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Coronavirus: Will accountants return to the office?

Philip Fisher wonders whether many firms will give up offices completely in an era when cost cutting is vital and hot desking outlawed.

7th May 2020
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In these unprecedented times, almost every firm in the country, from the Big Four down to what had become known as micro-businesses will be facing similar challenges.

How do we keep going when cash is slowed to a trickle? Will we have enough clients to maintain business? Should we furlough staff or make them redundant?

In one area, there are conflicting challenges. That is what to do about office space.

If your business has a lease that is about to end or where there is a break clause, it is going to be difficult to decide what to do next.

To start with, nobody has any idea about how long it will be before we can make proper use of our offices. Therefore, smaller practices may choose to cut their losses, extract themselves from what are currently onerous leases and hunker down for a few months.

The optimistic might already be making plans for their ultimate return, in the knowledge that, unless there are changes to government guidance, employees will need to be well-spaced with significant room for manoeuvre. If that is the case, then current office space may be inadequate.

In the case of accountancy practices, this will be compounded, if the leaked Government proposal that hot desking is to be outlawed is implemented. Most of the larger firms appear to have wholeheartedly embraced this concept and may find their offices locked up for the duration.

The good news (although that term might be debatable in the circumstances) is that office rental rates will presumably shoot downwards in the near future.

If many businesses are going to be forced to close forever as a result of the pandemic recession, then it follows that there will be a lot of empty space and property owners vying for any prospective custom, cutting to the bone in order to bring in some kind of income.

While social distancing militates towards an increase in office space, there are a couple of factors that could point in the other direction.

First, it is hard to imagine that any firm of accountants is not currently reviewing its resources and considering the possibility of reducing staff levels.

Secondly, over the last couple of months, we have all been getting used to working from home. While this is at best a mixed blessing, when we eventually emerge from the lockdown and try to normalise, some might conclude that the continuation of home-working could be viable, thus reducing the need for office space.

Some sole practitioners and those with only a handful of staff might even be able to operate successfully from a home-office on a permanent basis, conducting meetings with clients in public spaces such as cafés when they eventually reopen or even, in midsummer, the local park.

A more realistic, if slightly more expensive, option could be to rent office space by the day, week or month, as required, trying to pigeonhole client meetings into the days when you have an office available. That too may need to await phase two or three of the relaxation, when the use of shared office accommodation is deemed safe.

In these unprecedented times, every practice should already be starting to develop a strategy to protect their business and help it to thrive.

One element of that strategy, which goes hand-in-hand with a look at staff numbers, should be a project to review the use of office space and the ways in which costs can be minimised without compromising the quality of the offering to clients.

Replies (10)

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Replying to Patch:
By Ruddles
09th May 2020 16:33

Removed as requested

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bike
By FirstTab
09th May 2020 20:44

This explains my cynicism of those "advising" accountants.

No doubt there will be a lot more of this as we get nearer Sift's crown jewel Practice Excellence. Advising the advisors. Sigh.

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By Marlinman
12th May 2020 10:57

I'm a sole practitioner and for the last 9 years my laptop has been my office, travelling all over the world with me as I can do nearly everything online. Unfortunately HMRC still use snail mail so I have a virtual office at the local business centre. They scan and email to me any correspondence, have meeting rooms for hire and put calls through to my mobile.

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By johnjenkins
12th May 2020 10:58

Nothing will change long term. Once this temporary blip passes (and yes I foresee something like lockdown, but not for so long, happening every year) it will be business as usual. China will take a big manufacturing hit at first, maybe a year or two, then as manufacturing costs and taxes rise in Europe, the cheaper option will come to the fore.
Sorry Phillip but you've got the wrong end of the stick.

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By Diana Miller
12th May 2020 11:35

I am not sure I agree with the comment on reviewing staff numbers. It has taken me a long time to find the excellent team I currently have and they are my biggest asset. Things will be very tight for quite a while but I am confident they will bounce back and I need to be ready for that. We are in a rural area so commuting is not an issue and whilst we have been home working up until now we are going to move back to the office soon on a rota basis. We all have collective responsibility for all clients and work in an open plan office - we would loose that if we isolated home working so I do not want to keep it this way.

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By Diana Miller
12th May 2020 11:35

I am not sure I agree with the comment on reviewing staff numbers. It has taken me a long time to find the excellent team I currently have and they are my biggest asset. Things will be very tight for quite a while but I am confident they will bounce back and I need to be ready for that. We are in a rural area so commuting is not an issue and whilst we have been home working up until now we are going to move back to the office soon on a rota basis. We all have collective responsibility for all clients and work in an open plan office - we would loose that if we isolated home working so I do not want to keep it this way.

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By Barry Adams
12th May 2020 18:22

I read this paragraph with interest:
First, it is hard to imagine that any firm of accountants is not currently reviewing its resources and considering the possibility of reducing staff levels.

We are trying to recruit an accountant and cannot get one!

I see the need for accountants rising over the coming months to deal with business reorganizations, business failures and new businesses for employees and entrepreneurs looking for a fresh start

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Replying to Barry Adams:
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By johnjenkins
13th May 2020 09:01

Isn't that part of an Accountants' job?
If you were talking about a 2 year long recession then I would say that there could well be a culling but a temporary scenario, I don't think so. I've been working in my office all through this and no doubt many others have as well.

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By North East Accountant
13th May 2020 09:08

I hope every other firm in the local area goes for this home working and closes their offices so I can poach their clients.

Me I'm keeping mine.

Online is just not the same experience no way.

Per Luke Johnson (Sunday Times) it's like comparing watching sex online and doing it for real.... no comparison.

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By dwgw
13th May 2020 14:59

That's not a comparison that bears any relation to any office I ever worked in.

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