Co-founder Mazuma
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The challenges of working from home

Lucy Cohen, the co-founder of Mazuma, looks at how accountancy practices can stay productive, communicate effectively and get used to the new tech set up when working from home during the coronavirus crisis.

23rd Mar 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
Columnist
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Working from home
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If you’d have told me before Christmas that by March we’d be dealing with a global pandemic, I’m not sure I’d have believed you.

We’re currently living through the stuff of movies – worried-looking politicians flash up on our screens and call for people to pull together. Streets are eerily quiet. Everyone is on edge. But now the government has escalated its guidance from “social distancing” and “work from home where you can” to stricter orders.

In a televised broadcast to the nation, the Prime Minister outlined that the people could only leave their homes for limited purposes, and should only leave for work "where this absolutely cannot be done from home".

The Prime Minister also announced the closure of non-essential shops and stopped all gatherings of more than two people in public.

Accountancy firms will now have to adjust to the government's new measures to reduce the spread of the infection and shut their office doors and setup at home.   

As someone who spends a lot of my time working from my sofa, it wouldn’t be a massive shift for me. But for the rest of the staff in my company, maybe that’s more of an issue.

Like many businesses, we do have the capability for people to work from home. Flexible working and family-friendly policies over the years have shaped that ability. But the problem is that we’ve never had everyone work from home all at the same time. And having spoken to many other businesses, that has been the case for them too.

An IT department in a large legal firm I know specifically asked all staff to log on from home at the same time one evening to test their systems. Could their network even cope with that?

We’ve also been faced with the reality that not all of our staff have company laptops or IT equipment that can be used from home. We have “hot laptops” that people share when they are not in the office, but again, we don’t have everything ready for everyone if they all have to work from home at the same time.

I’ve talked before about being an anxiety sufferer and how that shapes my skills in business – the Covid-19 outbreak has really made my anxiety an asset. If there is a worst case scenario for my business I’ve thought of it. I’ve been down that rabbit hole many times now, and whilst the feeling of dread is difficult to bear at times, it’s meant that we’ve been able to hopefully get a little ahead of the game.

A few weeks ago when the term “self-isolating” started doing the rounds I woke up in a cold sweat wondering what would happen if everyone in the office had to self-isolate at the same time. At that point in time, we simply didn’t have enough hardware to facilitate it for everyone all in one go. Would our VPN take the load of people all logging in at once? We still have one or two legacy systems that we don’t have in the cloud – how would they work?

So here are the challenges that we have faced and what we have done about them. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet, and who knows how this will pan out?

IT hardware

The first thing we did was look at the legalities of getting staff to use their own IT equipment at home – this saves time and money in comparison to having to buy a load of new hardware. This was not as easy as we thought it would be. Initially, our HR advisors told us it was a blanket “computer says no”. But I’m never one to give up and these are exceptional circumstances.

In fact, you can allow staff to use their own equipment as long as you have all of the appropriate GDPR regulations in place and an agreement in place with staff about using their own devices and what is expected of them. We asked those who could to bring their equipment into the office and got loaded it up with relevant software and antivirus and we got them all to sign agreements and talked through with them what we expected.

What you’ll need in the agreements will be different for every business, but as a broad stroke, you should make sure it covers the rules for storing data locally (if you’re cloud this may not be such a problem) and viewing client data in an environment outside of the office.

Make sure you include practical things like not leaving screens unlocked when popping into the kitchen for a cuppa if you have other members of the household also working from home – data protection is key to the centre of these agreements. Basically think of a worst-case scenario and get it written into the agreements.

Taking that step meant that we didn’t have to buy as much new IT hardware as we previously may have which saved us a lot of time and money and allowed us a degree of agility in getting home working set up en masse.

Communication

We’re a pretty email-heavy company, both with clients and between staff. In the past the email culture has annoyed me somewhat. You’ll regularly hear me shouting “just pick up the phone and call them” when I’ve seen a never-ending email stream. But actually, it may serve us well during this period. If your staff and clients are not used to having email as a primary form of communication then you may need to make some shifts in the coming weeks.

The first thing we did was to email all clients to let them know our plans. We laid out the best and worst case scenarios, what if any disruption they may face and what we were doing to mitigate against it. During this period, a transparent and regular communication is vital with clients.

Next we looked at alternative forms of communication. Luckily our phones can be diverted to mobiles for incoming calls. In the short term where staff have to use their own phones we are using tools like Zoom, Skype, Hangouts and Microsoft Teams which can all be done on a range of devices and over the internet so no unforeseen costs. We are also using WhatsApp for individual teams so they can informally chat with each other throughout the day.

Productivity

Whilst being able to work in your pyjamas sounds amazing, anyone who has ever worked from home knows that without careful monitoring, productivity can slip. As a company, we have very strict KPIs on what needs doing and when, and we are able to closely track these. However, even with all that in place productivity and morale can be hard things to keep high when everyone is scattered.

We’re implementing morning and afternoon check-ins between teams using some form of video tools like Zoom or GoTo Meeting. They’re free for small numbers, or not prohibitively expensive if you want a larger group, and allow people to feel like they’re connected with other humans.

We’re also encouraging staff to do physical exercise when they can – either a walk in the fresh air (as long as we’re allowed to do that!) or their choice of home workout: yoga, HIIT, Zumba – whatever tickles their fancy. Even though they are at home, I’m concerned for their overall wellbeing and want to help keep everyone as healthy as possible.

We’ve also made it very clear to everyone that we expect them to remain productive and that we’ll be monitoring it closely. It might sound draconian, but ultimately if this works well it actually means we’ll be able to offer increased working flexibility for them all in the future. So this is their time to prove they can do it!

Testing

As we got on top of this relatively early in the rapidly changing stream of advice, we’ve been able to test part of the office working from home at a time. We’ve prioritised those with childcare needs who are likely to need to work from home entirely sooner if the schools close. This means we’ve been able to iron out any kinks. We’re not naïve enough to think that things will go 100% smoothly all the time, but at least we know where the error traps may be.

This really is an unprecedented time for many industries. I think this is going to see a dramatic shift in how businesses operate in the future. Despite the disruption, we’re trying to take positives out of this which will hopefully create a strong foundation for the company in the future. Ultimately though, we have no idea how long this situation will last or what the outcome will be in the end. All we can do is our best!

*This column was updated on the 24th March to reference the government's guidance on staying at home and away from others

Replies (12)

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By SteLacca
23rd Mar 2020 20:19

I haven't been formally allowed to work from home yet, but as someone who has type 1 diabetes, and doesn't want to die any time soon, I took it on myself and said I was working from home like it or not.

Now, I'm not behind the door with technology (despite being in my mid 50s), and last week, I took some time setting up remote desktop, so that as long as I left my work PC on, I could access. At the time, it was a "just in case" measure. Then this weekend came around, and the enforced shutdown of bars, clubs, restaurants etc. made it all real, and by yesterday I had decided I have to look after number 1. So I made it a fait accompli.

Now here's where things get odd. I got up this morning (and happily hit snooze on my alarm for an hour, because no travel time). I started working, after having got dressed (not something I will generally do if I'm staying home all day), fitted up arrangements to call clients back if they needed to speak to me (which has been A LOT), and I got on with it.

I've probably put more hours of productive time in today than I ever do. I stuck to my schedule of starting, lunch, and finishing, and I've barely had a minute to spare.

Now, granted, remote desktop slows things down a bit, but weirdly, some stuff was faster. I rarely took a walk to the kitchen, let alone to the other end of the office for a natter, and I've probably provided a better service to clients.

I now worry for my colleagues, who are still going in, at least two who are vulnerable, but until the boss realises this, what can I do. I will work from home until I think it's safe to go back. And I will support my colleagues as long and as much as I can.

In my favour, I was a senior trade union rep in HMRC for 20 years, so I have some form here.

As for my boss, he's had more work out of me today than if I'd gone in. Go figure.

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By George the Greek
24th Mar 2020 09:33

Believe it or not I rented out my office to a roofing company and we've been working from home since June 2018. There are 3 of us in the practice (all qualified and no other staff) and I've had all the practice data hosted on the cloud with Hosteddesktopuk for the last few years so we can all work from our respective homes and it's been great! A fraction of the overheads, many of my clients bookkeeping data is held on the Cloud too, and I get long walks from home by the beach where we live. The clients have no problem with this - what's not to like? Although I did coincide the move with kids leaving for Uni so I do have the benefit of no teenage kids in the house anymore which I know could be a distraction.

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By mkowl
24th Mar 2020 10:12

I am not sure if the dogs are worse than the teenagers

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By Ian McTernan CTA
24th Mar 2020 11:53

As someone who has worked from home for many years it's really not been an issue.

You will quickly find whether you are suited to it or not- some will produce volumes more work than they ever did at work, others will find that they don't. It all depends on how easily distracted you are and how dicsiplined.

You will also discover just how much time is wasted in offices on non-productive things, and wonder why more people don't work from home full time.

We might also discover that many more people will switch to home working at least part of the week in future having tried it during this crisis- it's not for everyone and can be lonely and you can miss the social interaction...

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By adam.arca
24th Mar 2020 12:52

It's all well and good hearing from people who like home working, but here's one from the opposite side of the argument:

I'm a micro practice and the only other person who works with me is the Mrs (and our son at the moment but that is another story). In theory, therefore, we would be ideally suited for home working but I've never got along with it and moved out to an office as soon as. I vastly prefer the discipline of putting on a suit and physically going to work (it's only 10 minutes down the road, so hardly an imposition), and I find it's much, much easier for me to maintain a work/life balance that way: I can occasionally work long hours but I do so at the office and, when I'm home, I'm home and switched off.

That now, however, presents me with a problem. I've fought against any idea of being able to log in remotely from home, so don't have that facility. Nor do I have the space at home for desktops, tables, server, peripherals, filing cabinets (yes, having space in the office means I've been slow to join the "save it all in the cloud" mob). So, frankly, I can't work from home in the short-term: we could play around the edges a bit but we wouldn't really be being very effective because we're not set up for it. But is what we do in any case "absolutely necessary," to quote Boris? This week and next it definitely is as there's payrolls to be done. But after that, who knows? Is helping clients avoid deadlines and penalties "absolutely necessary"? I would certainly say it is necessary but is it absolutely necessary during the lockdown?

I looked on the ICAEW's coronavirus hub last night and there's was all sorts of guff on "coronavirus and audit" and suchlike but nothing about the practical issues which real accountants face.

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Replying to adam.arca:
By Husbandofstinky
24th Mar 2020 13:07

Can empathise with you totally.

Was writing at the same time your were posting.

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Replying to Husbandofstinky:
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By adam.arca
24th Mar 2020 20:53

Husbandofstinky wrote:

Can empathise with you totally.

Was writing at the same time your were posting.

Thanks, it's good to know there are others in the same boat. Although tbh I think you're probably much worse off, unfortunately :)

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Replying to adam.arca:
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By flightdeck
24th Mar 2020 15:19

Me too - I definitely work better in the office (look what I'm doing now!).

If you are a micro practice and your practice members are your household who you are living with anyway, what difference does it make if you work at home or your office? (Assuming you can drive and don't need public transport). Or just go there on your todd.

I would for now say your work is essential - you cannot do it from home and no-one else can do it. Plus, as I said above, doesn't sound like you're mingling anyway when you are at work?

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Replying to flightdeck:
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By adam.arca
24th Mar 2020 21:00

flightdeck wrote:

Me too - I definitely work better in the office (look what I'm doing now!).

If you are a micro practice and your practice members are your household who you are living with anyway, what difference does it make if you work at home or your office? (Assuming you can drive and don't need public transport). Or just go there on your todd.

I would for now say your work is essential - you cannot do it from home and no-one else can do it. Plus, as I said above, doesn't sound like you're mingling anyway when you are at work?

Yes, the 3 of us are the same self-isolating group whether we're at home or in the office. So we might as well be in the office. The problem may arise when the police around here get more pro-active like some areas on the evening news.

Still, it's good to know that I'm not alone in thinking "sexy" isn't best.

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By Husbandofstinky
24th Mar 2020 13:04

This will be a big challenge for me. I work in an office on my own less than ten miles away although this it is 'technically' closed to the public at the moment. Work and home are generally black and white although there is a little blurriness every now and then at home on occasion. To be honest even then it is awkward (children bleating when I am going to get off the machine) under normal circumstances.

Yesterday was the first day at home for the children (10 and 13) and whilst one of them could crack on with homework, the other one had problems running from the laptop at the same time (I don't know if this is the laptop or router issue). Anyhow one had inished by lunchtime and the other by mid afternoon after they had swapped over from the PC.

My wife does work from home two days a week this of course has now been extended temporarily to full time.

Like most things in life, the dog has a greater standing in the hierarchy than I so am just about taking my chances at the edges of the working day, let alone the evening.

Due to shielding a friend of mine is now staying at the house indefinitely and the parents on both sides are aged and need support with food drop offs on my part as and when.

To be honest, this whole process for me is challenging but necessary. For some it will be a lot easier than others, especially on the people front as the more there are involved, the more difficult it becomes. However, we will get there.

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By onezero
24th Mar 2020 18:27

We have used Cloud 50 to put Sage Accounts, Payroll and the whole practice suite CT/SAP?PT in the cloud and all working from home - assisted by 365 office/ Sharepoint and Teams - wonder why we have a physical office at all

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By Sheerans
31st Mar 2020 05:42

Get ready for work as you would on a normal day (don’t work in your pajamas!) and don’t be too comfortable and laid back – this will negatively impact your motivation and productivity. Make a to-do list at the beginning of the day, prioritise the tasks you need to accomplish, and plan your time accordingly. https://www.mcdvoice.one/

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