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image of person working at home with cat | accountingweb | four years on how do accountants feel about WFT
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Does WFH work for your practice?

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Four years on from the first national lockdown, we still haven’t completely resolved the working-from-home question.

25th Mar 2024
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Historically, most of those running accountancy practices were very wary when members of staff proposed to work from home. Gradually, some had begun to accept that Friday attendance was becoming voluntary across a chunk of the sector, but without enthusiasm.

In many cases, a suspicious nature led them to the conclusion that this approach was a veiled request for additional holiday. In some cases, it was.

All of that changed overnight four years ago last week. Reluctantly, on 23 March 2020, Boris Johnson felt obliged to address the nation and inform them that we were going into a lockdown of indeterminate length.

That would be bad enough on its own, but the reason for the Draconian measure was his concern that otherwise tens of thousands of people were going to die. In fact, it turned out to be hundreds of thousands and, without lockdown, would almost certainly have been many times more.

WFT advocates

It would have been fun to be inside the minds of the more conservative accountants who suddenly discovered that, unlike those in so many other industries, we could carry on regardless since the profession had long ago computerised the vast majority of tasks.

Therefore, instead of informing their staff that they could take a break until the office reopened, there was an instant volte-face as partners became enthusiastic advocates of working from home.

Many discovered that costs were reduced, productivity often increased and partner profit shares held up very nicely, even through the worst days of the pandemic.

There was also a hidden bonus in that accountants love meetings but, all too often, they achieve little or nothing. The working-from-home culture engendered by the pandemic lockdown suddenly freed up many hours of working time as internal meetings were pared to the bone.

It seems an age ago now, but eventually embargoes were lifted and it was possible to return to what was often referred to as the “new normal”.

This meant that there was no longer any impediment to people working in offices, although many firms eagerly reduced office space to the point where they were unable to accommodate all members of staff on the same day.

Valued workers

More recently, the proudly petty and petulant Jacob Rees-Mogg led a political backlash against WFH, leaving silly notes on empty desks in government offices for staff who were working themselves into the ground from home.

The rest of us had to determine a more considered response that would retain valued workers, keep them happy and maximise productivity without disrupting the status quo too much.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since accountants had grown used to working at home and might have no qualms about changing employer if forced to go back to the grind of commuting five days a week.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly slackers who take advantage of employers’ generosity and fail to pull their weight.

The media isn’t always helpful either, much keener to identify stories about organisations that are demanding returns to the office than those about equally successful competitors who take a more liberal view.

There is no single right answer and therefore we all need to find an optimal solution for our own businesses.

Everyone’s different

There are a number of factors that will come into play. It is necessary to recognise that people are different and so are working responsibilities. Younger staff taking their first steps in the profession generally prefer to do so in offices where they can get much-needed support from experienced colleagues.

Those in more senior roles who do not necessarily need to interact with others can operate perfectly happily at long distance. This can cut costs if you are able to employ someone for a London office from Manchester or Newcastle, pay them regional rates and persuade them to compromise on saved commuting costs.

If you are struggling to recruit, offering a flexible working-from-home policy could also be the key to persuading talented workers to join your firm rather than a competitor who is less enlightened.

Accountants have rarely been experts when it comes to human resource issues and the idea of setting an example often passes them by.

In the past, some partners were undoubtedly workaholics but too many others happily “worked from home” on a regular basis while enforcing a strict office-based policy for everybody else. The hypocrisy was rarely helped by the suntans inexplicably available in some partners’ home offices.

Currently, most practices seem to have concluded that requiring attendance on two to three days a week is a happy middle ground, often expecting teams to get together at least once a week and otherwise allowing the kind of freedom that pleases our colleagues and also juggles limited office space successfully.

Flexibility is key

The key is flexibility. Some smaller firms could operate without the need for permanent office space, while others genuinely thrive on the kind of teamwork that requires constant presence.

The rest of us should by now have reached a satisfactory conclusion but, as with every other aspect of working life, it is always worth reviewing the position on a regular basis to ensure optimum results.

Replies (14)

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Donald MacKenzie
By Donald MacKenzie
26th Mar 2024 10:35

The problem is that "working" from home is often NOT "working from home".
The service we receive from HMRC is beyond a joke. HMRC staff are "hybrid" working, or more properly, "not working".

Thanks (14)
Replying to Donald MacKenzie:
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By carnmores
26th Mar 2024 10:45

I suppose that this is down to Public v Private sector. Simple as that?

Thanks (2)
Should Be Working ... not playing with the car
By should_be_working
26th Mar 2024 11:05

Anyway, ignoring the ill-informed op-ed nature of parts of this article, my own experience was almost business as usual as I've been working from home for the last 20+ years. The only difference was that we seemed even busier what with furloughing, SEISS and the like.

My only lasting disappointment, from a professional viewpoint, was that the push for even more 'CPD from the comfort of your desk' seems to have become the norm. Am I the only one who likes the chance to get away from the office (be it the home office or ... office office) for a morning or afternoon?

Thanks (8)
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By Runagood Team
26th Mar 2024 11:26

This overlooks the fact that a far higher proportion of the public sector is still allegedly wfh than in the private sector that has to make a profit or die. Try getting a driving licence renewed, HMRC answers, new passport etc. Compare that to pre Lockdown times and ask yourself the productivity question again...

Thanks (6)
Replying to Runagood Team:
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By spilly
26th Mar 2024 23:02

My local council still haven’t reopened any of their offices to the public as almost all their staff now wfh. The various help desks used to always have long queues; now we have to navigate a tortuous phone system or use their almost equally awful online process.
An annoying point is that no money is saved as the council has been unable to find anyone to lease these empty offices from them. The town centre is noticeably quieter now, with more businesses folding by the week as footfall continues to reduce.

Thanks (1)
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By Runagood Team
26th Mar 2024 11:26

This overlooks the fact that a far higher proportion of the public sector is still allegedly wfh than in the private sector that has to make a profit or die. Try getting a driving licence renewed, HMRC answers, new passport etc. Compare that to pre Lockdown times and ask yourself the productivity question again...

Thanks (4)
Replying to Runagood Team:
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By nick williams
26th Mar 2024 15:40

My driving licence, which couldn't be renewed online, was renewed within a week of sending the paper form. Don't believe everything the Daily Mail tells you.

Thanks (2)
Replying to nick williams:
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By johnjenkins
26th Mar 2024 16:10

One of my clients had no problems renewing his passport.
As for HMRC answering, what's that?

Thanks (0)
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By petestar1969
26th Mar 2024 11:32

WFH doesn't work that well for us, but it still works miles better than it does for HMRC...

Thanks (7)
Molly Macfarlane
By Molly Macfarlane
27th Mar 2024 11:10

Hi everyone,

Can we keep the comments focused on the article topic, whether working from home works for your practice.

Thank you,
Molly.

Thanks (4)
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By mbee1
27th Mar 2024 11:14

WfH is the best thing that happened to us. We'd been able to work from home for a while pre Covid but it was never on a large scale, just an odd day here and there. Once it was forced onto us, we ensured all staff had the all the equipment needed (laptop, second screen, printer/scanner/copier, mobile phone, desk if necessary, chair, etc.) and the office was effectively closed up. We've never looked back. We downsized the office so we still have a presence but on a much smaller scale and it's open only by appointment.

It's the end of March and I haven't been in this year yet which has saved me 45 minutes each way commuting making my time far more productive. Overall productivity has vastly increased as has efficiency and staff are much happier as there is a better work/life balance.

We have regular staff meetings virtually, two work Whatsapp groups (one for work chat and one for social chat) and met up a couple of times last year for a social. We've taken on new staff and whilst training is more difficult and has been a mixture of office and remote and has taken longer than it normally would but has generally worked well. We had used a hosted desktop prior to Covid so there was nothing we couldn't do at home with reference to sharing and saving of documents.

Anything that can't be scanned and emailed is either posted or sent by courier to the relevant staff member. Very few clients want the face to face appointment now and choose to do it virtually so it's a win win.

Thanks (2)
Replying to mbee1:
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By adam.arca
27th Mar 2024 13:10

Personally, I'm anti WFH because:
a) I prefer the separation given by having an office, and
b) It seems non-intuitive, bizarre even, for a social animal to behave in such an anti-social manner.

I completely take your point about saving the 45 minute commute but, in my case, the commute is a 10 minute country drive so I actually look forward to it.

Bottom line, therefore, is that it's horses for courses and it's really good to read about a WFH success story. You don't fancy consulting to HMRC, do you?

Thanks (0)
Replying to mbee1:
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By imran
02nd Apr 2024 09:36

Absolutely agree, I transitioned to more WFH when my daughter was born in 2015, never looked back.
May I ask what you use for your hosted desktop? I hear such varying reviews that it'd be good to know from a fellow practice accountant.
Thanks a lot :)

Thanks (0)
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By Pam Moreland
27th Mar 2024 15:47

Absolutely right to stress flexibility. It doesn't work for everyone. You have to be self disciplined and personally there is no way I would have ever tried to work from home with young children.
I work one day per week in the office and two at home, going into the office to see clients face to face if they want to meet. It is good to catch up with colleagues but I am far more productive at home as there are far fewer distractions (apart from a snoring dog).
I loathe meetings at the best of times. They are only worthwhile if you actually make decisions rather than listening to people boring on about nothing because they love the sound of their own voices. Mostly this can be done with a phone call or a short Teams/Zoom arrangement.
The public sector is different because they work in a very different way to those of us in accounting practice and have far less flexibility so it is harder for them to make decisions without referring it to someone else.
But then I am old and grumpy - so what do I know!

Thanks (1)