Is 'Virtual Working' a Sustainable Option for GBS & Shared Services Centers?

How the new workplace and Future of Work will play out

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Simon Brown
01/31/2021

'Virtual' is Working

Virtual working has become the new normal for shared services teams and whilst initial adjustments were needed, it has proved itself eminently doable and, in some cases even sustainable.

2020 changed our paradigm, our view of the world, the way we work and where we work. Global Business Services (GBS) and functional shared centres located in 'fit for purpose' offices and cities, and operating as regional hubs, were suddenly forced to move to home offices. Face-to-face meetings turned into Zoom, MS Teams, or WebEx meetings. Fixed desk computers migrated to PC laptops, and customer service management (CSM) tools were re-routed.

Since the millennium, organisations have been trending towards offshoring and outsourcing, and/or the co-location of functional and customer service transaction centres into single business office hubs. This helped to drive cost savings through labour arbitrage, but also developed cross-team flexibility and skills building by sharing training and knowledge transfer across onsite teams.  By the mid-noughties this approach was the norm – a standard model of working. The gradual evolution of cloud-based technology, robotics, AI, and chatbots, has only served to evolve the model over the last decade.

When "lifting and shifting" transactional work from country sites to centres, the norm was for the GBS/shared services team to visit the country to discover the ways of working and conduct knowledge transfer through face-to-face workshops. Covid-19 changed all that. One of the enterprises I have worked with successfully transferred work from the USA, Mexico, and Spain without ever visiting those countries. All discovery, knowledge transfer, training, go-live and hyper-care routines have been conducted via MS Teams.

This virtual working that has become the norm since March 2020, and even earlier for some countries, reminds me of my own 'virtual working' experience with a global FMCG organisation in 2007.

During that time, I was asked to set up an HR shared services organisation and operate it in a way which was counter-intuitive and against the trend of outsourcing and offshoring so popular at the time.

Why did we buck the trend back then? And how did we sustain that model through to 2010? Are the same reasons still relevant today? Assess for yourself.

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'Virtual' in 2007

In late 2007, the company's management moved forward with its corporate mantra of “speed, scale, and simplicity” to standardise some key regional and global HR processes. This also served to ensure a consistent way of working, and reliable services to internal clients. The goal was for international managers whose responsibility spanned a range of countries to have one point of contact and one way of working with key transactional processes.

All standard so far, right?

And yet, this represented a start-up situation, where processes were variable and often led by personalities, not process owners. In fact, process mapping looked like a bowl of spaghetti, with lots of twists and turns.

We moved quickly to recruit and train our shared services team. This is how we did it:

  1. We transferred existing high-potential and well-performing HR team members into the new HR shared services Virtual Centre. This was done quickly, within weeks not months. We supplemented this with a couple of external hires with specialist skills and previous HR shared services experience.
  2. The team members already knew the company culture and the key stakeholders, and brought their language skills with them – English, German, French, Greek, etc., – because they were from London, Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, and Athens; all key office hubs for the company. And they stayed in those locations.
  3. We ensured that the selection process (based on an assessment centre methodology) meant we could choose change agents with a strong customer service orientation, and a process management and process improvement mindset.
  4. Being a change agent based in a key stakeholder hub meant the ability to influence managers, employees, and the local HR team, to embrace the new way of working.
  5. Fortunately, technology was an enabler. Even back in 2007, the company had video conferencing, large-screen, meeting rooms in each hub-site around Europe. Some of the solutions already set up included an ERP platform with: SAP functionality; manager / employee self-service for Performance Management goal setting and review; Personal Development Planning; and a Manager's Toolbox for reporting on teams. In addition there was Lync, an early version of WhatsApp and Live chat, on PCs. Telephony routing between European offices enabled coverage for an HR Service Desk across the region. We were also able to set up a single email address and inbox, which facilitated requests for support from the shared services team, wherever they were based.
  6. We leveraged the “Enabling Fast Change” methodology, and branded HR Service as “The HR Service Network – enabling you to grow your business” with a sunflower motif – symbolic for bright organic growth. We also designed an infographic to display the six service areas we supported, with the names and photos of the process owners for each. This made it easy to remember for our customers. The branding, together with helpdesk business cards, was positioned on each office desk as an aide memoir.
  7. We focused on general HR processes where we wanted to establish consistency across Europe, and had process owners assigned to these, with back-ups for flexibility. These processes were:
    • Talent acquisition support (using direct sourcing methods and video interviewing)
    • Onboarding support, where all new hires across Europe would attend a centralised onboarding webinar via video conferencing
    • Performance management from start of year goal setting, through mid-year review, and end-of-year feedback and assessment
    • Learning and development logistics support for the corporate university
    • Data management and integrity with coaching guidance to managers for their toolbox reporting and metrics, and leadership of a site-by-site data champions network
    • European mobility services to expats and secondees.

How it worked

The team worked together (virtually) for over two years. We only met face-to-face as a whole team twice in that time: Once at the start for the Selection Assessment, for two days at a Heathrow Airport Hotel; and a few months later, also for two days, in the Athens office, when we were doing our enabling fast change training as change agents and choosing our branding.

We did, however, meet as a team every two weeks via video conference, for an operational excellence review meeting. I also conducted one-to-ones with each team member twice a month, where we focused on personal development plans as well as operational tasks within their process, and progress on goals and objectives.

As the HR shared services Director, I visited our key stakeholder cluster sites around Europe every couple of months to meet with senior leaders, the voice of the customer representative, and my two or three team members located at each site.

During these two years we had zero staff turnover and a good level of teamworking and support, as well as sharing of knowledge. Our virtual dialogues via technology were the glue for our way of working, and our performance metrics were strong.

This was a fast build method for launching an HR shared services Virtual Centre. Recruitment and redundancy costs were low, because we recruited from existing HR teams in each country. Travel costs were low. Productivity, measured by green lights on our SLAs, was high; and customer satisfaction 8 out of 10, and sustained.

After two years, we extended the virtual shared services model to include Eurasia and Africa, growing the team to around 50 staff.

When we created Global Business Services (GBS) in 2010, aligning with Finance and IT, 80% of my virtual HR shared services team were promoted to the GBS HR team, and some moved into Business Partner and Centre of Expertise roles. 

A couple of years after I left the company to move into HR Transformation consulting with NCR, CWT, BD and other global companies, the conventional route was followed, of relocating shared services to a captive co-location office in Eastern Europe – in this case Poland. The model continues to evolve.

 Lessons learned  

  1. For start-ups, this virtual shared services method is quick, low risk, low cost, and builds on leveraging existing knowledge and talent within the HR community.
  2. With the right support technology to keep communications open, and with regular virtual meetings and one-to-ones, a good working team spirit can soon  be established, engagement can be maintained, and service can be delivered effectively to meet customer satisfaction levels.
  3. Once established as a 'maintained and ran centre' you can move to a single regional bricks and mortar centre in a lower cost country if you have the scale as a business to make this worthwhile. By then you have already established trust in the new GBS/HR/Functional shared services model and the new ways of working, and have already minimised the risk of failure.
  4. Today, with cloud based HRIS technology and Laptop MS Teams and Zoom, working from home (as we office workers have been doing during Covid-19) is even more doable, saving desk space and real estate rentals of conventional large offices.
  5. We don’t even need to think of disaster recovery plans. Having several shared services centres spread across the globe protects us from having all our eggs in one basket, should an earthquake or tornado strike. We have all experienced a global pandemic – so you just pick up your laptop and smart phone and work from home!

Personal preferences in how we work

For most of us, it is a natural personal choice to meet face-to-face from time to time. Our extroverted self gets energy from social engagement with others, while our introverted self enjoys the time and space for reflection and concentration – the 'me time' that working from home brings.

Throughout 2020, HR functions and facilities management teams have been rewriting their flexible working policies and re-imagining their office arrangement to recognise social distancing of desks but still using meeting spaces and work areas. Managers have, for the most part, trusted their  teams to get on with work, focusing on outputs and customer service rather than the number of hours chained to the office desk.

Will this all revert  back to the old way of working in 2021, when we have had our vaccine shots? Or will a blended solution remain, reflecting the blurring of the edges in our daily working lives? Working from home is a challenge for some and a blessing for others. So, should we be open to the fact that one size does not fit all, and that each working day does not have to be played out in the same location?

Personally, I have found that virtual working in a global organisation can be productive. Engaging with people across continents from the comfort of my home study has been enriching, and I have reached out to more people via Zoom and MS Teams than I ever imagined I would – certainly more than I could ever have met in person.

Those 6.00am alarms to catch a crowded train to London, and the 4-hour daily commute, seem strange to me, now. Do I really want to get back to all that, when I can work just as well virtually?

How about you?

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