How can we support the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace? Alexandra Kane details what it means to be an ally and how it can make a huge difference. “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde The quote above sits among the desks on the fourth floor of the Grant Thornton Dublin building. It’s a poignant reminder and struck me a little differently reflecting on this year’s Pride month. What would it feel like if I couldn’t be myself in the office, that I had to hide a part of my life from my colleagues? What if I were afraid that a part of my life would create a backlash, negative reaction or possible career repercussion? The place we spend most of our time, albeit virtually and on video calls in the current climate, should be one of welcoming and support. To me, as a LGBTQ+ ally, there is not a single reason that anyone should feel that they can’t be who they want to be, who they identify as, and not face any adversity in doing so. In my organisation, there is a huge drive to stand as an ally with our friends and colleagues through our Ally Programme and Embrace initiative. We have marched in the Dublin Pride Parade for the last four years and, took part in BelongTo's ‘Come In’ campaign last year. This initiative flipped ‘coming out’ on its head by promoting the positive message that everyone should be able to come in and feel welcome as they are, rather than having to ‘come out’ as anyone other than themselves. To be an ally An ally can come in many forms, but should always come from a place of support, openness, kindness and ready to do the work. From recent global events in the Black Lives Matter movement, I have learned that it is safe to speak out and say that I didn’t know how to support or say the right things – and that is accepted when it is accompanied by a willingness and promise to learn, educate and support. It’s never too late to educate yourself, even if you have to start at the beginning. Learning about the Stonewall Riots, listening to the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of colour, and asking how you can support others is an important step to allyship. We can never under estimate the power of support in any form that it comes in, be it going for a coffee to listen to someone’s concerns, wearing rainbow colours in solidarity, attending the Pride Parade, and actively showing support to colleagues and friends in the workplace. Some recommended viewing for allies: Disclosure, found on Netflix. I recently attended a webinar ‘The L to A LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA’ which explored the ‘lesser known’ letters of the LGBTQ+ community. It discussed why gender identity and sexuality are intrinsically linked. The key take away I received from the webinar is that language is ever changing and our identity is a personal preference. The pronouns or letters we choose is exactly that: our choice. If being an ally makes one person feel more comfortable, supported and accepted as their true selves, I couldn’t encourage being an active ally more. Alexandra Kane ACA is a Manager in Financial Services Advisory at Grant Thornton, a Grant Thornton Ally and member of the Grant Thornton Ally Programme.

Jun 25, 2020

With no party or march this year, how are businesses showing meaningful support for the Pride movement? John McNamara tell us how can we adapt to actively support the LGBTQ+ community in a virtual space.  So how did you celebrate Pride this year? Yes, we are approaching the end of June, the month where people from all demographics, race, religion and, of course, sexual orientation take to the streets to come together and celebrate acceptance, and agitate for the rights still being fought for. (Unless you live in one of the 73 countries where that is still illegal.) Except, of course, we didn’t march this year thanks to the non-discriminatory nature and reach of COVID-19. Most businesses quickly scrambled to develop virtual programmes to keep staff awareness and engagement alive. Another Zoom call, another webinar, why not? But there are lessons still to be learned that are applicable across the full inclusion agenda, many of which will have the potential for positive enduring business impact. Year-round support Every year there is heated debate on the ‘corporatisation’ of what is, essentially, a protest movement. It will now be very clear which businesses do little else in this space except throw money at Pride parade participation. Now is the time for employees to call out this performative participation in the movement and encourage their organisations to refocus budgets on both active staff collaboration and engagement and support of community organisations throughout the year. LGBTQ+ young people are four times more likely to experience anxiety and depression, three times more likely to experience suicidal ideation and that happens in December as well as June. Creating long-term change If there is no party this year, there is the opportunity to develop meaningful digital messaging, to focus more on staff connection and conversations and to place a stronger focus on advocacy. We have shown more curiosity, shared more of our own lives, and our understanding about our colleagues’ personal circumstances is much deeper than when we sat in the office together. I have heard more conversations on mental health recently than at any time I can think of. The pace of change in many of these issues has historically been too slow. In recent months, however, we have shown our ability to quickly build new business models and our flexibility in remote working. How can we sustain these new ways of working that can, for example, access more women working from home rather than leaving the workforce or accept that highly talented people with neurodiversity need not be present in an office environment to shine in their roles? Intersectionality This year also brings greater awareness of intersectionality which, simply put, means we are complex beings that cannot be defined by one characteristic alone and, depending on the hand you have been dealt, can be disadvantaged by multiple forms of oppression, isolation or exclusion or, conversely, benefit from white privilege. Black Lives Matter is here to stay. The LGBTQ+ community is acutely able to recognise inequality of treatment, that sense of not belonging, and our allyship is evident through activism, protest and sharing the platforms we have through the month and beyond. Do better Most of us do not wish to emerge from this crisis without changing something for the better. We have perfected banana bread, know too much about Joe Wicks and got as far as we could on Duolingo. How about we become proactive in making a personal commitment to ourselves to do more? Become a volunteer, train as a mental health ambassador, develop charity trustee or board experience or become a visible LGBTQ+ ally at work. Do it and you won’t look back. Now that would be something worth celebrating. John McNamara FCA is Managing Director of Canada Life International and a member of the Chartered Accountants Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He is chairperson of the NGO behind SpunOut.ie and 50808.ie, the newly launched free crisis text messaging service funded by the HSE. He a member of the fundraising committee of BelongTo, which supports young LGBTQ+ people.

Jun 25, 2020

To truly embrace diversity, businesses must view inclusion through an intersectional lens. Deborah Somorin explains why this is so important, both personally and professionally. Intersectionality was first coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw back in 1989, and has gained common usage since. According to Womankind Worldwide, a global women’s rights organisation, intersectionality is “the concept that all oppression is linked… Intersectionality is the acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc..”. In 2015, ‘intersectionality’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. What does that mean? While Pride is a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, it is also a protest, and intersectional Pride continues the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as the rights of all marginalised communities in Ireland and around the world. Intersectional Pride Flag You’ll notice the Pride flag on the street and in some corporate Pride logos, such as LinkedIn and Chartered Accountants Ireland, look a little different this year. In 2018, designer Daniel Quasar started a movement to reboot the pride flag to make it more inclusive and representative of the LGBTQ+ rights we are still fighting for. According to Dezeen magazine, “Graphic designer Daniel Quasar has added a five-coloured chevron to the LGBT Rainbow Flag to place a greater emphasis on ‘inclusion and progression’. The flag includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalised LGBT communities of colour, along with the colours pink, light blue and white, which are used on the Transgender Pride Flag. Quasar’s design builds on a design adopted by the city of Philadelphia in June 2017.” Intersectional allyship To quote a recent GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) statement: “There can be no Pride if it is not intersectional”. If we want to celebrate Pride in our profession in an inclusive way, we must make an intentional effort to celebrate intersectional Pride. If Pride doesn’t include the acknowledgement of other marginalised other communities, it is performative. The LGBTQ+ movement doesn’t need performative allies – it needs authentic allies who care about making the communities we work and live in more inclusive of all races, genders, class, physical advantage and sexual orientations. I’m a gay, black woman who happens to be a Chartered Accountant. If your organisation or community is choosing not to view inclusion through an intersectional lens, you are unintentionally choosing not to include people like me. Deborah Somorin ACA is a Management Consultant at PwC, a member of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Diversity and Inclusion Committee and founder of Empower the Family.

Jun 25, 2020

Allies play a crucial role in the careers of LGBTQ+ people. Daniel Turley explains the difference they can make to an LGBTQ+ individual’s working environment. “I moved to Dublin with my girlfriend.” I had just started a job in a Big Four accounting firm, and that was my answer to intrigued colleagues that wanted to learn a bit more about the new guy at work. To anyone that knew me outside of work, this was very clearly not true. For one, I didn’t have a girlfriend; two, I am a gay man. However, when faced with a meeting room of partners, managers, and rugby lads, I choked – I didn’t want to give so much away about myself so soon. Saying “my boyfriend” seemed too controversial and “partner” would be a dead giveaway. My experience is not that uncommon – a Vodafone survey conducted by Out Now noted that 78% of LGBTQ+ individuals had hidden their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their life. This was mine. A second coming out Over the coming months, I slowly started to set the record (un)straight. To say that I received a positive reaction is an understatement. The responses were a mix of delight, compassion, and outright confusion – primarily as to why I felt the need to lie in the first place. I wondered that myself. What was clear for me, though, was how lucky I felt. Lucky that I had such a warm reception to my news, and lucky that I worked in a firm that was so supportive of its LGBTQ+ individuals. Management had always made it clear that discrimination would not be tolerated in the firm; however, it was the actions I saw beyond the non-discriminatory practices. I was amazed by the additional support that was on offer – a non-LGBTQ+ partner made efforts to introduce me to other LGBTQ+ leaders in the firm, and significant efforts were made to support LGBTQ+ Pride Month every year. With my firm, I got to walk the Dublin Pride parade, and I did it with a partner in the firm and her kids. Allies When I first joined the firm, the term ‘ally’ was a relatively new concept to me. I hadn’t thought of non-LGBTQ+ individuals in this way until then, but the firm had a network available to LGBTQ+ employees and allies. My experience with the network showed me how much of a difference good allies can make to an LGBTQ+ individual’s working environment. There is no one way for someone to be an LGBTQ+ ally. Allies, like gender, can fall on a spectrum, and all types of ally-ship can be equally valid when coming from the right place. This may take the form of marching in Pride parades, actively identifying and removing discriminatory practices from office culture or wearing rainbow colours. However, I also see significance in quieter forms of ally-ship. Some of the most poignant experiences I have had in the workplace have come from conversations with colleagues who aren’t necessarily familiar with the concept of what it meant for me to be gay. Allies have been there to share their experiences, speak of their LGBTQ+ family members and provide understanding. They have also been there to course correct conversations when necessary. These conversations have proven to be insightful, thoughtful and – most importantly – respectful. (They have also proven to be low-key hilarious. One fella still can’t believe that I am not physically attracted to Kelly Brook, but he’s getting there.) I’ve since moved to a different organisation. This time around, I was gay from the first moment it was relevant to the conversation. My confidence going into a new working environment as myself this time and not as a straight man comes from the inclusivity at my first firm in Dublin and the allies I found within it. Daniel Turley is a Financial Accountant in BioMarin and on the Chartered Accountants Ireland Young Professionals committee.

Jun 23, 2020

Differences divide us, and that’s why we need to find the values that unite us, writes Sinead Donovan. It strikes me that, in today’s world, we are constantly putting labels on things or people. We are either male/female, Gen Z/Gen Y, baby boomers, LGBT+/straight. We have the labels of our culture or our creed, and while I am so in favour of diversity, and have pushed the diversity and inclusion concept incredibly hard within my firm and throughout the work I have done in Chartered Accountants Ireland, I sometimes wonder – have we made too many labels? Are we defining ourselves by labels rather than looking for the commonality and the thread that keeps us all together?   It’s not a new concept but, as perhaps I progress in my career and through management, I sometimes think it’s better to look for what binds us together than at what differentiates us. Maybe by finding those common threads it will enable us to be a more holistic family together, despite our gender, culture, religion, or sexual orientation.  So, I suppose the big question is: are there common threads and, if so, what are they? To me, it comes down to people’s beliefs. Fundamentally, underpinning us all, as it does in our professional careers, are the value sets that define us. For us, in our business unit in Grant Thornton, we have identified those values as: Adaptable; Innovative; Passion for what we do; Collaborative; Going the extra mile; Ethical and professional; and Technically knowledgeable. People may have different values they use to identify themselves, but whatever it is, there should be that common link in us all. With Chartered Accountants, it has to be the value set of ethics. These underpin our profession, despite how wide it has become or the labels we have put on each other as accountants: are we forensic accountants, cybersecurity accountants, auditors, tax advisors? Whatever you are, the one item that underpins us all is our code of ethics.  Ethics is taught in the early days of a student’s profession, sits beside us as a professional, and maybe gets looked at once or twice in our career. However, I would urge that the concept of ethics is used more widely to link us together as one family of accountants – be that Chartered Accountants Ireland, ATI, or membership to any other accountancy body. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders, the people we report to, the people who use our knowledge, and the daily work that must be done in an ethical manner.  As a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee in Chartered Accountants Ireland, I am not saying any of the above to absolve ourselves of the need to identify the differences we all face in life. But what I am saying is, maybe sometimes, let’s just celebrate our similarities and, with that, see ourselves as a family of accountants in the first instance and then ensure any differences that we may have are 100% noted, understood, managed and included because, just as in any family, there are different characters, beliefs, and personalities. And, while there are going to be difficulties, there has to be that underlining acceptance of who we are and what we are. To me, it starts on the journey as a student and, I think, that our profession is more open than it may have been when I started. However, I do know that from our work in CA Support, difficulties, prejudice, and unbelievable stress which may not be acknowledged or identified, remain. So, look out for your student members, your newly qualified members, and even look out for the more experienced members who may be going through difficulties in their professional or personal lives. If I can leave you with one thought, let it be this: let us identify the differences, ensure those differences are respected and brought together in one bucket of inclusion. Importantly, we need to unite in our underlining similarities that we have as Chartered Accountants and use that as a thread to tie us together.   Sinead Donovan FCA is a Partner in Financial Accounting and Advisory Services at Grant Thornton.

Jun 23, 2020

For most, figuring out parenting and your career is difficult. It can be even more so if you are an LGBT parent. Peter Keenan-Gavaghan explains how the support from his organisation enabled him and his husband to make the leap into parenthood while growing his career. Balancing a career and a family is always a juggling act. However, when your family does not fit the traditional model, it can also prove to be a minefield for all concerned, especially at work. Societal expectations of parental roles, parental names and second glances are only a few of the factors that need to be thought about before LGBT people become parents. Despite having made the decision to have children early in our relationship, it took my husband and I eight years before our son arrived into the world. With both of us being working professionals, the process of family planning started in the traditional way: how do we balance parenthood, careers and our relationship? We quickly realised that we also needed to consider society. In the end, some of it came down to practicalities, and some came down to our own values, preferences and external supports.  Parental leave One area we had to consider was managing early childcare. My firm gives enhanced paid parental leave regardless of gender and this played a big part in our decision that I would be the stay at home dad for the first seven months of our son's life, with my husband returning to work on a reduced work week. Without the seven-month paid parental leave from my firm, our family would be much different position starting out – and certainly disadvantaged compared to mums going on leave. It’s important that not only the people in an organisation are supportive to LGBT families, but that the support is reflected in the HR policies and procedures. Creating a network We always knew we would need to navigate the potential assumptions from colleagues and clients that there is a ‘mum’ at home. We quickly realised that if social assumptions were to change, we needed to be proud of our family, and not place each other back in the closet. Having same-sex parents is nothing new in Barclays. Indeed, when we were investigating how we would become parents, one of the first ports of call was Barclays LGBT network, Spectrum. There we got a greater understanding of fostering, adoption and surrogacy. The network also holds regular talks on ‘non-traditional' parenting to educate colleagues on how they can become parents and continue to build their career. While nothing would have stopped my husband and me from having our son, the information and support gained from the LGBT network in my organisation eased the process for us (as much as to-be parents can be eased when planning for their first) and normalises families like ours to colleagues and clients. Before going on paternity leave, my team did the traditional baby gift presentation and I was invited to expectant parents’ events. This not only showed support but also demonstrated inclusivity. Talent retention What I have found since going back to work is that I have become more focused and flexible. Because Barclays gave me the information on parental leave, the precious first months with my son, and the flexibility to alter my working hours to the typical parent’s life without judgements or assumptions, they have retained a committed employee and have helped create a happy family. Peter Keenan-Gavaghan is Vice President of Barclays Internal Audit – RFT & Functions Technology.

Jun 22, 2020

Before COVID-19, sustainability policies were nice-to-have. Now, Johnny Meehan argues, they are essential to rebooting Ireland’s economy. Last year, Ireland declared climate and biodiversity emergencies in response to an urgent crisis. Before COVID-19, the way we worked and lived was unsustainable. The old normal was an economy where GDP went up but so did carbon emissions, social inequality, the destruction of nature, plastic pollution, food waste, time wasted in the daily commute and stress from quality of life issues. This crisis is an acid-test of preparedness for how we handle large systemic challenges. Some individuals and businesses have excelled in protecting their employees, customers, and communities. They are continuing to deliver their products and services, altering their supply chains, and going beyond what is expected for good social outcomes. At both an individual and organisational level, the following questions came into sharper focus: What is my purpose? Why does this business exist? How can my work make the world a better place? We must take this unique opportunity to reinvent what we do and how we do it. What do you stand for? This realignment process starts by establishing what you stand for, the purpose of your organisation, and who you serve. A dialogue with stakeholders will help you to define your purpose statement, which should be about more than earning profits and delighting customers. Keep it real, and make it connect with a social and environmental cause. Make it meaningful Next, write more detailed policies for sustainable business. Be ambitious, set meaningful goals with principles and ethical guidelines for how you do business. This is part of good governance. In times of crisis, what structures will improve decision-making next time round? (e.g. more diverse board, more inclusive stakeholder process, etc).   Connect finance and sustainability A plethora of finance-related developments are challenging companies to make clearer connections between financial performance and sustainable outcomes. For example, the EU classification system for sustainable activities (the EU taxonomy) encourages a step towards facilitating sustainable investment. Be a sustainability practitioner Sustainability is not a standalone area or policy; it should be synonymous with everything the business does. Sustainability is about taking action and implementing policies through a range of sustainable business practices across all organisational functions and measuring performance using new indicators of success. Everybody is a sustainability practitioner, especially accountants who have the right skills to measure impacts and disclose results. Change your assumptions about risk and the future. We responded to COVID-19 as a true emergency, as if our houses were on fire. The climate and biodiversity emergencies and problems in society demand a sustained call to action. We must reboot the economy but in a fair, inclusive and low-carbon way. Johnny Meehan is an Advisor at Business in the Community Ireland.

Jun 19, 2020

The Irish economy has taken a blow because of the pandemic. How can we go about restoring it? Foreign Direct Investment is an important key to recovery, argues Thomas Sheerin. COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the Irish economy. Activity and employment have dropped sharply and this is expected to continue for some time. As Ireland begins its recovery, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) sector will play a significant role from an employment, activity and financial contribution perspective. Continued and sustained investment in multiple sectors such as technology, pharma, medical devices and financial services will greatly assist the rebuilding of our economy. FDI’s contribution to the Irish economy has been significant, with over 1,200 overseas companies directly employing over 200,000 people. In addition, FDI contributes significant tax revenue and generates commercial activity across the wider economy. FDI drives investment in research and innovation, with strong linkages to Irish third-level education institutions. During the pandemic, many FDI companies engaged in the production of hand sanitizers, ventilators and vaccine research. These positive contributions will prove more valuable than ever as Ireland emerges from a substantial economic downturn. In particular, the local impact of FDI and its links to domestic businesses will assist recovery across the country. The key attributes that have assisted Ireland’s success in attracting and retaining FDI remain very strong. These include a skilled workforce, a competitive business environment, a strategic location, EU membership and a competitive stable tax regime. Notwithstanding the current challenging economic climate, continued success in the FDI space is reflected in recent job and investment announcements from Bearing Point//Beyond and Udemy. Overcoming the challenges As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, businesses are feeling the human, social and economic implications. Businesses must continue to manage and mitigate the disruption that COVID-19 brings to every aspect of their operations. From working with our clients, it’s clear that key challenges arise in the areas of supply chain, travel, workforce and tax, trade and regulation. The effects of COVID-19 are particularly felt by organisations dependent on supply chains for products and materials. Businesses have been forced to act quickly to map their entire supply chains. This provides the visibility and information needed to make critical decisions in real-time and to identify alternative supply chain strategies. From a workforce perspective, new employee welfare and engagement challenges have emerged. Technology needs to be adopted quickly to ensure that teams can work remotely while staying connected and productive. Returning to the workplace needs to be managed effectively with clear processes in place – early engagement, clear communication and provision of alternative working arrangements are key. As a small, open economy, travel plays a fundamental role in how FDI investment is secured, sustained and developed. COVID-19 restrictions have brought international travel to a standstill, presenting a significant challenge for FDI. However, proactive adoption of technology and utilisation of video and web conferencing technologies has enabled the necessary connections to continue to take place during the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought additional complexity and risk from a tax and regulatory perspective. This requires FDI businesses to consider the broader economic, political and societal context in which they operate to ensure informed, tax compliant decisions are made which drive the business forward. While the economic outlook for Ireland has changed dramatically in recent months, the road to recovery is underway. Similar to our emergence from the 2008 financial crisis, FDI should  prove to be a key feature in that recovery. Thomas Sheerin is a Tax Director in PwC.

Jun 18, 2020

How can we safeguard our economic future through digital opportunities? By investing now, we can create a better Ireland going forward, says Erik O’Donovan. Digital tools are essential services to our economy and society. They have enabled us to connect, work, study, shop, and access public services in these challenging times. Digital tools and data are even assisting and enhancing healthcare provision during this public health emergency. Ireland had made progress in its digital development going into the COVID-19 crisis. However, some gaps remain in our relative readiness to access and adopt existing and emerging digital opportunities for future growth and well-being. Accessing these digital opportunities has been a challenge for some, while the attainment of digital skills and bridging regional digital divides have grown in importance. The ambition of the National Broadband Plan and opportunities presented by 5G technology must be realised. Criminal elements have also sought to exploit the crisis using digital tools, underlying the need to preserve trust and protect our essential services, businesses, and people online. Finally, this emergency has shown the value of government, agencies, businesses and citizens working together, both at home and internationally, to drive positive change in difficult times. A digital recovery plan Our economic future is intrinsically linked to the ability of our health and wider governance systems to confidently model and plan for the phased re-opening of the country. Furthermore, our economic future must be robust enough for the potential re-emergence of such emergencies in the future. Trustworthy digital tools and data, used in conjunction with a suite of health measures, offer the opportunity to assist Ireland and Europe in transitioning from this emergency to providing better public services, economic growth, quality jobs and enhancing well-being. The European Commission’s COVID-19 recovery plan for the EU is based on a more digitalised Single Market and green growth. It has been estimated that, under certain conditions, a more digitalised Single Market could provide annual gains of up to €178 billion to the EU economy until 2030. Ibec research indicates there has been a business move towards more online sales (31%), coupled with greater use of remote working (73%) and increased investment in technology (42%), pointing to a more digitalised way of conducting business in the future. So, how should Ireland ensure it is at the forefront of this digital future? Given the scope of the challenge, the government should appoint a Minister dedicated to digital affairs to work with national and EU stakeholders and drive a coordinated approach to our further digital transformation. Protect services, business, and citizens, and preserve trust online. Ensure national cybersecurity and data protection capabilities are adequately resourced. Signal and enable further digital opportunity across our economy. Deliver new roadmaps on digital and artificial intelligence. Finally, invest in supports, research, infrastructure, and skills necessary to help government, public services, businesses, educators, and individuals to lock-in positive digital developments, as well as access and adopt further digital opportunities. As James Joyce noted, “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today.” It is time to reimagine tomorrow. Read about Ibec’s Reboot and Reimagine campaign at www.ibec.ie. Erik O’Donovan is the Head of Digital Economic Policy at Ibec.

Jun 18, 2020

Do soft skills matter during this uncertain time? Sinead Smith tells us that productivity, prioritisation and people skills are key when it comes to an efficient transition back to the workplace. The spread of COVID-19 has dictated that we adapt almost every element of our lives. For many, the most drastic change has been in learning how to work remotely. Gone is the structure of an office, the presence of a team and the productivity pathways that we’ve so carefully laid. Instead, we are working in isolation, at makeshift desks, trying to find the same ability to focus and achieve. While it has been tough, there have been opportunities for growth through autonomous decision-making, developing relationships and dictating your own course. However, it has possibly also thrown some areas for improvement into stark clarity, with productivity, prioritisation and people skills being cited by one Big 4 firm as common struggles for employees. Productivity and prioritisation Improving productivity should be considered a lifelong process. As the demands of work and life change, so too should your productivity levels. Learning how to evolve your productivity and prioritise during challenging times is a skill worth honing and one you can draw on later to demonstrate your work style. "How do I decide what is important when everything is important?” I’ll bet this sounds familiar to you. Poor prioritisation is the single biggest threat to productivity but, once you understand how to improve on it, you will find that your stress decreases and your output increases. There are many time-management courses available, but one of the most accessible tools is the Eisenhower Matrix. Developed by 34th US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man considered to be one of the most productive presidents of all time, the Eisenhower Matrix is a simple box system designed to separate tasks. Tasks are sorted into four categories: urgent and important (do immediately), important not urgent (schedule), urgent not important (delegate or postpone), neither urgent not important (wasted time – move on). Dividing the workday into these four categories provides a visual representation of where to start and where to finish. It alleviates the pressure of deadlines and enables us to give concrete timeframes for deliverables. People skills It is likely that you have already seen the importance of good communication over the last 12 weeks and it would be wise to continue to work on this. Whether managing a team, brainstorming with colleagues or liaising with clients, if you can learn to communicate effectively through the distanced nature of video calls, it can only have a positive impact on your in-person communications going forward. Consider the questions you are asking: Are they purposeful? Will they net the information you require? Listen more intently and work on your listening responses to show that you are engaged, interested and present. Make room for empathy and understanding in your conversations. When well-honed, these skills will buttress every facet of a finance career. Taking the time now to upskill in key areas like these will not only support a more efficient transition back to the workplace, but will also benefit longer term career progression. Sinead Smith is the Director for Newly Qualified Accountants at ACCPRO.

Jun 10, 2020

How can you best prepare for a phased return to work? Anne Phillipson outlines the five stages businesses need to take to ensure the safety of their employees and clients. The past 100-days have been unlike anything most of us have experienced in our working lives. Thankfully, we are beginning to see light at the end of this tunnel and, although the virus is still with us, it seems the efforts of the public have kept it under control. This is good news for the economy, as many businesses begin to prepare for the return to work, and aim to make up for lost productivity. However, as most business leaders have already realised, it is much easier to shut an office down than to reopen it under these conditions. The key for a successful return to work is through careful planning, clear communication, and staff training. Five stages to return to work All businesses must be able to implement measures that minimise the risk to their staff and customers, and put safety at the top of the agenda. People will be apprehensive as they emerge from lockdown, and will want to know that they can return to work safely. It is the employers’ job to not only care for their employee’s physical safely, but also create psychological safety by reassuring and informing staff that precautions are in place with their well-being in mind, and that new standards and procedures are being implemented and followed. It is important that business leaders don’t simply focus on the next few weeks – we are going to have to live with this virus for some time, and strategies that go beyond the immediate return-to-work and look to long-term change will allow businesses to realise the opportunity to build back better. The process should happen in five stages: Anticipation – the planning begins Honeymoon – people are excited to return to some sense of normality Integration – the new practices are tested and begin to embed Performance – focus is back on the business and distractions are minimised Growth – opportunity to realise the benefits of new ways of working Anticipation Right now, we are in the anticipation stage. Within this stage, there are three critical steps: Preparation: plan for reopening and specific requirements for each location. An employee survey will provide useful insights into how your employees travel to work, the distance of their commute, health issues of the employee or anyone in their household, social distancing planning of workspaces, which functions can remain remote, etc. Execution: ensure that employees and customers understand and comply with new practices. Steps here include a COVID-19 health questionnaire, return to work online training to educate employees on what to expect on their return, identify and train ‘social distancing marshals’ for each location, etc. Reopening: continuously review and improve processes during the phased return to the office. Employee/client access by location, ensuring adherence to guidelines, and ongoing communication and engagement of staff will be important in this step. Putting yourself in your employees’ shoes – understanding how they’re feeling, the messages and training they need at each stage – will go a long way to ensure your return to work strategy decreases your employees concerns while increasing your productivity and potential. Anne Phillipson is a Director of People and Change Consulting in Grant Thornton.

Jun 10, 2020

Your employees are your most valuable asset; neglecting them will be detrimental to your business. Dearbhla Gallagher outlines how to invest in training and development during these difficult times. As businesses face the economic effects of COVID-19, many are implementing cash management and cost-saving measures. In these conditions, the temptation may be for businesses, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to reduce or eliminate training and development expenditure. There is certainly a need to manage cash and spend carefully at this time, but extreme caution should be applied when considering cuts to training and development programmes. While there may be a short-term benefit for a business in taking such a step, the longer-term consequences may be to the detriment of the business. It is widely accepted that investing in training leads to more highly skilled employees, increased motivation, and more engaged and stronger performers. It is also important to consider the effect on employees of curtailing these programmes, right at the very time that many may be feeling somewhat vulnerable due to the current COVID-19 world. Employees are the most valuable asset that a business has; in a difficult economic environment, the flexibility, creativity and skills that employees bring can greatly assist a business in working through challenges. The longer-term benefits for a business investing in its employees are also obvious: valuing and investing in the workforce generally leads to higher retention of staff. Prepare now for tomorrow  So, how can organisations manage training and development requirements in these difficult times? Now is the time to re-assess your training methods and the delivery approach. Make greater use of your in-house experts for learning and development purposes to deliver practical and relevant content. Technology is essential in helping us stay connected. Online communication tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are an excellent way of delivering learning and development initiatives to remote working staff. With many employees either working from home or laid-off part time, this might be an opportunity to use the available time to focus on training and development. Use it wisely! It is also the time to consider external online offerings. Trade bodies, professional services bodies, accounting institutes and many other organisations offer a considerable range of online courses that make learning and training accessible and flexible. Some of these courses are also free. Evaluation is key Take the time to evaluate training courses and training and development needs. Consider how best to spend limited resources in the current environment. Evaluating training courses that have already been provided is also vital as this enables a business to check that staff are being equipped with the right skills and development, and that the training is value for money and aligned with the business’ strategy and goals. Stay safe while training! Dearbhla Gallagher is the Learning & Development Manager at Baker Tilly.

Jun 10, 2020

As public health restrictions begin to ease, how can organisations make their workplace safe for employees? Sonya Boyce outlines the key priorities that organisations must consider before staff return. Ireland has now entered the next phase of lifting the public health restrictions that were put in place to protect our nation’s health. As many employers begin to make strides towards returning to the workplace, there are a significant number of factors to consider. Update internal policies The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Health Services Executive (HSE) published a Return to Work Safely Protocol (protocol) as the set of guidelines and measures for organisations to follow. Compliance with the protocol is mandatory and it will be enforced by the HSA under existing legislation. All organisations must update their policies to reflect the changes required for containing and restricting the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. It is important to circulate the updated policies to staff in advance of returning to the workplace to ensure that all employees are familiar with their obligations and the measures put in place to protect them. Having clear, up-to-date policies ensures that there is no ambiguity in your approach to dealing with COVID-19. Updates should be made to policies around holidays, sick leave, absenteeism management, people with caring responsibilities and remote working, amongst others. The protocol requires employees to fill in a Return to Work form declaring they have not been in contact with anyone affected by the virus. This form should also contain details regarding the purpose of a contact tracing log which the employer is required to put in place. Another aspect to be considered is the management of external stakeholders and customers who are on the premises, the procedure to be followed during internal and external meetings within the workplace, and the conduct in communal areas such as kitchens, canteens and tea stations. Employing a COVID-19 Compliance Officer to ensure that policy and procedure is adhered to is also an option. Maintain workplace hygiene Organisations should prioritise regular cleaning of the workplace. Ensure contact/touch surfaces such as tabletops, work equipment, door handles, and handrails are always visibly clean, and are cleaned at least twice daily along with the washroom facilities and communal spaces. It is the employer’s responsibility to supply employees with essential cleaning materials such as wipes/disinfection products, paper towels and waste bins/bags to keep their workspaces clean. If employees are required to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), then they must be trained in the proper use, cleaning, storing and disposal of PPE. Employers are required to ensure employees use the PPE provided. Provide pre-return training It is the employer’s responsibility to provide training to employees prior to re-entering the organisation. COVID-19 training must be conducted for all workers to ensure they are aware of: their obligations; the organisation’s updated policies; the way the workspace has been re-organised; working practices and guidance on public health; what to do if they develop COVID-19 symptoms; and points of contact and escalation within the organisation. It is important to tailor training to your organisation’s specific needs and avoid using generic COVID-19 training. Implement infrastructure changes  Since the government guidelines for physical distancing of two metres remains in place, office spaces will need to be re-configured to adhere to this. The concept of staggering employees’ return to the office, whereby half of employees attend the workplace for two or three days per week, or on a week in/week out basis, while others continue to work remotely before rotating for the remainder of the week, may be beneficial to your organisation. This system allows all employees to attend the workplace while ensuring that safe physical distancing (e.g. having every second seat free) can be facilitated. The pandemic has impacted severely on every part of our society and our economy. We are now entering a new phase and the return to the workplace must be carefully considered. Sonya Boyce is the Director of HR Consulting at Mazars.

Jun 05, 2020

With the current disruption to business processes, how can you manage risk and prevent cybercrime? Will O’Brien gives four key steps needed to protect your business from fraud. With COVID-19 disrupting business as usual, fraud attempts are being made on existing processes that may not be functioning as designed due to remote working, employer distraction and operational or workforce disruption. These fraud patterns are continuing to evolve and need your ongoing attention. Businesses should be asking: Are these threats being sufficiently assessed, or are there gaps that leave the business exposed? Has there been a re-evaluation of the new fraud risks due to new working arrangements? Are current policies effective if/while the workforce is operating from remote locations? Are the right actions being taken when an incident occurs? When economic survival is threatened, the line separating acceptable and unacceptable behaviour can become blurred for some. Experience from previous recessions shows that criminal organisations and individuals will view the current environment as an opportunity to be taken advantage of. COVID-19 has also introduced challenges which heighten the risk of fraud. Businesses should be taking practical anti-fraud measures, along with reviewing or establishing an anti-fraud programme. Remote working arrangements are weakening the oversight provided by the three lines of defence that ensures the effective management of risk. This can impact internal controls in areas such as payroll, receivables and payables. Cyber-risks are also heightened with IT changes being rapidly deployed and network access being requested from multiple locations. Opportunistic threats are increasing as criminal organisations seek to exploit the changing environment. Businesses must remain alert and respond appropriately. A big part of this will involve providing employees with specific guidance on how to spot suspicious activity. What four key actions should businesses take now? Unprecedented times like this call for innovative solutions to identify and tackle the increase in fraud. Businesses must ensure that their COVID-19 fraud management program minimises risk across all its operations. It is important to have the flexibility to adapt to changes and uncertainty. 1. Update your existing fraud risk assessment During challenging times, fraud risk assessment involves a significant commitment by management and staff. It should be directed or managed by personnel with fraud risk expertise. The key steps include: Establishing the context; Identifying the new risks; Analysing the risks; Evaluating the risks; and Treating those unacceptable risks. Risk identification should not be confined to only financial risks. Some fraud, such as cybercrime and information theft, damage reputation as well as the bottom line. 2. Consider the impact of reducing headcount and cost-cutting measures When businesses downsize, the remaining staff take on additional responsibilities outside of their scope and expertise due to work being realigned. This can result in weaknesses in the internal control structure such as: Lack of segregation of duties; Lack of the correct skill sets; Staff are overworked and under-resourced; Documentation of controls impacted; Increase in fraud; and, Increased pressure on governance structures. Consider whether all updated processes and procedures are understood, including revised roles and responsibilities. 3. Consider risks attached to fast-tracking new suppliers and other business partners Commercial pressure may arise to quickly deliver products or services to market. Existing suppliers and third parties who are fully vetted may not be able to meet this demand or are facing their own COVID-19-related challenges. While it may be desirable to "fast track" new suppliers or third parties, appropriate measures should be implemented to mitigate the risk of engaging unsuitable third parties. Have sufficient steps been undertaken to independently verify new and existing suppliers and business partners? 4. Internal audit considerations During times of heightened fraud risk, internal audit should review management’s commitment to internal controls and report on any suspicions or allegations of fraud. COVID-19 has had implications on financial reporting. Companies and auditors need to work together to ensure quality is not compromised even in challenging circumstances.  Internal audit should ensure that they: review and expand or redirect internal audit coverage; prioritise fraud risk in the internal audit plan; assess the adequacy of the control environment with appropriate planning and management oversight; assess adequacy of company’s whistle-blowing procedures; increase in data monitoring and analysis; and conduct, where appropriate, surprise audits. Having a robust fraud management program and a culture where the tone at the top promotes integrity and holds employees accountable will go a long way to protecting critical assets and weathering times of uncertainty. Will O'Brien is the Director of PwC’s Cyber Practice.

Jun 05, 2020

How can you increase your bottom line during the challenging times we are currently operating in? Ciara McMullin outlines where VAT law can help businesses to gain short-term cash flow improvements. It is a truth universally acknowledged that cash is the lifeblood of business. Given the challenging times we are currently operating in, many companies are looking for innovative ways to increase their bottom line while improving their management of day-to-day operational costs. While maintaining cash flow is always vital to the success of any business, it is even more relevant during periods of unprecedented uncertainty. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Irish Revenue have introduced certain limited VAT measures targeted at small and medium enterprises (SMEs). There are, however, several mechanisms already provided for in VAT law, and generally accepted indirect tax practice, which can be used by any business (once relevant) to gain short-term cash flow improvements. If these simple strategies are appropriately implemented, the impact on cash flow could offer a significant boost to businesses during these times of need. VAT Cost Reduction Input VAT recovery methodology Ultimately, all businesses with restricted input VAT recovery need to ensure that the method in place for recovering VAT on dual-use inputs, being the percentage of VAT deductible on costs used both for VATable and non-deductible activities, correctly reflects the use to which the underlying costs are put. As a result of such a review, additional costs may be identified as being attributable to VATable supplies which, coupled with an overall change in the basis for calculating the input VAT blockage, could lead to significant improvements. Accounts payable review A review of accounts payable to consider if all input VAT incurred has been recovered, where permitted, can prove fruitful. In our experience, many businesses under-recover VAT either on categories of expenses, through mis-postings or failure to identify foreign VAT eligible for recovery. Not only can this lead to future cost reductions, but there may also be the opportunity to submit historic reclaims to tax authorities for any identified under-claimed VAT on such costs. Overseas input tax recovery Foreign VAT often remains unclaimed even though there are now efficient procedures in place to reclaim non-Irish VAT incurred. A refund of foreign VAT incurred by Irish and EU traders can be made through the Electronic VAT Refund (EVR) procedure, by submitting a claim via Revenue Online Services (ROS) (or the businesses relevant Tax Authority portal) within the relevant time limits. A reclaim for input VAT recovery on costs incurred in other EU Member States in 2019 must be submitted by an Irish trader to Revenue via ROS by 30 September 2020. The claim being made is still, however, subject to the VAT deductibility rules in the jurisdiction in which the VAT was incurred.  Bad debt relief (BDR) If a debt has been written off as an irrecoverable debt, the business should be able to obtain relief for all or part of the VAT paid on the original supply to the customer in default. Where large debts are written off, significant savings can be made.  VAT Cashflow Input tax accrual Operating an input tax accrual with a view to recovering VAT on invoices received but unposted to the accounting records in the earliest possible VAT return is another cash flow optimisation strategy worth considering at this time. If implemented correctly, substantial cash flow benefits can arise. VAT grouping Where there are considerable VATable costs between related entities, the cash flow benefits of forming a VAT group are also worth bearing in mind. Once VAT grouped, the VAT group remitter files a single VAT return per period for the entire group and accounts for any VAT due to Revenue. VAT does not need to be charged nor VAT invoices raised on supplies between VAT grouped entities, with the exception of property transactions. Accordingly, a significant positive cash flow impact can be availed of by forming a VAT group. VAT56B authorisation A qualifying business that holds a valid Section 56 authorisation is entitled to receive certain goods and services from Irish suppliers with a zero-rate of VAT applying as well as importing goods free from VAT. Eligibility to participate in this scheme can be a significant cash-flow benefit as it removes the requirement for suppliers to charge VAT on qualifying supplies in the first instance, and eliminates the necessity for a subsequent reclaim of this VAT on the business’s periodic VAT return. A business may avail of this relief if 75% of total annual turnover is derived from supplying goods to other EU countries (intra-community supplies), exporting goods to countries outside the EU or making supplies of certain contract work. Consider tax point of invoices Businesses could also consider the VAT tax points of their supplies and explore the timing of when VAT is due for payment. Consideration should also be given to when reverse charge obligations are triggered from supplies bought in from overseas. Other opportunities worth considering at this time are the offsetting of tax liabilities, e.g. using a VAT repayment to fund Employment Taxes or Corporation Tax or (re)negotiating customer and supplier payment terms (accounts payable seek longer payment terms; accounts receivable seek shorter payment terms). Ciara McMullin is an Indirect Tax Senior Manager with Deloitte.

Jun 05, 2020

Chartered Accountants play a critical role in operations around the world, and many are now guiding their organisations through the uncertainty and economic turmoil wreaked by COVID-19. Accountancy Ireland spoke to several members at the fore of this difficult task. Liam Woods  Director of Acute Operations at the HSE As a member of NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team) and with responsibility for the public hospital system in the Republic of Ireland, Liam Woods has played a central role in the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In normal circumstances, Liam oversees acute services and the deployment of a €6 billion budget for the acute hospital system, which covers 48 hospitals across the country. Today, however, he is at the forefront of the public health system’s response to the global pandemic. Liam and his colleagues have worked relentlessly since December 2019, when the first case of coronavirus became known. “At that time, we were aware that there was an emerging set of concerning circumstances in China,” he said. “We are linked in with the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control through the Department of Health, so we began receiving information on the situation almost immediately.” According to Liam, the threat to Ireland was confirmed by the Italian experience, with Ireland’s first case confirmed in late February 2020. This in turn led to an escalation of the pre-existing national crisis management structures. “Once we saw Italy’s crisis unfold, we implemented the HSE emergency management structures and assessed emerging scenarios and the subsequent requirements for intensive care capacity, acute capacity, and community capacity,” he added. “As March approached, we expected a major surge in cases of COVID-19. That surge did occur, but we didn’t see the levels experienced by Italy and that was primarily down to the public health measures taken in February and March.” As the pandemic progressed, areas under Liam’s remit such as the National Ambulance Service became increasingly critical elements of the response strategy. But as the pressure increased, so too did staff absence. “Today (30 April), 2,800 colleagues are absent in the acute system with a further 2,000 absent in the community system related to COVID-19,” he said. “That is a big challenge for the frontline, as is the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). Our procurement teams are working night and day to secure the necessary equipment to protect our workers.” That effort has been supplemented by the overwhelming generosity of individuals and businesses according to Liam. “We had a massive response from the business community and society as a whole, from distillery companies manufacturing antibacterial hand gel to people making face shields using 3D printers,” he added. “Beating this virus has become a truly collective effort and those working in the HSE really felt and appreciated that.” Although restrictions are now being cautiously eased, Liam expects the workload to remain relentless. “At a personal level, it is demanding but if you work in the health system and understand how it needs to operate, you at least feel that you can make a direct contribution and a lot of positivity comes from that. The response of frontline staff in hospital and community services has been amazing and the commitment to delivering care has been key to the success to date in responding to what is a global crisis.” Tia Crowley  CEO at Western Care Tia Crowley had an “unusual” induction to the role of CEO at Western Care, as her appointment coincided with Leo Varadkar’s statement in Washington on the first wave of measures to tackle COVID-19 in Ireland. Given that her organisation provides services and supports to adults and children with intellectual disabilities and/or autism in Co. Mayo, Tia was very conscious of the need for – and challenges to – the provision of her organisation’s services. “When the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed initially, we risk-assessed all areas of service provision and made the difficult decision to close day/respite services and limit community support services to essential supports that could be provided safely,” she said. Many of the organisation’s 950 staff were reassigned to support Western Care’s residential services, which now operate on a 24-hour basis. According to Tia, maintaining an optimum level of service while securing adequate PPE for frontline workers is a constant concern – but there are longer-term challenges in the horizon. “I, and the new management team, had hoped to bring in a balanced budget for 2020 after prolonged periods of cutbacks, deficits and containment cycles. However, a shock 1% cut to funding allocations across the sector coupled with the impact of COVID-19 will impact our ability to meet the demand for our services within our existing allocation,” she said. “The cost of the crisis, and the associated long-term implication for funding, is a challenge that is constantly on our minds. But at the moment, our focus has to remain on keeping our service users and staff safe.” Aside from financing, one thing preventing organisations like Western Care operating to their full potential is an overly burdensome compliance regime, Tia added. “I hope the Government recognises how organisations like Western Care responded to this crisis and the support they provided to the HSE when it was most needed,” she continued. “After the worst of this crisis passes, I would like to see a streamlined regulatory environment where, once an organisation is deemed to comply with a basic set of standards, that is accepted by all regulators. We, like others, struggle to comply with multiple regulators and compliance regimes and at last count, more than 35 different regimes applied to Western Care.” Despite the many challenges, Tia has noticed certain positives amid the bleak backdrop. “The atmosphere of cooperation throughout the organisation has reinforced my belief in human nature and I hear stories of resilience among service users, families and staff who have gone over and above to support families in crisis and keep service users happy and content,” she said. “We are also building supportive relationships with the HSE locally as we turn to them for support and guidance. But equally, we provide them with reassurance and support too because we are all in this together.” Ultimately, Tia’s hope for the future is a simple one. “I hope that we can emerge from this pandemic with a sense of pride and renewed purpose, knowing that we have come through one of the most significant events in our lifetime and that everyone in Western Care did their best.” Dermot Crowley  Dalata Hotel Group Dalata Hotel Group was quick to respond to the threat of coronavirus to its business. From cancelling its shareholder dividend to renegotiating with lenders, the company has cut its cloth and according to Dermot Crowley, Deputy Chief Executive, Dalata is well-positioned to weather a long storm. “We have always been very careful with our gearing and as things stand, we have access to €145 million in funding,” he said. “We immediately created a worst-case scenario of zero revenue for the remainder of the year. We examined every cost item and calculated our cash burn. The major fixed costs are elements of payroll, rent and interest. Having done that exercise, we were in a position to reassure our shareholders that we could survive at least until the end of the year on a zero-revenue model.” As it happens, the company is still generating revenue. Dalata raised a further €65 million in April when it sold its Clayton Charlemont Hotel in a sale and leaseback transaction and although most of the company’s hotels are formally closed, Dalata responded to requests from governments and health agencies to accommodate frontline workers, asylum seekers and the homeless – often at much-reduced costs. Meanwhile, all other hotels have management and maintenance teams in place to ensure that all properties are ready to re-open at short notice. While some workers remain, the company was forced to lay-off 3,500 staff at the outset of the crisis, but Dermot is determined to re-employ as many people as possible as restrictions ease and trading conditions improve. “One of the most frustrating things about this crisis is letting our people go. We invest a huge amount in our staff and last year alone, we had 350 colleagues in development programmes. We also take on 35 people each year through graduate programmes and we have several trainee Chartered Accountants in our employ,” he said. “We absolutely want to take everyone back on.” Despite the company’s preparations for the ‘new normal’, whatever (and whenever) that might be, Dermot remains cautious in his outlook for the sector. “Dalata is a very ambitious company and we have a lot of new hotels in the pipeline, but the reality is that we are likely to be facing lower occupancies once the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “When we re-open, the domestic market will be the first part of the business to recover but the international market could take quite some time depending on travel restrictions.” At its AGM at the end of April, the company confirmed that earnings fell almost 25% in the first three months of the year to €17.7 million. With even worse results certain for the period after 31 March and normality a distant prospect, Dermot expects the sector to experience both tragedy and opportunity in the months ahead. “Some companies will not make it through this crisis and that’s just reality,” he said. “That will create some opportunities. We built a strong company after the last crisis, but I do not see the same fallout in Ireland as in the UK this time around. The UK has many old properties and companies with high gearing ratios, so that may be where the most changes will occur.” Naomi Holland International Treasurer at Intel As International Treasurer and Senior Director of Tax at Intel, Naomi Holland had a demanding role before COVID-19 became a threat, but her role has since expanded as she – and her colleagues – seek to protect the chipmaker and its people from the threat posed by coronavirus. As leader of Intel’s Global Tax & Treasury Virus Task Force, Naomi also sits on the Global Finance Virus Task Force, which develops and implements Intel’s crisis response for the corporation’s worldwide finance function. This is not just a strategic project for Naomi, however. Her global role means that she has direct responsibility for employees in some of the worst affected areas of the world. “I have teams based in China where we were dealing with the outbreak from early 2020,” she said. While it was largely restricted at that stage, the China situation effectively became a test-run for the global pandemic that was to come.” Some employee considerations included colleagues who had returned home for the Chinese New Year and became confined to their province, others were on secondment outside their home country and Intel needed to assess the return home versus the remain in situ options, and some countries’ lockdown notice was so short that staff ended up not returning home to their families and were confined alone. In the early days of the crisis, Naomi and her colleagues engaged in extensive scenario planning. They considered single sites closing down, multiple sites closing down, and the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on the organisation’s operability. That led to a rationalisation of activity to ensure that critical functions remained up and running. “In addition to ensuring that we had the necessary contingencies in place should a person, team or site fall victim to COVID-19, it was also essential that we prioritised our activity,” she said. “This required significant coordination as we needed to ensure that our partner organisations around the world were satisfied with what remained on our priority list and, importantly, what didn’t.” This required extensive communication, which was central to Intel’s response according to Naomi. “We were acutely aware that people needed information,” she said. “So, we focused on our internal communications and developed a ‘people’ track to complement that.” This was particularly important for Naomi, whose team spans several countries including Ireland, the Netherlands, Israel, India, and China. Her leaderhip remit meant the US teams were also on her agenda. Despite the complexity, Intel’s quick response meant that the company “didn’t miss a beat”, according to Naomi. “COVID-19 has forced all companies to assess items including their liquidity, their work-from-home capability, and their technological infrastructure,” she added. “We took all the necessary decisions, amended procedures as required and augmented our hardware in places. The greater complexity, of course, resided within our factory and logistics networks but I am proud to say that their delivery can only be described as incredible.” As the shock factor subsides and people increasingly become resigned to the prospect of living and working alongside COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, Naomi is determined to maintain her focus on her people and their mental health. “I’ve always said that people are a company’s best asset and if this crisis has taught me anything, it’s in our augmented ability to deliver when we operate as one team despite the circumstances,” she said. “The first six months of 2020 have been a traumatic time for many. However, with senior executives leading from the front and maintaining communication with their people, this crisis is in fact humanising us and helping us connect with our colleagues on a more personal level.” Shauna Burns Managing Director at Beyond Business Travel Beyond Business Travel is ten years old this year and like the rest of the travel sector, it faces severe challenges due to COVID-19. According to Shauna Burns, the company’s Managing Director, 2020 was the year the firm planned to reach £20 million in turnover and build on its investment in Ireland following last year’s opening of offices in Dublin and Cork. The impact of the pandemic was felt by the company in February, according to Shauna, when FlyBe entered administration. March then saw the domino effect of countries closing their borders, which presented a unique set of challenges. “We had clients and staff located all over the world, and we had to work 24/7 to ensure they got home quickly,” she said. The company was also involved in the Ireland’s Call initiative to bring home medical professionals to work in the HSE and NHS. After this initial flurry of activity, Shauna and her team had to take both a strategic and forensic view of the business amid a fast-changing business landscape. “Difficult but essential decisions had to be made on operational continuity and cash flow while engaging with our key stakeholders and looking into the potential for financial assistance from Government,” she added. “From the off, we were determined that our company’s core values around excellent customer service would not change. We retained some key staff to provide ongoing information and to ensure that clients who urgently need to travel can do so. This comes at a financial cost in terms of maintaining our premises and fixed overheads, but it is a decision we believe will benefit the business in the long run.” With one eye on the easing of travel restrictions, Shauna’s firm is also compiling information and advice for companies whose people must resume travel, so that they make informed decisions and manage the impact of COVID-19 on their business. The travel industry will re-open and travellers will take to the air again, she said, but they will travel less often and with an increased focus on traveller health and safety. “We expect to operate below capacity for the immediate future, so part-time furlough allows us to raise activity in line with demand,” she said. “Consequently, we are looking at our offering and service lines, and right-sizing our business for the ‘new normal’. There are opportunities to become leaner, faster, and more efficient, and digitalisation is a core element of that process. “We now have an opportunity to ask ourselves if the business were starting from scratch, what would we do differently and reimagine what this looks like ,” she added. “But for our business, restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is a vital pre-requisite to enabling recovery and with more than one third of global trade by value moving by air, it will also be vital for the recovery of the global economy.” The entrepreneurs Growing businesses with finite resources are very vulnerable to economic shocks, but one Chartered Accountant is using technology to weather the storm. Fiona Smiddy, Founder of Green Outlook, had three active revenue streams before the onset of COVID-19 – e-commerce, markets/event retail, and corporate services including speaking engagements. She is now down to one viable revenue stream, but the growth in online retail has allowed her company to grow during the pandemic. Fiona runs a tight ship from a cost perspective. She outsourced her order fulfilment activity in 2019 and engaged the services of a ‘virtual CFO’ who keeps her focused on her KPIs. “Green Outlook turned one year old at the end of March and the key challenge remains brand awareness and cash flow management,” she said. “The company is self-funded with no outside investment or loans, so I am restricted to organic growth.” Green Outlook continues to support Irish suppliers, with 22 Irish brands represented among the more than 170 sustainable, plastic-free products available online, and Fiona cites this as a contributory factor in her success. “I have noticed a huge uplift in supporting local and Irish businesses and I hope this continues post-COVID-19,” she said. Brendan Halpin, Founder of WeSwitchU.ie, also hopes to support Irish businesses and households in the months ahead. He launched his new company in March 2020, just as the lockdown came into effect, but having spent 2019 in the development phase, he is certain that now is the right time to launch a cost-saving business. WeSwicthU.ie is a digital platform that finds the best electricity and gas energy plan for individual households each year and even as COVID-19 reached Ireland, Brendan did not consider it a threat to his business. “It was pandemic-proof in a sense because our entire proposition is online. From the comfort of your home, the platform takes the stress and hassle out of switching and saving money on customers’ home electricity and gas bills,” he added. “The only change in the business plan was on the marketing side; I had intended to be out and about meeting people, but that activity simply moved online.” While the market reaction has been positive so far, Brendan is conscious that any planned expansion would require funding – and that may be a challenge as the economic malaise becomes more entrenched. “I have funded the business myself so far but if I really want to grow, the next step will involve external financing,” he said. “I do hope that the Government and State agencies will help start-ups like mine grow through their relevant phases despite the uncertainty that lies ahead.”

Jun 02, 2020

John Kennedy explains why knowing too much can harm your practice, and where you should apply your focus instead. When I ask Chartered Accountants to make a list of the problems that hold them back from getting new clients, I am sometimes surprised at the issues they include. One point never makes the list, yet it is often a challenge – they just know too much. How can that be a problem? Surely every client wants a highly knowledgeable accountant, someone who is on top of all of the details and knows all of the angles?This is partly true, but it hides how you can inadvertently damage your practice. Unless you take time to step back, think clearly from the perspective of the client and shape your words to meet their needs, you can quickly lose their attention. This problem is compounded by the assumption that your clients pay you for your knowledge of accountancy, but that is not why clients pay you. Why do clients pay you? This is a deceptively simple question. Is it because of the things you know or because of the things you do for them? Or is it because your qualifications mean you are empowered to authorise documents? Each answer constitutes some part of the reason, but each also obscures a vitally important point. There are two crucial distinctions. First, clients do not pay you for the things you do; they pay you for the value you deliver. Second, the value you provide is only partially expressed in monetary terms. The fundamental truth is that, in many cases, clients most value the way you make them feel. Where your real value lies When you were studying as an undergraduate, the emphasis was on increasing your knowledge. You bought textbooks, you attended lectures, you completed assignments and the focus was always on what you knew – more facts, more information, more knowledge. Your exams tested and confirmed your knowledge; the more you could prove all you knew, the higher the grades. And the more you knew, the better you felt and the better you were regarded by the training firms for whom you hoped to work. With this relentless emphasis on knowing more and more, it is unsurprising that you came to assume that knowledge was where your value as an accountant lay. Then you became a trainee Chartered Accountant in a firm. In your application, your interview and all of the tasks you were given, it was assumed that you had the knowledge required. At this point, the emphasis began to shift to the things you did. You were given specific tasks; what you did and the time it took was captured in timesheets. The emphasis of virtually every aspect of your work, your day and your value revolved around recording your activity in your timesheets. And then you set up your own practice. By now, the emphasis had become so engrained – entrenched even – that you assumed that the key to building a successful practice revolved around turning what you knew into what you do, and recording that in timesheets to bill your client. This focus transferred to your client, but the truth is that this is not where your greatest value – nor your greatest opportunity – lies. Your client wants your value, not your time To build a successful practice, you need to move your thinking – and the focus for your client – beyond what you do and towards the value you provide. This involves two steps. The first step is to consciously move the emphasis from the things you do to the value you deliver. This first step is widely accepted but poorly implemented in practice. The second step is perhaps even more critical if much less understood. To build a practice with strong bonds with long-term clients, you need to move the emphasis from facts to feelings. Human beings like to believe that our species is more rational than it really is. We believe that we see or hear something, we analyse it rationally, and we decide. But do you suppress your feelings at work and give dispassionate advice? Are you always logical and provide clients with clearly thought-out analysis? This is what we like to believe, but it is often untrue. The reality looks much more like this: we see or hear something; we filter it through our emotions; we interpret it and tell ourselves a story; and on that basis, we decide if it is right or wrong. This filtering process happens all the time and while every client wants the facts dealt with, they assume that this is the minimum level of service they will receive from their accountant. The bonds that make clients work with you and generate referrals are forged beneath the level of conscious thoughts. Even in business, the way we feel is of enormous importance so you can create a genuine edge by understanding and applying this. The positive feelings generated by your work include peace of mind, increased confidence in decision-making, or the anticipation of a comfortable retirement. These are important sources of value, yet few realise just how vital these submerged feelings are – even in the most dispassionate business transaction. Every interaction has a submerged, and usually unstated, emotional aspect. As a practice owner, you must understand this and use it to your advantage. When making the shift in focus from the things you do to the value you deliver, you must take account of the genuine feelings at play. Value is about more than money Feelings are always there and are an important part of the value provided by a Chartered Accountant – no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that it is “just business”. Everyone has clients they like and clients they do not like; phone calls they look forward to making and phone calls they hate making; tasks they like doing and tasks they hate. We are very skilled at telling ourselves stories that turn these feelings into apparently rational explanations supported by facts to support our conclusions – but there is no avoiding the reality that feelings are very powerful, and this is the same for your client. Let us take an example that shows just how powerful this concept is. Complete this sentence: “More than anything, I want my children to be…” I have used this example for decades and the answer is almost always “happy”. Occasionally, the respondent will say “content” or “fulfilled”, but in each case the answer is an emotion. It is never a financial or factual answer. This is a simple example of just how important feelings are. How to gain an advantage Gaining a client does not begin and end with you making clear all of the things you will do for them. For an individual to act, they must first feel confident that you understand what they want. And more importantly, they must also be convinced and motivated to the point that they are committed to working with you. Being convinced and motivated depends on your ability to address the feelings that so often remain submerged, unexamined, and unaddressed. I have heard about all the effort accountants put into planning and preparing for meetings with potential clients, often spending hours crafting a well-designed and high-quality document and accompanying presentation. But they then go on to tell me that, even as they are discussing the document or giving the presentation, they know it is just not working. Almost everyone has experienced this in some way, but many simply continue as if the submerged feelings are not there or are insignificant. The habitual pattern is to press on with more information, more facts, more details. The result is that you completely overlook the reality that the submerged feelings are the decisive factor in the ultimate success of any relationship. It is much more useful to bring these feelings to the surface. You do this by using questions to draw out how the work you are discussing with your client will make them feel. The truth is that few clients care about exemplary management accounts or pristine submissions. Some do want to use their cash more effectively or to have a clear tax plan in place, but everyone wants to feel the peace of mind or sense of security that these actions bring. Yet, many accountants spend too much time talking about the surface facts, the facts that – even when they are dealt with well – are, at best, efficient and uninspiring. The often-unacknowledged truth is that the feelings you create in your clients are just as valuable in building long-term relationships as the work you do. When you deal with the surface facts well, but the submerged feelings are left unattended, there is the illusion of progress, but the relationship is merely routine with little enthusiasm. New clients in particular will sometimes engage you as part of their initial wave of enthusiasm, irrespective of the work you have done, but that will undoubtedly be a passing phase. The worst-case scenario is where the factual, practical aspects of the relationship are not adequately clarified and addressed, and the submerged feelings are also poorly dealt with. If this is the case, the client may accept you as a necessary evil, and you both bump along for a short time until your client moves to another practice. Even if they stay, these are the clients that are difficult to deal with, slow to pay, and frustrating to have. Only when you take control of, and actively deal with, both the surface level factual tasks and the submerged feelings do relationships take off. When this happens, it is of real value to both you and your client. These are the client relationships you want – you are both in step, you both work well together, and you both feel positive about the work. Too often, however, this kind of relationship is left to chance because the influential role of submerged feelings is seldom acknowledged, discussed, and actively addressed. But you can make these positive and rewarding client relationships a matter of choice. Just get into the habit of raising your clients’ understanding of the importance of the positive feelings generated by working constructively with you as their accountant. Ask about the areas they want to be confident in; probe how putting their affairs in order will reduce stress; and test and draw out the peace of mind they will get. As you become skilled at eliciting and addressing these submerged feelings, you will set yourself apart from your competitors. Move your emphasis from what you do to the value it brings, and then take the critical step of drawing out and addressing the submerged feelings that are most important to your client.   John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.

Jun 02, 2020

Dr Annette Clancy explains why employees’ mental health should be the organising principle for businesses in the 21st century. 20-30% of us will experience mental health issues during our lifetime. Could the quantity and quality of work have something to do with this?  A recent study conducted in the UK shows that one-third of us are not happy about the amount of time we spend at work. More than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems. As a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness, worry and anxiety. Employees’ mental health is affected by their roles. For example, we might expect to see mental health issues in workers who deal with trauma and violence every day, but studies also show that workplace culture, bullying, disciplinary processes, and toxic workplace relationships all contribute to deteriorating mental health. Many businesses have policies for mental health and workplace wellness, but for those who are trying to cope with challenging workloads and suffering at the same time, policies may not be enough. Very often, people hide what they are feeling for fear they will be stigmatised or punished. Policies need to be backed up with empathetic intervention by managers who have the right combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. Yet, managers are rarely trained to either recognise or manage conversations with team members who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. So, what can managers do to de-stigmatise mental health issues? 1. Create an organisational culture where there is respect for people. This sounds simple, but in practice, it rarely is. Most mental health issues arise from toxic relationships, bullying, harassment or power dynamics. Changing the culture around this would go a long way in helping to eliminate some mental health issues. 2. Train all managers and team leaders in ‘soft’ skills. Help people develop the ability to listen to what is not being said and read body language so that they can pay attention to those they manage. Stress and anxiety are felt, not spoken, so managers must be attuned to how it is expressed. 3. Encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workload. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too high. Also, ensure that employees’ jobs are manageable within the time for which they are contracted. Expanding job creep is one starting place for stress in organisations. Monitoring this aspect of an organisation’s behaviour alone could impact significantly on mental health. 4. Allow staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours, as they would for other medical appointments. This proactive initiative sends an important signal that mental health is a priority in your organisation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “the state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The WHO definition provides a policy template for organisations wishing to create a culture in which the mental health of all workers is prioritised, not only those with mental health issues. It offers an interesting insight into how an organisation might be structured if mental wellbeing was the organising principle. As mental health issues continue to increase both within and beyond the workplace, perhaps the WHO definition isn’t so far-fetched. Putting people at the centre of organisations used to be the way we did things; putting the mental health of employees at the centre of organisations may be the way we need to do things in the 21st century. Dr Annette Clancy is Assistant Professor of Management at UCD School of Art, History and Cultural Policy.

Jun 02, 2020

Building a culture of inclusion and belonging is now more important than ever. Rachel Power shares her insights from PwC’s experience thus far. Not that long ago, we were all clear on our plans. Our strategies were set, with events and meetings scheduled in the diversity and inclusion calendar for the year ahead. All the behaviours and operating norms we took for granted changed in what seemed like the flick of a switch. COVID-19 has led to new terms in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) world, which we would not have understood just a few months ago. The main one at the heart of PwC’s strategy is ‘inclusive distancing’ – how can we all be more inclusive while maintaining a distance that is outside the norm. Another element that is core to our current D&I work is just how little has changed. While our medium may differ, the core elements of our strategy remain the same around inclusion, wellness and flexibility and focusing on tools and training for the future. Our long-standing D&I values have helped us navigate through this crisis, and this was supported in no small part by our investment in technology.  More important than ever Several items already high on our strategic agenda have helped us navigate and transition relatively seamlessly into this new remote working world, in which building on our culture of inclusion and belonging is more important than ever. Our D&I focus was on three areas before the arrival of COVID-19, and all three ring true during this time: Nurturing an environment of inclusion and belonging; Living our values, putting wellness and flexibility at the core; and Leveraging tools and training for the future. We set these objectives before the pandemic, but they are still as relevant now as ever. Transforming our workforce and the way we work requires us to have diverse, talented people from different backgrounds; people who have different experiences and who bring innovation, creativity, and fresh perspectives. No one size fits all This new era of working remotely – or smart working, as we call it – brings challenges that can present in different ways for our diverse team. We are all different, with distinct personal circumstances, and deal with problems in unique ways. Some people are balancing work and caring for their family; others may be away from their family and friends. Some have family on the front line, relatives who have been sick, or family members who may not be well. A one-size approach certainly does not fit all. While many of us worked flexibly before the crisis, our approach to flexibility has been taken to a new level. Arrangements that worked in the past are in many cases no longer viable, as many of our people now balance many things including work. The new world of flexible working may, therefore, involve doing some work very early and then taking a couple of hours during the day for caring responsibilities or exercise, before returning to work later. It is all about balance and finding ways to make it work. Again, this comes back to having inclusive and values-based leaders and ensuring that the right conversations happen so that the solutions work for everyone. Focus on wellbeing Focusing on the wellbeing of our people, particularly to support those struggling with a diverse range of circumstances, has been at the top of our priority list at PwC. Through our Be Well, Work Well programme, we provide a variety of supports including one-to-one psychologist sessions, parenting, nutrition and fitness classes, and we continue to host regular wellbeing seminars. Communicating regularly with our people, and in different ways, has been vital. From transforming our intranet into a ‘smart hub for smart working’ to regular emails, leadership briefings and FAQs, we continue to foster a culture of inclusion. There is undoubtedly more to do as the end to this pandemic is far from sight. However, our values, strategic direction, and technology will help steer us through this and ultimately strengthen D&I throughout our firm and beyond. Rachel Power is Diversity & Inclusion Senior Manager at PwC Ireland.

Jun 02, 2020

Ronan Dunne draws on his experience at the highest echelons of business to share his six leadership lessons. When I first worked in London as a banker, I was promoted three times in a period of about 15 months. I was an eager and highly qualified Chartered Accountant but in the first 12 months I worked late every evening. Then, I started working on Saturday and Sunday. I worked my socks off and for the first year, it was a remarkably successful strategy – but then, I hit a wall. I had no more capacity. It was a completely unsustainable model and it did not take me long to realise that unless I could invent an eighth day in the week, I would need to change my management style. The lessons that follow are based on my experience as a Chartered Accountant in business, and one who often had to learn lessons the hard way. Some may be more relevant to you than others, but I nevertheless hope that you find them useful. Lesson 1: It is not what you do, it is what you make happen When Chartered Accountants start out in their careers, they are largely personal contributors. They have a very specific role and success is defined by the outcome or the output of their particular job. Increasingly, however, we realise that this approach is based on an old-fashioned, hierarchical business model. In modern society, and for millennials in particular, painting inside the lines is not an attractive proposition – even in your first job. So, discover as early as possible in your career that your success does not just depend exclusively on what you do; it also hinges on what you make happen. Your capacity to impact and influence is infinite but your output is simply defined by hours in the day, no matter how hard and fast you work. At every point in your career, you have the opportunity to impact and influence those around you. Key takeaway: Take the opportunity to make a difference when it comes your way. Lesson 2: To be an effective leader, build an effective team The capacity to exceed expectations lies in how you blend the skills and capabilities of those around you. Effective teams do not simply do what any other team would; effective teams harness the unique talent, perspectives, and experience of their individual members in a way that enables the collective to achieve outcomes that would not otherwise be possible. When considering team formation, we sometimes think “I need someone for finance, someone for marketing, someone for legal” and so on. But actually, if you build a team correctly, you create space for each person to bring their own personality and their own unique perspective to the team. That is the secret ingredient to superior outcomes. Key takeaway: Every person within the team has a unique contribution to make. Lesson 3: Exercise judgement as to when to exercise judgement This might sound like a play on words but in my experience, people early in their career often have a desire to impress their superiors. They sometimes seek out opportunities to act decisively, to jump in and make a decision in order to demonstrate that they have what it takes to be a manager or a leader. In fact, they often demonstrate their inexperience by attempting to find a moment to showcase their decisiveness and by consequence, unwittingly illustrate their impatience. Very often, the wisest thing to do is to explain why a decision cannot be made due to a lack of information or context, for example. By all means, look for opportunities to exercise judgement but remember that judgement can sometimes be best exercised by not deciding and explaining why. Key takeaway: When meeting with senior executives, remember that rushing to make an impact may make you look like an idiot. Lesson 4: Leadership should happen at every level In business, decisions are best made closest to the point of impact. An effective organisation therefore ensures that those who make decisions have the right context and the discretion to decide, because hierarchy on its own does not always work. In a team, the most senior member is not always the natural leader on a particular topic or project so to be continually effective, teams should encourage those closer to the issue to take the helm. That means cultivating the flexibility to have junior members lead the way. Indeed, the biggest challenge facing larger organisations is their established hierarchical models. Such companies recruit bright, young, and digitally literate people but in too many cases they leave after a year or two because they get completely disillusioned. Despite understanding more about behavioural trends or other issues that may be affecting the business, their opinion is never sought out because they are three or four levels down in the organisation. Leaders need to empower those people and accept a certain amount of risk. There must be permission to fail but even in organisations with a mild risk tolerance, this concept creates a space in which an organisation’s collective potential can be nurtured. Key takeaway: Acknowledging context is critical to effective decision-making. Couple that with delegated authority and permission to fail, and you have a solid foundation for a highly effective organisation. Lesson 5: Authenticity is the gateway to true leadership My view of authenticity is built on two ideas – one is a personal insight and the other builds on the elements discussed above. I became a CEO for the first time with O2 in the UK when we were on the cusp of a major recession. I had a successful career up to that point but when I took over as CEO, I struggled for the first six months because I spent a lot of time wondering what other people would have done in my situation. In many jobs, you are the subject matter expert but as CEO, you are a jack of all trades and often master of none. Then, I had an almost spiritual moment when I realised that I had 27 years of rich experience. It became clear that the only way I could do my job was to be myself. So, as a leader, you need to ask yourself: who are you? People rarely challenge themselves with this question. I describe myself as chief cheerleader and chief storyteller. I am an extrovert, a joiner-upper, an enthusiast – and I use that to be a front-row leader because that just happens to be my natural style. So ultimately, the best way to be successful in any role is to be yourself. The second thing is that when you are the boss, nobody asks you a question that they know the answer to. This leaves you with a strange obligation to know the answer to everything, but CEOs manage uncertainty amid many shades of grey and it can be quite liberating to realise that the CEO can and should say: “You know what, I am concerned about that as well.” If you do that, you help your people work things out, find solutions, and build answers to organisational challenges with a sense of togetherness. Key takeaway: Know your strengths and acknowledge that you do not – and should not – have the answer to every question. Lesson 6: Know the question before you try to answer it There is massive structural impatience in organisations and as a result, I see much more ‘ready, fire, aim’ than ‘ready, aim, fire’. Too often organisations run towards an assumption of what the question (and answer) is; they are in action mode immediately. But a little time working out the precise nature of the question will invariably bring you closer to the answer. Organisations consistently do two things wrong: they press ahead to answer a part-formed question, and they do not allow talent to flourish because hierarchy gets in the way. Key takeaway: Define the question clearly before embarking on the search for an answer. Ronan Dunne FCA is CEO at Verizon Consumer Group.

Jun 02, 2020

Caroline Pope considers the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and their relevance as a framework to rebuild resilient companies as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. At present, the full impact of COVID-19 on the Irish and global economy is not yet clear. However, the ability of society to work together towards a common goal has been recognised and should form part of the recovery. In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) were adopted by all member states. Their purpose is to coordinate efforts to improve human lives, protect the environment, and ensure the sustainable development of our societies. Sustainability may not be the most obvious lens through which one should assess the abnormal events of recent months. Yet trends are emerging, which may make business leaders think more deeply about sustainability in the context of their organisations. Below, we outline three of these factors. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience. There is growing evidence that businesses that have already aligned their strategy with the UN SDGs are more resilient to an economic shock. The UN SDGs are not going away. The future business landscape is uncertain, but increasing evidence points to an operating environment that favours businesses that align with the principles of sustainability. A business strategy aligned with the UN SDGs can create value. Aligning a business strategy with the UN SDGs may seem like a daunting process, but there are well-understood methodologies that can be applied. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience  Businesses that align their core strategy with the UN SDGs (also known as ‘sustainable businesses’) take a broader, stakeholder-based view of their activities. As a result, these businesses tend to demonstrate a deeper understanding of oft-overlooked or under-valued areas of their companies, such as supply chains, and their degree of interconnectedness with society in general. This broader understanding, which is the result of UN SDG alignment, can position them to respond more rapidly to the threats that COVID-19 represents to their stakeholders. In particular, supply chains are coming under increasing pressure due to the global nature of COVID-19, combined with the increasingly international scope of business. The advice from supply chain experts such as Richard Wilding OBE, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield University, is to “urgently review their supply chain to find out how exposed they are… it’s still common for businesses to just deal with a central HQ of a supplier and not know what route the supplies they need are taking”. Full alignment with UN SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, will drive businesses towards total supply chain transparency; they will know each factory where their inputs are processed and all the intermediate steps along the way. These businesses are in a much better position than those rushing to uncover their true supply chain risks amid a crisis. This seemingly serendipitous point illustrates a key feature of SDG alignment: it is consistent with well-managed operations. Alignment with SDGs has also made companies more resilient. For example, there has been a paradigm shift for many businesses since COVID-19 emerged as they have sought to facilitate organisation-wide remote-working to prevent activity grinding to a halt. Contrast this with sustainable businesses such as Vodafone who, in recent years, saw remote working as a means of advancing Goal 5, Gender Equality, and have already invested in the infrastructure to facilitate this. Finally, sustainable businesses enjoyed a higher degree of investor confidence before the economy shut down and seem to continue to enjoy a higher degree of investor confidence as the shut-down continues. Figures published by Funds Europe suggest that values of European sustainable funds dropped by 10.6%, compared with the “overall European fund universe” which declined by 16.2%. Robeco, the global asset manager, has also found a positive relationship between lower credit risk and sector alignment with SDGs. The RobecoSAM Global SDG Credits strategy outperformed the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Index by +90 basis points in March of this year. To compound these data points, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI) membership group recommends that all signatories (which represents $86.3 trillion in assets under management) support sustainable companies through the crisis in the interest of public health and long-term economic performance, even if that limits short-term returns. The UN SDGs are not going away The existential threat of COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus other threats of a similar scale, such as climate change and social inequality. The global response to COVID-19 has shown that there is a willingness to embrace long-term changes and drive towards a common goal. This sense of spirit will likely fade as the crisis abates, but it is unlikely to disappear totally. Companies that genuinely embedded purpose before March 2020 are likely to experience favourable trade winds from an upturn due to the opportunity for reflection (and social media opinions) by customers and employees during the lockdown. As societies get over the initial shock of the pandemic and the focus shifts from lockdown to restart, the critical question is how to put the economy and society on a trajectory that lasts. There is a growing consensus in Europe, for example, that the required economic stimulus will have a green hue. In April, the Government of Ireland indicated that it fully supports the EU Green Deal proposed as the central tenet of an economic recovery plan, aligning with 16 other member states. The EU Green Deal provides a roadmap towards a clean, circular economy, restoring biodiversity and cutting pollution. The proposed EU direction of travel is very much aligned with the UN SDGs and this political environment should create an opportunity for businesses that choose to swim with the current. Investors, such as Blackrock, have signalled that regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still expect companies to continue with their ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets. Blackrock has pledged to vote against the directors and boards of companies that fail to meet its expectations to manage environmental risk in 2020 and called for companies to report in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework. The asset manager expects companies to publicly report how sustainability risks and opportunities are integrated into business strategy. In an Irish context, the UN SDG Index report, released in 2019, shows significant challenges to Ireland meeting several key metrics, including SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 17 (Partnerships). This is due in part to an absence of information, but also reflects our known challenges on climate action. This was a negative result for Ireland, and there will likely be an emphasis from the Government on these three SDGs as part of the recovery package. While we are all preparing for a change in dialogue and a focus on climate action once the new government is formed, SDG 12 (which focuses on responsible consumption and production) presents a similarly large opportunity. In particular, companies that have already implemented a more circular model for resource management and waste streams are benefiting from a first-mover advantage in the circular economy. A business strategy aligned to the SDGs can create value  Given the significant opportunities and risks associated with the UN SDGs, companies that excel at identifying and incorporating these issues into their strategy enjoy a competitive advantage in the marketplace and among institutional investors. It is increasingly clear that sustainability and return on investment are connected. To help boards understand and shape the total impact of a company’s strategy and operations externally – on the environment, the company’s consumers and employees, the communities in which it operates, and other stakeholders – and internally on the company’s performance, I suggest a five-part framework (refer to Table 2). This framework for board oversight recognises that creating long-term value increasingly requires companies to understand the impact of their strategies on key stakeholders – investors, employees, customers, and communities – as well as on the natural resources and supply chains that the company relies on, all of which are fundamental elements of the SDGs. An integrated commercial strategy encourages companies and boards to widen their aperture for a fuller view of sustainability, strategy, and long-term performance. Wherever the company is on the sustainability journey, this framework can help to drive a robust conversation about what sustainability risks and opportunities may impact the company’s key stakeholders, corporate strategy, and long-term performance, and how they will be addressed. Aligning with SDGs will help businesses identify risks and opportunities that may have been omitted from previous analysis and will also provide them with a better understanding of their stakeholders and their relevance to those stakeholders. By communicating their progress towards SDGs, companies can enhance their reputation both internally (with employees) and externally (with the broader public); this transparency contributes to enhanced trust and confidence in the companies’ operations and contribution to society. The improved trust may then result in more robust and sustainable economic, environmental, and social performance. Companies that identify and incorporate these issues into their strategy will stand apart as forward-thinking organisations, future-proofed, well-managed, and able to recover quickest in a post-COVID-19 environment. In conclusion The changes we have experienced in the first months of this year will have a devastating impact on the global economy, but this in no way diminishes the relevance of the UN SDGs despite being conceived in a more stable environment. Businesses that have already aligned their strategies and practices have shown enhanced resilience – sometimes in unexpected ways. In the absence of a crystal ball, it is hard to predict the next six months, let alone the next decade. Still, there are many indicators that the operating environment will be even more favourable to businesses that effectively integrate sustainability into their core business strategy. Organisations that rise to these challenges and show leadership will be rewarded by their stakeholders and gain access to new opportunities. Those that fail to act may put their margins and even their business models at risk.   Caroline Pope is Associate Director at KPMG Sustainable Futures, a cross-functional team of experts who help corporate and public sector clients plan and execute programmes addressing environmental, social and governance topics, decarbonisation, and long-term value creation.

Jun 02, 2020
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