[COVID-19] How this CA firm with 125 plus employees is handling Work From Home & Delayed Client Collections
- Hi, I am Lalit Valecha co-founder of a leading CA firm Ahuja Valecha and Associates LLP.
- In 2005, I quit my awesome job at PWC to co-found this firm with Deepak Ahuja. Today we are 6 partners and 4 Directors, with a team size of 125+, with offices in Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Dubai.
- We firmly believe that with every challenge we have to reinvent ourselves and our services.
- Also, the early adoption of Technology saved a great deal of time and helped us in the continuous provision of services even when working 100% from home.
- Here is how we are dealing with COVID-19, WFH, delayed client collections, the challenges (and opportunities) it presents for CA and consulting firms.
Reacting to COVID-19 and 100% work from home
Firstly, we are fortunate that my founding Partner Deepak Ahuja and Prithvesh Ashar are keenly interested in technology.
Over the years they have helped the office adopt and adapt to technological changes, which has enabled us to improve efficiency, remove redundancies through automation also standardize practice across various departments.
And in crucial times like this, technology played a great role!
When we got to know about the increase in the numbers of COVID-19 cases and how other countries were reacting to contain the spread of the virus, we realized that it was just a matter of time that India too would announce a lockdown!
Thus, as a part of our Business Continuity Planning, we decided that our entire team would work from home for an entire week on a trial basis in case a lockdown was announced!
So, from March 13th, 2020 (before the lockdown), all of us started working from home.
In the first 2 days of the BCP plan, we realized that there were some concern areas.
Accordingly, all the team members assembled to brainstorm and address the concern...and immediately the following week a complete lockdown was announced.
So that extra one week helped us figure things out and later when the actual lockdown was announced we were able to work quite smoothly from home.
Setting rules and adapting ‘WFH’ for a team of 125 plus
Since we did a 'mock work from home' way before the lockdown, we realized we had to have a set of rules (as well as ensure a few things) for our huge team of 125+ working from home.
The following Practices helped us cope with 100% WFH:
- Ensuring that every team member has proper access to data on the cloud server.
- Team to start working as per normal working hours and is well connected from their respective homes over various applications.
- We implemented a Pizza team concept ensuring that each Pizza team is very well integrated. The team leader managed all escalations to ensure smooth functioning.
- All teams had three calls during the day one in the morning, one mid-day and one at the end of the day
- We requested the team not to work in pajamas.
- Since we work in collaboration across various function teams, continuous communication plays a key role. We ensured that each team has a coordinator to ensure minimum incidents of break-in communication!
- Reviewing the work executed on a real-time basis by team members and the senior. In our case, all data is effectively stored on inhouse customized application EDQM (Engagement Documentation and Quality Management tool).
- Keeping our clients informed. We ensured that the respective client was sensitized about work from home, along with that our IT administration and tools ensured data security and confidentially.
Challenges we face when 'WFH' and how we deal with it
We have quite a few numbers of corporate clients hence almost 60% of our workforce work from the clients' location.
So over the years, we are used to managing the team remotely.
Furthermore, we already had a Work From Home (WFH) policy where the female workforce could work from home for a few days in a month.
But obviously 'remote working', and 'selected work from home' is quite different from a 100% complete WFH concept.
Listed below are a few challenges we face and how we tried to work around this situation:
1.Trouble managing time
- We all understand that there is a lot of distraction at home like dishes, laundry, children and spouses, etc. It is easy to lose focus, plus there is no over the shoulder accountability to keep one off social networking websites!
- Our approach to solving the problem: We implemented that the team will start the day with a meeting and everyone is aware of the day's task and focused on daily targets.
- Out here, the in-house developed tool Insightful played a key role to keep a track of the tasks!
- With no commute or way to leave office, it can be hard to separate work and personal life which can be stressful!
- Our approach to solving the problem: During team huddles, we ensured that the team is given tasks so there is a balance! To relieve the stress we also did plan a few team activities and started a lot of training (upskilling our team!).
- To mention we have conducted 7 inhouse team training in the last 3 weeks also 30+ team members have taken up various certificate courses with the objective of reskilling.
3. Team communication feels fragmented
- When the entire team is working from a remote location, the team starts to miss the impromptu lunches, coffees breaks.
- Our approach to solving the problem: We used communication and collaboration tools including teams for chatting, audio/ video calling, we also use Share point for collaborative documentation.
4. Technology may fail you in WFH
- Office/ client internet connections are superior that the home internet and hence may not be as reliable. This can be a major problem as the internet speed cannot meet the requirements of the job.
- Our approach to solving the problem: We realized this issue during our BCP before the lockdown, so we ensured to provide appropriate internet connection plans to the respective team members!
5. Clients are not visible and the disconnect can work against you
- It’s a famous saying out of sight out of mind.
- Our approach to solve the problem: We stayed connected with the client over video calls, along with phone calls and that ensured regular updates are being shared with the client on the progress of each engagement.
- We also went ahead with a few online webinars for a select set of clients providing a practical solution to the problems they are facing.
6. Unclear Performance Metrics
- By what standards does your boss — even if that’s you — measure your job performance?
- Our approach to solving the problem: We have defined OKRA for each team basis where the performances are measured. Having said that, measurement becomes a problem when you are offline, here we introduced 'a start rating at task level' in the 'Insightful task management tool' we have.
7. Reduced Supervision & Direction
- People love to crib about their bosses. But bosses serve a crucial purpose, providing direction and supervision and feedback!
- Our approach to solving the problem: Daily calls with the team lead followed up with a weekly team huddle that helps us monitor the work progress.
8. Lose count of days
- We tend to lose the count of days in WFH in a lockdown situation. Normally it is Monday, Tuesday, etc. now it yesterday, today and tomorrow.
- Our approach to solving the problem: We ensured that work is well planned and the team gets to take the smaller breaks/ even engage in an informal conversation with teammates on the office communication tools.
- We as leaders also reached out to the family of our team members and reminded them that we as a firm we stand strong alongside them.
Impact of COVID-19 on our business
The real effects of the Covid19 lockdown will be experienced after the lockdown period. However, there are areas of practice that are impacted as a matter of cascading effects on various industries.
And Clients not paying is a real challenge!
So presently, the economic slow down certainly has impacted the overall cash flow of our business! Here is where 'Diversification' in service offering had helped us in de-risking.
If the practice is well-diversified one or the other areas of practice helps you survive. For example in our case, we have a mix of clients - large corporates and even funded Startups.
The diversification helps us keep the collection ticking. So diversification can be in terms of areas of practice or in terms of geographies – but you need to diverse to de-risk!
Having said that we too have seen a lot of our corporate clients conserve cash and defer payments. So in short, our payments our slow but not lost hence we are coming up with ways how to improve efficiency and also manage cash flows.
Opportunities for CA & consulting firms post lockdown
We will have to relook into the various areas of practice and see if this is value add or recession-free.
We internally have already identified various areas of practice that needs more focus on automation and standardization. I see the following opportunities post the lockdown:
- To support local businesses, various countries have announced various a lot of stimulus or fiscal announcements. This is where a CA firm comes into play to appraise the clients and support them avail such benefits.
- A lot of clients will now need support for cash management and cost control measures, another area of service for the firm. This also throws up various internal restructuring opportunities for corporates in the form of internal group M&A.
- As the valuations of most of the companies are its all-time low, we could see a lot of consolidation taking place in a lot of manufacturing companies. This opens up a lot of avenue from transaction advisory, tax advisory, legal advisory, Diligence support perspective for sure.
- One could see a lot of insolvency cases post the lockdown is lifted. This time cash can be used to reskill and take up new areas of practice in the field of Insolvency and restructuring.
- Project financing will see a lot of requirements as even traditionally stable businesses may need to go for additional or new limits.
- A lot of companies will start looking at small and medium-sized CA firms (with good quality service) as an alternative to Big 4 which are high in costs. Hence small and medium-sized CA firms should start making their presence visible.
- Giving time to firms - To Build your Online Presence, create online educational training to demonstrate your expertise in the domain area etc.
The conventional way of running a CA firm will certainly be replaced with modern trends. We will see a lot of firms adopt technology also come up with new offerings.
In short, there are only two ways to survive the tide:
- Have a sustainable service offering which is well-diversified
- Look for new offerings that can be a new better version of yourself.
They provide a range of services with a clear vision of 360-degree services offering, which includes assurance, risk advisory, tax, and regulatory services, GST, UAE VAT, international tax, virtual CFO, share service accounting, valuations, startup advisory, secretarial compliance, and financial reporting services.
You can find more about the firm on our website www.ahujavalecha.in.
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