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A Brave New World – How GWA Adapted to a Different Way of Working

Cast your mind back to February 2017. Remember those halcyon days of summer holidays abroad, meeting your mates for a pint after work on Friday, having your grandchildren to stay for the weekend ….

At Greaves West & Ayre we were excitedly relocating our Berwick staff from six premises under one roof at our brand new Walkergate office. It was no mean feat of organisation and a move that was intended to meet increasing technological changes and futureproof our business. Job done for 25 years – or so we naively thought!

Roll on three years and a global pandemic meant we had to make another seismic shift from running the business from our offices in Haddington, Berwick and Bournmoor to operating out of 90 spare rooms, home offices and kitchen tables across the country.

With some time to reflect, we thought we would speak to a few people who were instrumental in orchestrating GWA’s new way of working and get their take on this historic year.

Managing Partner, Colin Frame, became aware of COVID-19 in January 2020 and began to monitor the situation. However it wasn’t until a trip to Italy for a Six Nations Rugby match in February that he began to appreciate the scale of the threat and that it was going to have widereaching impacts. On his return he and the other GWA Partners stepped up their contingency plans.

At GWA we have endeavoured to be at the forefront of the digital revolution within the accountancy profession. We installed our first computer over 50 years ago, were early adopters of Cloud Accountancy software and developed a team of qualified IT engineers that support our own operations and provide managed IT services to clients in over 30 locations nationwide. The significant investment in equipment, time and training we made when both designing and moving to the Walkergate building and also to facilitate the efficient running of the business systems across our Haddington, Berwick and Durham offices laid a good foundation for the move to remote working. Even so, delays in the supply of extra equipment that was needed and the rapidly changing domestic COVID-19 situation meant we were still caught off guard when PM Boris Johnston made his lockdown announcement on 23rd March 2020.

After conferring with fellow Partners the first thing Colin did was to announce via all  communication channels that from 24 March offices would be closed until further notice, all staff should stay at home and clients should get in touch with Partners via email. In actual fact, through tremendous team work and co-operation, most staff were up and running from their home workstations within one day providing GWA clients with business “almost” as usual. For a few people – mainly students, trainees and admin staff – working at home wasn’t viable in the first lockdown so 17 members of staff were put on furlough.

Colin, a harbinger of the importance of effective communication to the running of any successful business, now had to stand on his principles. He says “For me it quickly became all  about making sure people had proper information so they weren’t speculating saying “What Ifs?”’.  For the next few weeks he was thrown into a frenzy of acquiring, disseminating and sharing ever evolving information with fellow Partners, clients and staff; making fast decisions, communicating them to the relevant parties and providing as much reassurance as he was able to.

“Clients turned to us as trusted advisers. We were acting not just as chartered accountants but as a listening ear and a counsellor”. comments Colin. “Likewise when it came to the staff, it was all about communication.” A communication strategy was put in place that became a well-oiled machine with regular updates to clients and daily briefings to staff.

When asked what would have helped him negotiate those first few weeks Colin said “My biggest stress was becoming close to being completely overwhelmed with requests that needed a response from me – I would have liked to be able to clone myself several times over.” And any positives to take from the situation? “Some of the processes we have put in place for working and communicating will stay after we return to the office – the weekly staff briefing, Perkbox, webinars.”

For Practice Manager Andrew Colls, the hardest job was trying to work out how to put measures in place to keep the skeleton staff still based at our offices safe. Prior to official guidelines being released in May, he was constantly searching for information, reading updates and trying to learn how the virus was transmitted in order to make decisions.

On a personal level he didn’t see his partner, a key worker at Rotherham General Hospital, for 12 weeks which was very difficult. He is pleased though that GWA has managed to keep running throughout without a single positive case of COVID-19 in our offices.

Neil Forrest heads up GWA’s IT team. From the early days of the pandemic he started to prepare for the eventuality of staff working from home. As mentioned earlier, one of the problems, which is ongoing due to a huge increase in demand, is accessing the necessary equipment at a reasonable price. To meet the shortfall, the team had to quickly refurbish and repurpose various items that had been ‘retired’ from service.

Neil believes that the move, although busy and stressful at the time, was actually pretty efficient and this is down to a long term investment by GWA in good quality modern technology and systems. In the same way the team was able to support most of its clients through a smooth rollout to home working because of good working relationships developed over the preceding years.

Microsoft Teams was introduced initially to provide phone connectivity between everyone working from home. The use of Teams has grown and is now used extensively for video calls as well as staff keeping in touch with each other socially.

As work restrictions have rolled on and the majority of staff continue to work remotely, GWA has upgraded its connectivity to a Gigabit. Neil says that GWA will continue to strategically invest in the most appropriate IT systems, equipment and training to support our services in this digital age.

There have been many changes to working practices since our Head of Accounts, David Black, joined GWA 38 years ago. However, nothing compares to the scale and immediacy of the 24 hour shift to remote shift working last March.

Like Andrew, David has been one of the few team members who has remained in Walkergate in order to facilitate everyone else working from home. David’s role has been hugely logistical, ensuring staff have enough work and support and systems are in place so the correct physical and electronic client records get to whoever needs them. GWA has been moving towards a paperless system for a while now, but in order to communicate with colleagues remotely and because not everyone had access to printers and scanners we switched to a fully electronic working paper system literally overnight.

Although David is extremely proud of how the team has adapted, he misses the office buzz and camaraderie and is looking forward to seeing everyone back and resuming Friday night drinks at the pub.

Angela Bruce and Lesley Clark are responsible for HR within GWA as well as providing HR  services to some of our clients. We asked them what challenges they encountered as they supported the team over lockdown.

“Keeping people feeling like they are still a part of a team – motivated, supported and focused – when most are working from home is not so easy. We decided to make internal and external communication our top priority and used multiple channels.”

One of the issues concerning us all during lockdown is how to maintain good mental and physical health and wellbeing. Each week an informative email is sent to all staff on a theme such as seasonal disorder, anxiety,  motivation or resilience. We also introduced a challenge that was designed to hopefully be fun and engage people in some sort of physical activity. We began several months ago, starting in Bournmoor, County Durham and each week virtually visit places of interest, ending up at our Haddington offices via Berwick of course. People joined in by completing the distance between each stage in a variety of ways: on a treadmill, walking their dogs, climbing the stairs, cycling or however they choose. Photos and comments on our Teams site have allowed us all to share in each other’s journey along the way. The response has been terrific and it looks like we will be doing a second challenge after we reach Haddington!

When Christmas came around we had to come up with some new ideas for celebrating virtually and keeping everyone’s spirits up. We decided to mark the 12 days in the run up to Christmas with a new and fun activity. Each day brought with it quizzes, competitions, a virtual bingo evening and virtual team get-togethers along with a range of themes and seasonal prizes. We also participated in the Berwick window display organized by the Chamber of Commerce and our admin staff did an amazing job with their interpretation of ‘Jingle Bells’. Although lockdown over 2020 and 2021 has been hard for us all we have learned new ways to overcome distance and keep in touch.”

A closing message  to our clients is that when we say we are with you through thick and thin, we really mean it. We hope we have been able to demonstrate that to  you over the last 12 difficult months and we look forward to sharing in calmer times ahead.
Thank you for your support. 

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