Beginning in March 2020, our view of the working world changed. The pandemic wrought havoc on all facets of society, taking its toll on lives, jobs, emotional well-being, and leaving wreckage in its wake. Still, we press on, striving to get through this crisis onto a new and better future. Now that hope is blooming in the dawn of the vaccine rollout, we have an opportunity to reflect on the many lessons learned. Let’s consider how we can synthesize the tools and processes that got us through the remote era to better serve our clients and our team.
To craft our better future, we need to first consider what worked and what didn’t work during our pandemic time. I am proud of what Holtzman and our people have achieved during this truly uncommon year, and I am happy to share some highlights with you today.
What Worked Well
The pandemic dropped out of the air and into our collective laps. To protect the health of our team and our clients, we moved immediately to a remote service model. As a tech-enabled services business, our people need the right tools to serve our clients. We had fortunately already moved to paperless auditing. Our hardware and cloud solutions were ready for the move. Further, prior to the pandemic we had joined the City of Austin’s Mobility Challenge, pledging to reduce commute times during peak periods by 20%. This initiative had put us on a path of temporary remote work for most people, and we had geared up for that with new solutions (Zoom, laptop cameras/microphones) to enable everyone to work remotely. In addition to technology, we also tried to make remote more productive by providing a better office chair, dual monitors, and other home office essentials to all team members that wanted them. The feedback we received showed that this was well received.
I always thought we had great team chemistry. We have recruited for team traits, and have adopted the “Ideal Team Player” model (humble, hungry, and smart) that Patrick Lencioni describes so well in his book. Our team has pulled together so many times, in so many ways, that it is impossible to overemphasize how critical this has been to our remote success.
I can cite multiple examples where team members from staff through partner stepped in to assist when someone got sick or had to care for a sick family member. We pulled together to overcome setbacks with no complaints.
The remote experience has expanded our definition of how to deliver top-notch client service. The fundamentals of commitment to our clients and their deadlines, great technical work, and teamwork are unchanged. But HOW we do the work, and WHERE the work gets done have greatly expanded.
Inventory observations is an example of the change. In the past, a team member would physically observe client counts wherever that inventory was located. From a warehouse in Boise to a railyard in Tulsa, we sent someone there to oversee and test count those items. This past year was different. We pivoted to a technology solution to ensure the safety of our teams and clients. Hello facetime, meet auditing. And it worked. This shift helped to save travel time and costs, and kept people safe from COVID-19 exposure.
Beyond finding technical solutions to work remotely, many team members really took to the remote model. Austin traffic in its peak is formidable. Commute times cost many team members hours of unproductive time spent white-knuckling the steering wheel at under 10mph. Remote work gave that time back to everyone. And many made great use of that time. More exercise, more time with family, more time to read, and maybe even work! Remote work made the day more effective for our team and will remain key to our future service delivery plans.
New Business Development Paradigm Shift:
Another huge challenge we have faced is how to develop new relationships and grow new business digitally. We drug our feet in this area at the outset. As time passed, our new marketing leader started to really show her value. Absent of historically reliable business development through face-to-face networking, we needed to vastly improve and amplify our digital presence. This was the only available avenue to share our story, our team, and our value to the market, so we dove in. Enhanced efforts across all of our social media channels, use of better tools (e.g. a modern CRM system, cloud-based proposal and client engagement/experience software, a modern mobile-friendly website), and a commitment from team members to produce meaningful content were all initiatives made critically important by COVID-19 circumstances. We are in a great spot now, but there is still work to do to fully mature our digital presence and client service.
Diversity and Inclusion:
The pandemic has taken such a toll. It continues to bring tragedy to the world. As I look back, perhaps this has made some of us more attuned, open to what is happening in the world, and how we are party to the way that world works. For our firm’s leadership, there was the realization that we were very passive in our commitment to diversity. We have always viewed ourselves as an open and diverse workplace environment. The problem (in our pre-pandemic minds) was not us, but the flow of available candidates. And to be clear here, we are talking about Black candidates. The places we had recruited from did not truly represent our societal mix, but we never really challenged our paradigm. For me personally, the events of summer 2020 challenged me to re-examine not only our firm’s approach, but my own experiences. How did I find success in my life? What critical moments went my way, and why? What people were instrumental in my career path? To jump past deliberations to the conclusion: we needed to proactively seek opportunities to increase our exposure to diverse candidates, and be agents of support for those candidates that want and need our guidance. Our people leader, Luke Childress, wrote a great article summarizing Holtzman’s efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. I encourage you to check it out. Though we have made great strides in this area, our work is still in progress.
What Needs Improvement
This experience has certainly not been perfect. One of my biggest regrets? Communication with the team and our clients has sometimes suffered. As the firm leader, my communication is rightfully scrutinized. Both the content and volume of communications are critical. Without great, crisp, and frequent communications, smart people, heck all people, will build their own narrative. My communication with the team was sufficient, but in my opinion barely so. More communication is the only way to get through challenging periods. Team members may not agree with every decision made by leaders, but it is always better to share the why of those decisions rather than leave people to fill in the blanks with their own theories.
New staff development suffered due to the solitude. We onboarded around 25 people (37, including interns) in this remote timeframe. Many of those team members came straight from school. Training new staff in a remote environment is tough. This is the area where physical presence was most critical. Tending to the development of a new staff’s skills just seems to work better in person. The ability for the staff to have access to knowledge in real-time is hindered when you must hit the chat to set up a Zoom call.
Even in the best of times, inefficiency exists in how we do our work. Remote work in a pandemic wasn’t the best of times. We spent more time on engagements last year, and wrote off more hours than ever before. Lack of perfection in client service was inevitable, really. The psychological and sometimes physical toll this has taken on our team was bound to show up in the numbers, and it did. This was an acceptable loss for our partners, as long as client needs were satisfied, and our team wasn’t overly burdened.
So where do we go from here?
It has been a long year, with some victories and some challenges. But we are moving forward, optimistic about the prospects of 2021 and beyond. What does our future hold?
Remote work is here to stay
We are not going back to a clock-punching mentality. It makes too much sense to embrace a hybrid work model. We are still working on what it is going to look like, but it will be different. We will empower our team to work remotely, requiring presence in the office when it is needed. Those times will include team building, training, and projects that require maximum collaboration. We want the office to be a place that people want to be, but do not HAVE to be there to be successful. It is exciting to think about getting back to a normal cadence.
Diversity and Inclusion
We have embraced the challenge to enhance our diversity, and to do what we can to effect increases in equity. To me, this is truly the best thing to emerge from the pandemic haze. We have more clarity about what needs to change and unity of purpose in making changes.
We embrace the digital future, and will continue to search for ways to streamline our service offerings to make processes easier for our clients and our team. Incorporating AI, better workflow management, better training solutions, and better content for our clients. All these things are on the to-do list.
Communication is Key
We will continue to focus on communication through multiple channels, optimizing the cadence and precision of our knowledge sharing with our clients and team. We will always ask these questions:
- How much is enough?
- How much is too much?
- Are our clients happy?
Striving to improve communications will be a perpetual discipline and an ever-refining target.
Bringing It All Together
Holtzman has endured the challenges of the pandemic and has improved in many ways because of those challenges. There is no finish line, and no victory lap to be taken. As we begin this new chapter, I am optimistic about the future. Our team continues to drive our success, and our commitment to our mission will continue to drive future innovation and change. We may stub our toe along the way, but will learn from those missteps.