Many think that virtual operations will be a feature of the post-pandemic world, and if it is, one benefit could be talent management.
One speaker at the forum noted that the pandemic and remote working had allowed his firm to broaden the search for talent away from the major financial centers.
The move to remote has also improved buy-in from younger hires, drawing them more into meetings and making them feel more a part of the conversation. They also tend to be in favor of a more flexible work environment, which should also make it possible – even desirable in some instances – to hire outside of expensive, major financial centers, panelists said.
Other speakers noted that many LP meetings, fundraising events, due diligence processes and other processes would continue to be virtual, with exceptions. Several speakers noted that clients are now asking for in-person meetings, and that while off-site networking has some cost-savings advantages, a hybrid of the two will likely appear in the coming months.
Panelists said they were searching for technology that would make it possible to integrate those meetings where people were showing up in person as well as online. One mentioned Owl cameras as a good option, as they can be used on multiple platforms.
But all in, the virtual experience appears to have been a positive one for many in the CFO community. For one speaker, it was a necessity. “I think there’s going to be a step back in productivity” when people return to the office, the panelist said. “I haven’t worked this hard in 25 years of my career. There’s no way we could have gotten through the last 15 months with the added commute.”
The coming months will require further transition to a new hybrid model of work for many, with potentially major changes for many firms’ operational models as a result.
The key to success, one panel concluded, was to achieve buy-in for major change from senior partners, rather than address troubles resulting from new processes as they arise. One of the panelists noted that he held a quarterly meeting with the top principals focusing on the broad direction of firm growth.
Finding the right balance
Some private equity firms look to Labor Day to open fulltime, though they plan to attempt to blend remote work to maintain a strong corporate culture.
At issue will be the apprenticeship-style of mentoring that has grown up with private equity.
While panelists at the forum agreed that the covid-19 pandemic has produced salutary results and resiliency from the necessity of working at home, some worried about the ability of maintaining an atmosphere that allows for informal mentoring at private equity firms.
Unplanned encounters, several panelists concluded, were important for maintaining a strong sense of participation and the development of junior staff.
But flexibility seemed to be important for achieving the best results and for maintaining the best talent, in the view of some panelists.
“I haven’t worked this hard in 25 years of my career. There’s no way we could have gotten through the last 15 months with the added commute”
One firm reported that their deal team preferred a four-day work week, with the option of working remotely one day a week. Administrative staff at the same firm said they would like to see a three-day work week with two days of remote work. Mondays and Tuesdays seemed to be the most important days for office work, according to some panelists.
Necessity has forced the industry to ramp up to changes much more quickly than would have evolved under normal conditions, the panel agreed. What has emerged is a newfound sensitivity of fund leaders to the wellbeing and morale of employees. Such concerns were rarely voiced prior to the pandemic, according to one panelist.
The industry is now better prepared to accommodate work from home. Before the pandemic, board rooms were the only places wired for remote attendance. Now firms say they have wired multiple conference rooms to service off-site participation.
One panelist suggested that to expect a return to pre-pandemic five-day week office life was “not realistic,” but that firms will have to wrestle with integrating off-site work into the culture.
Several panelists reported that offices have already opened with voluntary attendance. Some have been experimenting with going mask-free with employees voluntarily declaring that they had been vaccinated. Several firms say that they still maintain masks and sanitary equipment for the comfort of the staff, often requiring staff to vouch for visitors that they bring from the outside into firm meetings.
Much depends upon the regulations of countries and the various cities as they come out of lockdown. Temperature testing and personal protection equipment is still being required by firms in some cities.
Another panelist noted how some firms have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to successfully move to a paperless system, something that would have taken years to accomplish without the pandemic.
The real question underlying most of the discussion was to what extent talent would demand to keep working outside of the office? Also, panelists wondered how much remote work would factor in future hiring decisions, particularly for firms trying to attract more women and thereby increase gender diversity.
As one panelist remarked that private equity firms have had to answer a fundamental question: What is the purpose of the office? Is it to meet clients, to encourage informal interaction so critical to mentoring in the apprenticeship model, or some combination of other factors?
Some panelists remarked how their cultures became stronger because of the pandemic. Still others welcomed the return to work, tiring of the incessant Zoom meetings and relishing the informal communications that happen by chance through interactions in the office.
“What do I expect to get out of my day at the office?” is a question one panelist suggested that most returnees will have to ask themselves as we move to full-time office opening.
Companies are also examining their own internal preparedness in case another covid-like crisis arises in the coming months or years.