Accenture CEO Julie Sweet - remote working is here to stay, but don't sell off the office space just yet...

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 30, 2020
Accenture CEO Julie Sweet is talking to her peers about the challenges of remote working and a return to the workplace, while her own firm executes some necessary talent management to meet changed skills needs.

Accenture CEO
(via Accenture )

We're in the 'Big Shock', right? 

That comment from Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, might apply to so many of us right now, including herself. As she noted last month, she’d only just got her feet under the top table at the services giant when COVID-19 kicked in and everything changed. As organizations now look to re-open workplaces and strive for some form of ‘new normal’, the Accenture leader’s assessment of the situation has evolved: 

This crisis is unique in two ways. First, it has created the largest ever change in human behavior, at scale and almost instantaneously, requiring companies to fill new demand trends, change how they engage with customers and adapt quickly to volatile market conditions, all of which require a strong digital foundation just as they also face massive cost pressures.

Second, the pandemic is happening during a period of exponential technology change, which was already driving entirely new ways of doing business. In our Future Systems research last year, we identified the top 10% of companies in terms of tech adoption, depth and culture where the leaders are performing twice as well, and the bottom 25%. We believe COVID immediately widened that gap. We see the leaders doubling down on their investments, while the laggards recognize the need to accelerate the pace of their transformation.

One transformative impact of the virus has, of course, been the widely-seen shift to remote working, a prime example of what Sweet refers to when she talks about a change of human behavior. The question for business leaders now is what happens as workplaces are refitted to be COVID-safe? Will employees want to return to the office? Are the trust levels there to make that happen? Or do CEOs have some strategic re-thinking to do around HCM? 

Remote thoughts

In her view, Sweet reckons that remote working is here to stay at what she calls “a pretty high level” for some time to come. This means, she suggests, there is a task ahead in working with Accenture clients to help them to understand and adjust to this changed reality. It’s a step-by-step learning experience, but not rushing into selling off office space is good starting point, she cautions: 

I give a lot of advice to CEOs about this because there are some who've got really excited about, ‘Let's get rid of all our real estate!’. Back in the '90s, we [at Accenture] pioneered remote working and we called it ‘hoteling’, and, particularly in the US, we took out a lot of real estate because we said, ‘Our people are at our client sites and/or they could be home’. And what we found, in fact, over the last five years when I was running North America, we started gradually to expand the [real estate] footprint again because there is a benefit of bringing people together as well.

There are likely to be different attitudes to remote working in different parts of an organization as well, she adds: 

I was just talking to a technology company yesterday where what they've said is, ‘Look, everything is working pretty well, except R&D’, not because R&D needs to be in the office, but they're just struggling to collaborate as well…What it has helped CEOs really understand is some of the areas in some industries that have resisted -  say, finance and accounting -  and certain areas saying, ‘No, no, no, we need to have the teams together!’,  is to recognize that they can really re-think what should they do in-house.

Of course, the shift to remote working has also been a business opportunity for Accenture: 

We've enabled lots of companies to work remotely. Whether it was an aerospace and defense company on G-Suite, 100,000 people, or the NHS hospital system with Teams, over one million people, companies have really adapted. Where we have the advantage is because we've been remote and because we are a global company and have a strong tradition of working with our clients around the globe, we've just adapted very quickly. 

Talent management 

Sweet also points to Accenture’s work on the People+Work Connect analytics platform, created in association with Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) from Lincoln Financial Group, ServiceNow and Verizon:

This platform is a global online employer-to-employer initiative to bring together, at no cost, companies that have laid off or furloughed people with organizations in urgent need of workers. Designed by CHROs, including our own extraordinary CHRO Ellyn Shook, Accenture built the platform in only 14 days. The response has been overwhelming -  more than 1300 organizations across approximately 80 countries have engaged with the currently about 400,000 positions already on the platform, which are balanced between open needs and availability.

For its part, around 95% of Accenture’s workforce has operated remotely over the past few months as almost every geography in which the firm has a presence entered lockdown. That workforce has also seen some changes of its own in responding to the skills needs of servicing clients during the crisis. Sweet explains: 

Since the beginning of March, when we hit COVID and we saw the shift in demand in technology, we have re-skilled 37,000 people in hot areas, like cloud. These are in sort of 15 to 20-hour modules of re-skilling to pivot. We've taken our Strategy and Consulting people and pivoted to some of the needs for operations in the public sector, because those require those insights. 

The resiliency of a business like ours, because we're in multiple industries, multiple types of work, [means] we’re able to seamlessly move people who are used to working in these multi-dimensional teams anyway. And by the way, our people love it, because they get great new opportunities…We think we're going to come out much stronger because of how we're delivering for our people.

My take

A lot of what we're doing now is taking all of our learning capabilities and building that in for our clients to help them rotate their talent, which they need to do as well.

The re-training of so many Accenture employees is an impressive talent management response to crisis conditions. That said, the firm is having to take tough ‘new world of work’ decisions of its own. Start dates for some new hires have been pushed back, some promotions have been put on hold and hiring in general has slowed down, other than to meet the need to replace sub-contractors. Those are operational learnings in their own right that other organizations will have to take on board as they engage with their own ‘return to work’ decisions. 

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