In this interview, Jonathan Wheeler, Regional Director MEA, TMF Group, shares with Global Career Company’s Tadiwanashe Mandivenga how the pandemic affected TMF, how international expansion has been affected by the virus and how it is being managed. He also provides insights into trends in the professional services industry based on learnings from the last year.
What are some of the challenges that Covid-19 has presented for TMF and how were they overcome?
One of the challenges was concerned with technology. We had to change the way that we worked in terms of working remotely. It took some time to work through and get used to, but in the end it actually
turned out well. We benefitted from the fact that almost a year ago, we swapped out all of our desktops for laptops and docking stations, so that helped to make the transition easier.
Another big challenge was around employee wellness which encompasses a range of different subjects and nuances. As a result of this being an uncertain time and the anxiety and stress that comes with that, as well as people being on their own while working remotely, a person’s mind can start wondering which could take a toll on their mental wellbeing. We actively try to speak to all of our staff as regularly as we can to give them reassurance. One of the things we have been doing is having daily staff meetings about the coronavirus, just to update everyone and check in with them. Response rates have varied massively during this period, but it has been a valuable experience in terms of informing us about how everyone is feeling. In cases where we have had to really focus on certain people’s mental health, we have put in various structures and processes around that to help them as best as we can.
Additionally, we noticed that when people are working remotely, it is difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance, so we try to make sure that people do take time off to recharge.
Lastly, as restrictions start to ease up and people are slowly returning to the offices, working out how to transition back safely and in such a way that gives our clients and staff confidence that we are doing the right things is a complicated process due to government guidelines in addition to our own internal guidelines.
As a result of remote working and the various restrictions because of the pandemic, in what ways would you say leadership has changed in TMF and how has this informed the way it will be done going forward?
It has made us concentrate more on things that are or should be core skills and requirements of leadership. For example, communication. Dealing with people working remotely during an uncertain
period of time requires a lot more communication than before. If we look at my role in particular, I am communicating remotely 90% of the time anyway because I am based in Dubai whereas my staff are
in many different places, so communication is a skill I have always needed to have, but I would say it has become more focused because of the pandemic.
What can you tell us about how international expansion has been affected by the virus and how that is being managed?
It has been a little bit strange in some ways. I would say that things really slowed down from around April/May last year as a lot of projects were put on hold and the lockdowns in Western Europe, the US and Asia put a kibosh on things.
What we have seen since then is that business has picked up quite strongly and a lot quicker than I expected. It varies from country to country and where investments are coming from, but from my perspective, a lot of the enquiries and investments from China and South-East Asia resumed a lot quicker as well as from the US. More recently, expansion on capital has come through from Europe.
As far as destinations are concerned, I would say that from a sub-Saharan African perspective, those who recovered the fastest in terms of new enquiries are Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and a fair number of opportunities have come through for the DRC recently as well. What I did find from looking at the wider area was that a lot of the opportunities came back to the Middle East before they went back to Africa. The uptick for business in Africa has probably been a bit more recent whereas for the Middle East, it started a couple of months before that.
Would you say that there is more of an appetite to internationalise at the moment?
There is still a desire to internationalise but there is still a lot of caution as well. One of our largest clients actually approached us specifically to talk about Africa and expanding into it for the first time. So, people are definitely thinking about it, and it is definitely on the radar, but there is still caution being taken.
Despite the challenges that were brought about by the pandemic, have there been any new business opportunities that have come about as a result of it for TMF?
Yes. Actually, fairly early on during the pandemic we were able to advise our clients on all of the various measures and programs that different governments announced as a response to the pandemic.
This was to try and make sense of what was going on in countries across the world and advise our clients about that which was very well received by them.
There have always been new opportunities in some countries. For example, there were some capital market opportunities in South Africa which we have been pursuing.
Finally, can you give us some insight into some trends that you foresee in your industry based on learnings from this past year?
One trend which is going to be here to stay is having a more flexible working environment where people are able to work from home more. Partly because it is being demanded from people as they have become accustomed to it and also because from a financial perspective, it allows people to deliver the same or more with less office space.
I don’t think there will be a dramatic shift in my area of business because there are still a lot of government and security controls which need to be in place for which an office space is required.
From an employee wellness perspective, a collegiate atmosphere needs to be maintained however, there will certainly be more flexibility than there was before.