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Virtual staff: Dawn of the cyber colleague

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Accountants need a re-think about working from home and the struggle to recruit top staff.

29th Dec 2021
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This article really ought to be about the ravages of the Omicron variant of coronavirus. However, since rates are doubling every couple of days and hospitalisations have not yet started to increase, second guessing the position would make the writer a hostage to fortune or, expressed more directly, a fool.

The only clear indication that this new variant is likely to be pretty serious, overwhelm hospitals and leave thousands more dead comes from the behaviour of the Prime Minister.

When it comes to making the wrong decisions around coronavirus, Boris Johnson has got something very close to a 100% record, always failing to be decisive and then subsequently causing a train crash that might have been avoided.

Even an accountant with an A-level in economics can work out that if you lock down the country for one month at the first sniff of trouble, that will be less costly than holding off for a few weeks and then closing it for three months.

That isn’t how either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer see things, but goodness knows why.

Surreal interactions

One strange consequence of the unreal world in which we have now been living for not far short of two years is the way in which we interact with our colleagues.

In the past, when you signed up a new recruit, the starting point was to meet them at an interview or two, depending on seniority. From there, they might have an informal drinks session with future colleagues prior to a warm welcome when they arrived at the office on day one.

The next few months would be a period of training and integration, capped off by happiness on all sides when the probation period was complete and they could be welcomed as fully fledged team members whose services might be appreciated for years to come.

Staff shortages

We are now in a strange situation where staff shortages across the industry mean that accountants are in the wonderful position to sell their services for increasingly high salaries with every chance of changing employer far more frequently than in the past.

This means that you could have recruited someone in the middle of last year who has now handed in their notice and disappeared just before Christmas, never to return.

Bizarrely, there is a distinct possibility that an individual in this position might never have met any of their colleagues face-to-face. It is more likely that they will have popped into the office occasionally during their employment but, given the restricted occupancy levels, may not have actually physically met everyone on their team, whether this is a department, an office or a practice.

Virtual colleagues

We therefore now have the concept of virtual colleagues, people with whom we work closely, who may or may not have done a good job but operate at long distance with all of the advantages and disadvantages that working from home offers.

The advent of Omicron also suggests that we need to get used to this new way of working. It is unatisfactory for anyone involved, particularly those attempting to integrate into new firms, but we have very little choice in the matter.

One question that partners in London and other big city offices might begin to ask is why their virtual staff need to be paid top whack.

Various larger firms have attempted to outsource operations to low salary areas in the past, possibly in the north of England or even much further afield, for example China or India.

For some, a middle way has become reality, as individuals choose to move home further and further from their designated work locations, accepting that they might occasionally need to pop up to town for a physical meeting.

A few years ago, the objection to such practices was that you lost out on camaraderie and quality control. Many older accountants also suffered from a mental block, believing that unless they could see their staff hard at work, some or all would almost certainly be slacking.

Given that in a best-case scenario today you might only work side-by-side with even the closest members of your team once or twice a week, perhaps it is time for a rethink?

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