Amcham : Please tell our readers what steps you have taken during the successive stages of the Corona crisis to protect your employees and your company, PWC?
John Parkhouse: As for many, if not all, we were not specifically prepared for the pandemic, but we were prepared for a “crisis incident” and in advance of the government lockdown, we had already launched our Incident Management Team to closely monitor and assess the developing situation. Before and during the crisis, this team, comprising leaders from across different parts of the firm, met on a daily basis to ensure the steps we were taking as a firm were responsive both to the broader situation as well as the needs of our people and our clients. As well as setting policy, this team was responsible for overseeing the responses to the many questions and requests coming from our people as we shifted (remarkably smoothly) into “full home-based work” mode and managed to evolving rules from the 4 countries of residence for our people.
In addition to the monitoring and rapid decision making that this group provided, the core to our response was communication and engagement with our people. The imperative to stay connected and supportive to our people meant a different style and frequency of communication – less-planned, more open to discussion, questions and sharing of concerns and driven at all levels from weekly all-firm meetings down to individual team and people engagement. This has been maintained – albeit at a different pace – throughout the course of the pandemic and has created a different and positive dynamic within the firm which we shall certainly maintain beyond the end of this crisis.
Two other points to note on our broader response:
1stly, this has been 1st and foremost a personal crisis for many and our HR team were extremely pro-active in following up with people who had declared either infection or exposure to ensure they had the support they needed from the firm – they did (and continue to do) a phenomenal job on supporting our people at a personal level through this crisis..
2ndly, one issue we quickly found as we started to come back to the office was the challenge of tracing people exposed to Covid. As a result, we introduced a PwC developed “token” which both warned people as to proximity and allowed us to identify any close connections over a 2-week period to people who declared themselves as infected/exposed. This not only allowed a rapid identification of any potentially infected people so we could alert them, but also avoided the “witch-hunt” scenario which started to emerge as people tried to understand if they had been exposed to the infection.
Finally, when this crisis kicked off, we recognised there was a lot of concern around the impact this could have on our people’s livelihoods and whether their jobs were secure. From the start, we adopted a “People 1st” philosophy and very quickly following the 1st lockdown made the clear commitment publicly that we would not be reducing our workforce as a result of COVID. Similarly, recognising the broader challenge to our country, we were also very clear (again publicly) that we would not be seeking the government support that was being offered. These were decisions which brought a real and significant financial risk/impact to my partners, but decisions which were whole-heartedly supported across the firm.
As a conclusion, despite the trials of the last 12 months, I have been hugely proud to witness both how my teams have stepped up to the plate on an ongoing basis and how our people have come together to support each other during this unique moment. The stories I hear and continue to hear of solidarity, support and empathy make me proud to be part of this firm.
Regarding homeworking, how have you implemented this and please assess what has worked and what has not?
At PwC, we had already implemented a “remote working policy” – basically allowing our people to work at home or (to avoid social/tax issues) in one of our satellite offices close to the border for 1-2 days a week depending on their business line. In addition, we had invested in G-Suite to change how we collaborate across the firm and our network. As such, the immediate shift to full home-based working was not a complete change culturally and was pretty seamless from a technology/remote collaboration perspective. Having said this, the crisis impacts not only at the business-level but, importantly at the individual-level. As such, challenges such as the managing and coaching of individuals and teams, ensuring those clients needing a continued physical presence could be satisfied, onboarding new joiners (over 450 since the pandemic started) and staying connected in some shape or form to all of our 3,000 people was and remains a challenge. I would say that at the institutional level it has been relatively smooth, but the increasing pressure comes at the individual level as we each struggle in our own way with the seemingly relentless nature of the impacts of this crisis.
On a positive note, this has “forced us” to truly onboard the technology we already had available to us – something which would certainly have taken much longer without COVID and it has proven that we can operate remotely and flexibly, removing the tendency toward “presenteeism” which existed before as we shifted to our remote working policy. These are key benefits we will certainly take forward post-Covid.
Now with a year of experience dealing with this crisis, what lessons have been learned and what adjustments have been made to the PWC management style?
Probably 4 things. 1stly, the ability to make rapid decisions on a sustained basis – accepting we will not always get it right; 2ndly, the readiness to drive flexibility in how and where our people work; 3rdly, the need to communicate openly and less formally and on a more regular basis and finally (and arguably most importantly), the importance of empathy in how we lead and the understanding that this impacts us all differently.
If you knew at the beginning what you know now, what steps and initiatives would you and your team have made differently?
As we’ve worked through this crisis over many many months, there have been many things we didn’t get right or could have done better. I think what’s important though is how we have worked together both as leadership and across all of our people to come through this. Looking back, whilst we made mistakes, this was only to be expected and overall, I’m not sure I would have changed anything in how we have responded.
Do you have any concerns about the mental strength of your employees and are there any PWC initiatives to help employees deal with the various stresses caused by this pandemic?
The seemingly relentless nature of this crisis is clearly an issue for the mental well-being of our people – at all levels. Whilst remote working on the face of it has worked well from a business perspective, it has been incredibly difficult in different ways for many of our people. More specific to the more general challenges many companies face in dealing with this, we have an average age of 29 and a workforce that is predominantly made of people from beyond Luxembourg’s borders – so surviving this pandemic far from home. Our approach in trying to mitigate these challenges has been broadly 3-fold:
1 – As the strict lockdown started to relax and we could welcome people back into the office, we worked hard to allow as much flexibility as possible to our people as to when and if they come to the office. We avoided any form of strict rotation of teams and instead asked each of our teams to simply manage when it was required to have people in and when it was optional and to work with their team members on setting these parameters. In order to keep to the restrictions, we adopted a maximum capacity and privileged those who needed to come to the office for either client or personal reasons (where for instance working from home was difficult, or they simply needed some form of social interaction) as well as our new-joiners. As of today, we, therefore, have a basic rule of maximum 2 days per week, but those 2 days are left very much to the individual and team to determine. Our hope is also that this will serve us well as we emerge from the pandemic, instilling a culture of flexibility with people being able much more to choose where they work as it suits them.
2 – As part of this flexibility, we noticed that some of our people were not coming to the office at all. Here we have instigated a systematic approach to engage with these people – not to force them to come in, but to ensure we understand their situation and can continue to be supportive.
3 – In addition, we have focused on a series of “well-being” measures under our “Be Well, Work Well” program ranging from sleep through to social and physical activities we can all engage in remotely. A specific point we are piloting at the moment is to try and address the relentless blurring of work and home by introducing the “Obligation to Disconnect” – essentially closing work mail access to our peoples i-phones from evening until the following morning, meaning that for them to connect, they need to have a specific need and open their pc to do so.
Overall, the challenge of the crisis has shifted from one of physical safety – which is now a well-trodden path – to issues such as mental resilience, sense of belonging and need for social interaction. There is no silver bullet to respond on these growing issues, but again, we continue to work on the small and the big things that can make a difference and to recognise the wide variety of impacts this has on our people as individuals.
How has this pandemic impacted the attractiveness of Luxembourg as an international business center?
Overall, I do not see that the crisis has really impacted the attractiveness of Luxembourg. The business community as well as the authorities have responded extremely robustly in all of the key areas and the experience especially of our international clients has been positive. One aspect which has certainly had an impact is the restriction on travel and the ability of us as a center to engage physically with clients and potential clients, but as with much of this crisis, this is a shared issue and one which doesn’t necessarily impact the long-term. An additional risk stems from the change in attitudes we have witnessed across our workforce and how do we ensure that working in Lux – far from home and family – remains attractive. A key strength of PwC and Lux more broadly is the young, dynamic and multi-cultural aspect of living and working here. An increased shift to remote working following the pandemic runs the risk that this core value of Lux is weakened and we need to think through how we reinvent ourselves in a world which has become exponentially more digital over the past 12 months to remain the cultural melting pot that has driven much of our success. A broader risk as we move forward is the impact on “local vs global” and the potential desire of businesses to keep things closer to home. As a hub for international business, any impact on this area will be an issue as we move forward.
From your experience, what are the differences in how domestic Luxembourg companies, international companies and the Luxembourg governmental bureaucracies perceiving and reacting to this crisis?
There are a lot of commonalities in how companies, local and international, and the government have reacted – clear communication, bold and quick decisions together with a focus on people and safety. The primary difference I’ve noticed is with certain of the International firms where the response has been very much globally driven, leading to a much more restrictive approach locally. On my part, I have valued the ability to act as we think fit locally whilst receiving guidance and support from my global network to ensure a much more responsive approach to the needs of our people.
Just to come back on the government response – I think it is easy sometimes to forget the amazing work that has been done over the past 12 months by the various public bodies and government. In responding to this question, I asked my team to summarize the key measures that have been taken by our government since the start of the pandemic – and I received a 2-page bullet point summary with measures ranging from the large scale testing, through short-term business support to longer term programs and incentives to “build back better”. As for all of us in business, not everything was perfect, but the scale, scope and bold nature of what has been done over the past 12 months is an example to other nations and something we should all be proud of here in Lux.
Going forward, what are your recommendations for relaunching the economy?
Luxembourg should ensure it is doing what the businesses are doing – recognise the key drivers of global change which were existing before the crisis; onboard the lessons learnt through COVID of moving quickly and at scale on bold decisions; and take the advantage now of reinventing what the future might be. Critical areas of focus for me would be around the talent and upskilling agenda; digitizing Luxembourg in all that we do; and taking smart steps to enhance the attractiveness of “Lux Inc”, focusing on what we want Lux to be famous for going forward. Importantly in getting there is the targeted approach of government to supporting companies with an eye to the future and we need to ensure an ever-increasing focus on investment and building confidence for the future over and above managing the present. But most importantly – take advantage of our privileged situation and the agile and collaborative mindset we have to make the changes we need.
What advice would you give to your newest employees to help them as they seek to develop their careers?
In a firm like PwC, we have a vast array of opportunities for our new joiners across a whole host of specialisms. So, point number 1 is to be curious – take the time to see what’s done, to exchange and be interested in everything the firm is doing – and thus to (hopefully) find your passion. My credo for all at PwC works equally well for new joiners – Dream Big, Work Hard and Have Fun. Dream Big – there are so many fantastic things we do and can do – we have the best clients anyone could hope for, we are active in our communities and we are constantly searching for how to bring more value to both – the world is the limit !! But to succeed and make the most out of your time at PwC, will take commitment and a lot of hard work. And, if you get it right, you really will have fun when you come to work – and by fun, I don’t mean having a joke every now and again, I mean truly enjoying and finding purpose in what you do – and coming to the office with a smile and a spring in your step !
Are there any other questions you would have liked us to ask you that we have not thought of and, if so, would you please answer them?
What are my views of the future? Am I optimistic for the months and years to come?
My short answer is – hugely. 1stly, from a business perspective – our latest Global CEO survey shows a significant increase in business confidence and related investment in technology and people – both globally and here in Lux (where our last data set for Lux was 2019). Aside from the pure business opportunity, the seismic shift we are witnessing into sustainable business – in terms of climate and more broadly – is a massive positive as we reshape the relationship and responsibility of business to our broader society. Having said this, this optimism is tinged with the very real fear and uncertainty that exists in the minds of many people of all ages. We have witnessed a disruption to our ecosystem not seen since the war and the personal impact on people and their livelihoods – ranging from school leavers through to those much more advanced in their career – is something we cannot overestimate. Its thus critically important that as we build back – and this is my final note of optimism/hope – that the sustainable growth imperative we now see, combined with our shared experience, ensures a fairer more people-centric growth agenda and starts to minimise the disconnect and divisiveness we have witnessed over recent years in society more broadly and thus herald a new era in how we all work together.