watson was partway through a series of updates to our technology platforms, intended to be implemented over the following 12 months.

Deploying Microsoft Teams was part of that journey, with a plan to roll it out in stages with appropriate training. In the end, our technology team deployed Teams to more than 400 staff over one weekend, and put together training sessions to get everyone comfortable with the basics in the first few days.

I am sure we were not alone in that, and like many other businesses, we had to come up with ways to get office-based colleagues up and running at home as quickly as possible. Our technology team worked incredibly hard to get equipment out of our offices and into peoples’ homes to enable them to continue to support our clients effectively as we prepared to close our sites and go to full remote working.

I have been amused to see various colleagues and contacts get to grips with some of the technology that we have now all become used to.

At a local level, Armstrong Watson actually moved offices during the lockdown to 11 Waterloo Steeet in Newcastle city centre. Our team in Newcastle has grown dramatically over the last 12 months and, with more growth planned, we had outgrown where we were.

Having more space has meant that we have been able to bring our team back together in the office safely, which we simply wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Like many firms, we have had to change how we engage with our clients and contacts. We quickly developed and ran a series of webinars to help businesses work through some of the mountains of information coming out of Government on the schemes that were established to support business.

This represented a new way of sharing knowledge for us and the feedback was that many business owners found the content helpful.

They liked the ease of interaction and dynamic Q&A better than more traditional seminars, and this will certainly be an ongoing feature of our communications strategy.

Despite the increase in restrictions at a national and local level, we are as a business community all looking forward and trying to work out what the future will hold. There will inevitably be a return to normality at some point, but everyone agrees some changes are here to stay. In our own business, travel between our 17 offices was fairly common for meetings and we expect many of those journeys to be eliminated through the use of Microsoft Teams. We’ve also made some changes to our IT infrastructure to build on our smart working model and increase flexibility for colleagues working going forward, and have completely removed physical phones from all of our offices, using Teams as our main communication tool.

We are committed to retaining our office infrastructure and getting our people back into the office in a safe way. All of our offices in England are open and we do not expect a permanent shift to home working for our colleagues.

We believe that by being together in the office we deliver a better service to our clients through collaboration, innovation and the knowledge sharing that comes from being involved in spontaneous discussions.

Our offices are also where our trainees (including the latest group of 26 who joined in September) learn from more experienced colleagues, get to know and interact with the leaders and managers in our business asking questions and seeing the culture of Armstrong Watson first-hand.

The last few months have been tough for everyone; we are choosing to take the positives from the situation and use some of the actions we were forced to take and embed them into our business for the future. We have learned from recruiting and on-boarding new colleagues remotely some of the gaps that may have existed in our process and corrected them.

We have tried new ways of engaging with clients in ways we wouldn’t have considered before and found that actually, many clients prefer the flexibility of virtual interaction versus physical interaction. The reality with all of these things will be a mix of the traditional approach and the new ideas tried during lockdown. When possible, I will still meet people face-to-face with a Teams or Zoom meeting as an alternative, but as a business I think we will be better equipped and more confident in meeting people, pitching for work and delivering work virtually where that is the right approach as a result of our experiences over the last six months.

For professional services firms like Armstrong Watson, there is no right answer to any of the challenges COVID-19 presents, or the ‘new normal’. There is only the focus that everything we do should support, help or inform our clients and contacts, and that is how we are looking at the future.

Armstrong Watson

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