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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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