Like many businesses, we have recognised the heightened need to manage the safety of our staff. The mental wellbeing of employees has never been challenged in the way it has been over the past 18 months. Australasian Chair, Tony Fittler, shares his thoughts on the staff engagement programs HLB firms have initiated.

Prior to the pandemic, most accounting firms had a strong employee value proposition in place. The response to COVID-19 however forced us to quickly shift the way staff engagement is perceived and executed. Reflecting back on the past 12 months, we strongly believe the changes made has improved the staff experience and created a better organisational culture in the process.

The working from home phenomenon is, unquestionably, here to stay. Before the pandemic, many of HLB Mann Judd’s firms had introduced the concept of remote working and were preparing for the role it would play in the future of working. We were aware of the associated benefits of remote working, including time saved from telecommuting and allowing staff to utilise the time spared elsewhere.

There remained, however, a degree of reticence, with some concerns that increased time spent away from the office would result in a disengaged and unproductive workforce.

These assertions have now proved to be unfounded. We have witnessed that staff have not only been productive working from home, but for some types of work, even more so than in an office. The added benefits that come with flexibility and family time have meant staff are arguably happier in their respective roles and more efficient with their time (lockdowns not withstanding).

With more staff working from home, regular and clear communication has been essential. We have found that an informal approach is beneficial (particularly during periods of lockdown). A manager or partner making an impromptu phone call to check in has been well received by the staff. Our partners and management team also make a point to always answer a call from a staff member, no matter what time of day.

There are of course, more formal engagement initiatives such as videoconferencing calls, as well as weekly (or sometimes daily) intranet and email updates from the managing partner or other leaders in the firm. The ability to record sessions means that our staff can listen at a time that’s most convenient to them.

Managing staff mental health is something that we have always taken very seriously. The pandemic and effects of rolling lockdowns forced us to re-evaluate our staff benefits programs. One such example was giving staff a Recharge Day in lieu of Melbourne Cup Day. Other initiatives included online yoga classes, trivia and group-based activities.

Staff have also been able to access third-party community-based organisations for additional support, if required. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen a marked increase in the take up of support services offered to employees’ network-wide, including via the employee assistance program which extends to their family. While it is concerning that more people are using this program, it reinforces the importance of providing and promoting such initiatives to staff and their families. It also reaffirms that our staff are engaged and prepared to access these types of programs amid such uncertain and unfamiliar times.