Interview by Ângela Santos, Board Member and responsible for talent management at Ábaco Consulting, for Human: [PT only] https://www.human.pt/2020/04/29/a-abaco-sempre-conviveu-com-a-mudanca-e-a-flexibilidade-e-e-uma-empresa-que-se-adapta-rapidamente/
How have you managed these pandemic times at Abaco, namely with regard to employees?
Initially, and following the recommendations of the General Directorate of Health and the detection of cases in Porto, Abaco Consulting sought from an early to carry out all actions that could minimize any risk to its own and to the community. We started by canceling our winter kick-off event (it was scheduled for March 6th); and we recommended to all employees the sanitary measures now widely known, as well as avoiding physical or very close contact and bimetric systems. Even before the social isolation recommendations, we had already recommended that they avoid face-to-face meetings, opt for forms of distance communication and teleworking. If we needed to travel on business, do it in our own car or rental, avoiding public transport; not to put others at risk unnecessarily; and placement of hand sanitizer in all rooms.
On the other hand, we informed all customers and partners that these measures were taken and that Abaco employees were advised not to physically participate in meetings, conferences, events, work teams, etc. All work should be done remotely, using collaborative tools.
In the meantime, we implemented the immediate waiver of attendance and placed a teleworking regime on all employees. The exception was the guarantee of minimum services at the company’s headquarters, in Porto, where only one worker was placed each day, among the administrative team, at the same time, on a rotating basis. And the entire training offer to the market, made through Abaco Academy, was adapted to the virtual classroom.
These measures were aimed at reducing the risk of our employees and their families, our partners and the community in general. They also aimed at adapting to a new reality, which allows the continuity of the provision of services to our customers, with quality and rigor, during the duration of the epidemic.
Remote work was therefore one of the solutions …
This format of remote work has always existed at Abaco, since we believe that it is very important to have flexibility within an organization and to allow some mobility and decision-making power for employees. Thus, since always that, for personal or professional reasons, employees have been able to work, on time or as a rule, in teleworking. However, with the exponential increase in cases, we have obviously moved to the extended contingency plan, in which we ask all employees to work from home, in order to reduce the spread of contagions.
Abaco sought from an early age to carry out all actions that could minimize any risk to its own and to the community. We started by canceling our winter kick-off event (it was scheduled for March 6th); and we recommended to all employees the sanitary measures that are well known today.
Globally, how has the experience of remote work been at the institution?
Abaco has always lived with change and flexibility and is a company that adapts quickly. Remote work was already a reality for everyone (fortunately, we live in an era that allows us access to the technology that facilitates it), and the transition has been fast and peaceful. However, it was essential to create new communication channels and increase this communication with customers and partners, as it is essential that they realize that we continue to support and help them in whatever they need. It was also very important to increase communication between the teams: to find work methodologies that help in the coordination and visibility of the tasks of each one. Looking for the dematerialization of all processes in the company where possible, was another challenge that we tried to overcome with the collaboration of our partners (100% electronic invoicing, 100% digital financial flows, 100% digitization of expenses, etc.).
However, it is a fact that, since we are all at a distance, we resort to telephone calls or meetings via Teams much more often, which, in a way, takes up more of our time. In this context, we ask our entire team to reinforce their attention / availability for customer and partner issues that may, however, arise. Our priority at this point is to ensure the continuity of clients’ projects, and to look for new business opportunities. Now, more than ever, all consultants must feel part of the sales team.
Mesmo já antes havendo trabalho remoto, foi necessário implementar algo em particular?
Abaco, as a result of the services it provides, has always had teams working in the office remotely connected to some of its customers, as well as some employees who already worked from home, in support activities in a nearshore model. Therefore, we already had some software tools, systems and communication infrastructures to support remote work, which allowed us to face this situation in a faster and more proactive way, immediately placing our employees in the home office. Those who habitually did, immediately shared good practices with the rest.
On the other hand, we feel the need to increase communication between the teams: to find work methodologies that help in the coordination, visibility and support for the development of each one’s tasks.
However, as this is a mandatory global confinement, and with the closure of schools and daycare centers, the main difficulty for our people has been to combine professional activities with the family issue. Who is a parent, needs flexibility to dedicate time to their children. This forced us to think of alternatives to fit the situation of people, since Social Security does not support these parents (due to the fact that their work can be done remotely; whether or not people are able to do it) , is something that does not fit into the equation). Some people have moved forward with the request for a new part-time contractual framework, for example, on a temporary basis.
Another difficulty that this situation brought was the families’ lack of means to have all people in the household with access to their work, in quotation marks: adults and children. We immediately made laptops available to our employees. And we created initiatives to collect donations and used laptops that we refurbished to deliver to families in need.
How many employees are involved now?
Right now, 100% of our employees are in remote work. This also includes our offices outside Portugal.
What reactions have there been?
It is a more uncomfortable situation for some than for others, obviously. Although our employees have a positive attitude, as a general rule, and understanding of this situation, they are obviously concerned, as are all of us. However, we are making every effort to overcome this crisis. At the moment, there are no cases of infection at Abaco, because everyone is following the recommendations. But this situation cannot continue indefinitely.
Of course, we are all concerned about the future. There are clear signs that a crisis is coming. We must ensure the well-being of people and provide guidance on the best way to resume the activity. To act responsibly, to avoid being a vehicle of transmission to others, to protect ourselves, but to try to learn to live with the conditions that the pandemic has created. It will be up to healthy adults to rebuild the economy and gradually resume the economy. Essential sectors, perishable goods, health, social support and those who support these sectors, should gradually resume their activity.
In addition, we will have to seek to effectively control the outbreaks that arise to create confidence in the economy again. Finding ways to quickly test people, find out the results and find the track of contacts with infected people, will be essential. And social support will have to be for groups at risk, infected people who cannot work, who has dependents in their care, unemployed. Finally, the most fragile in normal situations and the most fragile specifically for this reason.
At Abaco, remote work was already a reality for everyone, and the transition has been rapid and peaceful. However, it was essential to create new communication channels and increase this communication with customers and partners, as it is essential that they realize that we continue to support and help them in whatever they need.
Is Abaco in any way preparing the return to the normal activity?
In addition to all the health and social measures already listed, we are now looking for economic and financial measures that will allow us to keep the lights on for as long as possible. These measures will involve cost and investment restraint, but above all because they seek to develop opportunities with our customers. We have to work with them.
We want to keep everyone “on the boat” with us, it will be a collective effort. But, obviously, we do not control developments in the situation. What people know is that we are working hard to preserve the Abaco that everyone helped to build, with the same old values.
The future is being prepared taking into account the reflection on what we have learned in this period. We learned that some paradigms are going to change. We know that there are people who will want to continue telecommuting and others who will prefer to return to physical contact. And still others who prefer to work in a mixed way.
We all learned that there are many more things that work well remotely than we had imagined. And we have to prepare for the recovery based on this learning. There are tiring, expensive trips, with an impact on the environment, which we will surely stop doing. There are methodologies and tools for working and collaborating with the client that make remote work equally productive. We will probably be able to recruit people with very different geographical bases. People will be able to choose other lifestyles. Living in more distant places, for example. Finding ways to treat those who are present and those who are remote equally will be essential. For example, if we need to set up a meeting and one person is remotely, then everyone should have the meeting as if they were remote. What do we need to change in employment contracts? Personal accident insurance? These are all issues that we have to consider.
Has your business been affected in any way?
Yes, we are not immune to what goes on in the market. Fortunately, we managed to do a high percentage of our work remotely, but we are absolutely dependent on the impact on our customers’ business (Abaco works 100% in a business to business market). We have some customers in risky sectors and the impact is inevitable. We still have a backlog of jobs to ensure normal activity longer, and we are making a commercial effort with our customers to find new ways to be useful. The most immediate impact is on treasury. There are customers who, having not effectively canceled the work, requested renegotiation of payment terms. I believe that this is a difficulty for many companies. We cannot dilute this impact on upstream suppliers (as they do with us), because our service providers are our employees, and we have to pay them at the end of each month.