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What’s on the agenda for professional services in 2021?

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automation, professional services, resource management, wellbeing
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Okay, we’ll admit it; 2020 wasn’t all that great. As such, we’re of a mind to leave the past where it is and instead look ahead to 2021. After all, it can’t be much worse, can it? 

And, as a new year gift to you as we scan the major trends that will affect business growth, productivity, and profitability across professional services, we’ve hereby banned the following clichés: “disruption”; “new normal”; “the only certainty is uncertainty” and “unprecedented times”.

(I don’t know about you, but we’d quite like to experience some precedented times for a bit, thanks.) 

With that said, what will professional services leaders be concentrating on in 2021? Above and beyond the horrors of the last 12 months, professional services is changing as a profession, and certain trends, such as a greater demand for automation, the importance of agility and workplace wellness have only been amplified by the pandemic. 

Automation, automation, automation

Busy partners don’t want to be stuck messing with timesheets or poring over availability spreadsheets at the best of times. Yet when the pandemic struck this is what many found themselves doing. Covid-19 brutally exposed the weaknesses and limitations of persisting with manual processes for mapping resources. 

The good news is, forward-thinking firms already got the memo; a new report from Deloitte, based on a poll of 441 executives from 29 different countries, found that two-thirds of business leaders (68 percent) used automation to tackle the coronavirus crisis. That’s 20% more than the year prior.

When the crunch comes, and clients need all the attention you can give them and more, intelligent automation reduces risk and creates the most valuable commodity of all inside a team; capacity. 

Adoption at scale of automated resource management and mapping software is the next step for firms who have already made the leap, because future market shocks don’t seem so distant when we’re all still trying to plot a path out of the present mess.

Deloitte previously projected in 2018 that robotic process automation (RPA) will hit nearly universal adoption in the business world at some point in 2023. If you’re not on board with automation in some form or another by now, it’s not too late, but the ship is gearing to leave the harbour. 

Remote working, remote leadership

For accountants, auditors and consultants, perhaps more so than other professions, physically being there for the client is the backbone of the business relationship. Working onsite for unspecified amounts of time, endless travel, all-nighters, these are things we just do. 

Except for the most part in 2020, that was all cancelled. For 2021 (and the optimistic hope of a return to some sense of normality), the question is how will firms decide to transition back? There is strong evidence working from home improves productivity, offers a better work-life balance, and beyond that, is becoming a desirable option for attracting and retaining talent. Can this model work in professional services, a profession where newer employees have to learn from their superiors by observing?

It may be the case that a split occurs, where on-site staff benefit from the closeness of relationships forged by a shared location, and remote staff fail to build connections that can lead to extra work. 

A new kind of leadership will be required for firms to bridge this divide and succeed in the era of remote working, where a more holistic and agile view of your staff is necessary to build a stronger team. 

Wellbeing’s not going anywhere

Historically, professional services has been associated with burnout and high job turnover, but the year ahead may go some way to changing that.  

The Deloitte 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report revealed wellbeing was the top-rated trend in business. Some 80% of the nearly 9,000 of respondents think measures that help people feel their best so they can work effectively are central to their organisation’s future success. For companies to survive and thrive, they must reshape their organisations around the care of their talent. 

Concern for employee wellbeing was on the agenda long before the pandemic, and is now arguably more important than ever. Around the world, people are dealing with anxiety, grief, burnout from having to cover from depleted teams, and the difficulties that come with the blurring lines between home and work. 

Emotional support is usually the domain of HR, but there are numerous examples of modern practice managers and other C-suite executives championing mental health and wellbeing within their teams each day.  

As intelligent resourcing is progressively adopted, having a live view of projects, feeding back who needs a rest, who is kicking their heels, and who may need someone to check in on them is not just “nice to have”, but essential for an organisation to succeed in a demanding industry.

Managing engagements this way prevents burnout, boosts employee happiness, makes younger talent more likely to stick around, and is proven to have a positive effect on the bottom line. 

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