Despite a broad embrace of flexible working, Joanne Ogg, Managing Partner at EY’s Auckland offices, sees in-person connection as a cornerstone of EY’s future work and organisational culture.

JEREMY HANSEN What has your experience of working during the pandemic been like, and what has it taught you about how you want to work from now on?

JOANNE OGG There are two answers: the EY view and an individual bit. Right from the beginning of the pandemic we’ve been hugely people-first, health-first. Where you could open your office, our stance has been that it’s absolutely up to the individual to decide how they want to work and where they want to work, and we won’t require people to come to the office.

Prior to the pandemic we had always said we were a flexible employer and I think we were, but I don’t think anyone really forced the working from home issue on us. Then overnight everyone had to learn how to do it. We ended up with a lot of people who got
really comfortable, saved themselves an enormous amount of travel time and cost and are really happy at home. We’ve got another group who don’t want to be at home and really like the demarcation between home and work – they like coming to the city and seeing who’s in the office and having a chat. Then you’ve got this hybrid crew that like the best of both worlds – they are probably the largest group, saying they’ll do a few days in the office and a few at home, or part of the day in the office and part of it at home.

So we’re dealing with our personal choices and also our client requirements and making sure everyone feels happy with the decisions they make. That has seen a wholesale drop in people coming to the office, and we’ve seen it takes longer and longer after each lockdown to get back to what we thought was the norm.

And then you’ve got another interesting thing: we are recruiting and bringing on heaps of people every week. For months and months it’s been, ‘Welcome to your new employer, we’ll courier out a laptop and give you a crash course in Teams. You’re in and let’s get moving’. We’ve probably had 120 new people start. You can see they want to meet people and want that sense of connection, yet there’s hardly anyone in any other parts of the business. There’s a cohort of fresh, well-dressed people – because they haven’t learned you can come in in a T-shirt and shorts if you want to – all wanting to start their careers with us and there’s this odd situation of a ghost town that they’ve walked into.

JH Do you have concerns about how you build a sense of culture among those new hires and retain them in the longer term?

JO I know we’re at our best when we have a collection of people working as a team in a purpose-built open-plan environment, where there’s chit-chat and banter but there’s also so much learning that goes on. Someone will be talking to a colleague and a new employee might listen and learn something about how to deal with a situation. That’s a hugely lost set of connections and learning that’s just not happening now. I’m quite concerned about that on-the-job, indirect way that people learn to have relationships, learn how to discuss stuff, learn to read body language, learn to work out if people are having a good day or not, and if not, maybe asking someone if they’re all right and taking them for a coffee. What makes us a really good place to work is people feeling like we are really caring for them – because we are – and that we’re connected with people, we know how their weekend was, we know when they’re not having a good day, we know when something amazing has just happened with a client. If I’m working at home I don’t pick up and dial you on Teams and say I’ve just had a shit of an hour. You’ve got to arrange all of that, so we’ve lost this spontaneous way of working, and that’s the value where I feel we have a massive hole. This whole generation that’s come on board in the last two years has never had that, so they don’t know what they’re missing and therefore won’t know how to do it or create it or seek it. So I’m determined with this new grad cohort that we try to engender a good reason for them to come into the office. And part of that is the wider Britomart precinct and what that offers – you know, people really want to be there because they love going out at lunch, they love the bean bags in the sun, or they love that there was a DJ playing music the other day. Some of that really does engender connection. It gives people a reason to get up and go and get some fresh air and make connections, and talk about it when they’re home at night. You come to work and get the benefit of being in the office, but it’s an extended benefit when you’ve got stuff to look at.

JH It sounds like you have a pretty clear sense about what gaps are becoming apparent with remote work.

JO The art of conversation is being lost I reckon. How do you go and have a good old natter, how do you look someone in the eye and give them some good feedback? How do you meet a client and get to the bottom of their issues and be able to help them? This stuff is hard to do on Teams. Have we got by in the last two years? Yeah. Has our business grown? Yes. Have we still done some amazing stuff? Absolutely. But I think it could have been better. Do we have a whole portion of people who we haven’t seen [in person] for two years? Yes. Do I worry about it? Yes. Do I worry that they’re not coming in, do I worry that I don’t really know what’s going on? Yep. Are there some productivity questions? Maybe. But more of a worry is that there’s not that sense of connection and loyalty and we’re in a really tight labour market and retention is number one for us. It’s harder to retain people when they’re isolated or unconnected.

JH So as we look ahead, how are you going to foster the sense of connection you want while also accommodating this desire for flexible working arrangements? How do you navigate that?

JO I think we’re really clear, we won’t be putting in any policy to make people come in. We never wanted to do that and nothing has changed on that. It’s all about enabling a voluntary kind of want, and creating an environment people want to be part of. We can do team meetings that are come-in or dial-in – lots of hybrid options – so people can feel their way around how they are that day and still have a way of connecting. We’ll be creating events and trying to get as many people in as we can. In the office we do cookie day – come in and we’re serving you hot cookies and coffee at your desk. So there is some office-generated connection, then it’s down to individuals to go, do you want to come in, why don’t we meet this person in person? We’re asking at a team level, what do you want to do to try and connect?

JH You seem to see as much opportunity as potential disadvantage in the path ahead.

JO I think there’s more upside in trying to get people in and working collaboratively as a team. But I don’t think there’s too much downside for us in the current state. We’re sitting in a pretty privileged position: we’re not reliant on people needing to be in a physical place. Having said that, having people connected is the upside that I’m talking about. It’s still important. We have a social responsibility as a tenant and a brand in the city to be here supporting the city. That’s something we feel really strongly about. We’ve kept our space, we haven’t downsized, that’s a really important signal that we’re growing and really want to still be here.

JH EY is a company that has its headquarters in city centres globally. What is it about city centres that carry such importance for the company?

JO Globally that is absolutely our view. We really walked the talk in Christchurch after the earthquakes after many years out in Addington; lots of businesses ended up settling in the fringe and we said no way, we’re going back to the city. We feel we’re a brand that people will follow and cluster around us. Transport is hugely important and that’s why we love it here [at Britomart]: people can connect from all around Auckland. There’s also the visibility of our brand: you can see it from the ferry and from the Shore. We’re attracting a professional, highly educated set of workers who are often living in the city or close to the city because they enjoy the benefits the city brings in terms of social connections. And it’s a hub here. Our brand is purposed on A-grade property and highly skilled professional team members. And then you need to think about the clients we’re servicing as well. There’s a good bunch of our clients who are walking distance from us, or an e-bike ride. We’ve got a fleet of them that we offer to our team to be able to connect around town quickly.

JH After this experience of working from home during the pandemic, do you think you have a sense of how to build culture without people necessarily being present in an office every day?

JO I think we’re still working it out. We have still been able to build culture virtually because we had to. And there have been some innovative ways of using tech that we’ve been able to utilise. There are people that started with us who some people have probably never met apart from online. We’re really connected to our Wellington and Christchurch teams as well. We’re using tech really well, but the physical element is the icing on the cake.

JH If people are working differently – including when they’re in the office – what does the future configuration of your office spaces look like to you?

JO We’re just starting to think about that now. We’ve got a whole team working out of Australia on that topic. What does that future work look like? We’ve had a couple of years now of learning what we might change and do differently. We know a few things need to change in how offices are configured, and technology has definitely given us options. The whole sustainability piece is a really important part of the purpose. Our teams want to see an active reduction in emissions, and transport is hugely important to that. Enabling people to bike and get to us in a different way will help them feel they’re not doing more damage. What we’ve learnt is, you’ve got to be agile, and a policy of ‘what’s good for you is good for us’ has seen us through and will continue to.

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