Save content
Have you found this content useful? Use the button above to save it to your profile.
An accountant reviews a spreadsheet on a Zoom call AccountingWEB
istock_Zoom-call_SDI Productions

End of remote working as Zoom orders employees back

by

When Alanis Morissette sang Ironic, she failed to include a lyric about video conferencing firm Zoom ordering its remote employees back to the office. 

10th Aug 2023
Save content
Have you found this content useful? Use the button above to save it to your profile.

Life has mostly returned back to normal since the lockdown rules were lifted. For the most part, we’ve stopped Greco-Roman wrestling in the toilet roll aisle over the last four-pack of Andrex Supreme Quilts and now we have to come up with a new excuse for not visiting that relative.

And these days we look with a bemused smile at tax tribunals involving taxpayers not understanding the self-employed income support scheme rules and the insolvency service coming down on the scoundrels that bilked the Bounce Back Loan scheme with the full might and ask, did that really happen?

But while most of life has returned to normal, the one part of lockdown life that has remained a constant is remote working – until now. 

Zoom in on the irony

This week, Zoom – the video conferencing platform that became synonymous with remote working, family quizzes and grim Christmas parties during Covid – has told its employees that their 40 minutes have maxed and it’s time to get dressed before 9am and return to the office. 

Instead, the company is moving towards a “structured hybrid approach”. So rather than have their employees on meetings through Zoom all day, the company is asking those that live near the office to be onsite two days a week. 

The irony of this decision is enough for Alanis Morisette to grab her guitar. In other news, Netflix will be giving its employees Blockbuster membership cards…

For a while it seemed as if the accountancy profession had reassessed its relationship with the office. But like the rest of society, accountancy practices are slowly reverting back to the post-pandemic normal. 

The accountancy profession took to remote working during the pandemic as quick as the fights broke out in the loo roll aisle. Prior to the first lockdown, data from our Accounting Excellence Award entrants found that 36% of entrants already allowed a form of flexible working. 

The enforced working-from-home mandate, in tandem with the adoption of cloud tools, accelerated many firms’ remote working plans. 

Aside from the weekly competition to bang the nelly out of saucepans and clap slightly longer than your neighbour, the world was effectively put on pause. When we emerged from our Covid hibernations, and the masks were thrown in the bin, the one difference seemed to be remote working.  

Remote working changes everything

While the pandemic and lockdowns created a lot of collective trauma that we would rather be forgotten, and claimed so many lives, remote working was one of the changes that seemed like a positive one. It also seemed like the Victorian art of the nine-to-five was over.    

By removing the hour-long commute, accountants were able to enjoy the small luxury of seeing their families. Suddenly child care was also a little easier to balance with the demands of the day job. 

Then, as soon as people were allowed to muscle into your personal space again, the Big Four boasted about their new post-Covid flexible work patterns. “Start when you like!” read one news headline. In the next breath, PwC told staff they could knock off early on Friday too. They were one step away from giving their employees a high five as they left the office for a long weekend. 

Gripped by a recruitment crisis, firms also started to see remote working as a solution to their problems. North East England firm Blu Sky told me earlier this year that Covid enabled them to look outside their region and recruit talent across the UK. 

Everything seemed hunky dory… or did it? Concern spread from PwC and Deloitte that newer Covid graduates struggled with communication and teamwork tasks. Seeing as these graduates were holed up in their rooms, where they engaged with lectures in the same way Tom Hanks spoke to Wilson the basketball in Castaway, this was hardly a surprising development. 

Then phrases like “learning through osmosis” became as commonly used as “unprecedented” and “Covid fraud”. 

Every training and HR partner couldn’t stop yakking about junior team members missing out on those on-off conversations with other parts of the organisation as they pass in the kitchen, or how they can learn so much by sitting within earshot of the managing partner (in between listening to them brag about their brand-new sports car). 

The remote working experiment is slowly fading 

Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of social media posts about firms showing off their new office space or teams coming together to film highly choreographed dance numbers in the office social room. 

The joy of collaborating with the rest of the firm again and creating that sense of belonging or advising clients one-to-one reminded firms that accountancy is a human-to-human business and not just a strictly numbers business. 

However, the prospect of better coffee than your six-month old jar of instant and performing a TikTok dance number on your lunch break is a tough sell for those already braced for the morning whiff of body odour circulating around the tube, train or bus. 

It may seem like the world is going back to normal but it has undoubtedly changed. How can it go back to normal? As much as we’ve come to expect and appreciate the new flexibility, we have equally come to cherish even more those human relationships we dearly missed over those years. 

There’s a case to be made that life should return to normal, but it should be one that balances the trust of autonomy and flexibility alongside those human bonds. 

Replies (11)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By Hugo Fair
10th Aug 2023 19:31

Since you're keen on the anecdotal, Richard, I'll stick my neck out with another unqualified observation - albeit one on which I have a high confidence rating ...

One of the major impacts of lockdown (maybe equal to the move to homeworking) was the move to on-line shopping - even at an incredibly minimalist level.
People I know (with, say, Amazon Prime membership) just use their mobile app to order whatever they want, whenever they decide they want it.
- Making breakfast and find battery on scales has gone flat ... ordered;
- Clearing bowls to dishwasher and notice low on powder ... ordered;
- Printing latest report when printer says need new toner ... ordered;
- Get email with special offer on your favourite socks ... ordered;
- Feeling peckish for some healthy fresh fruit & veg ... ordered;
... and so it goes - often tiny orders, but several per day and without forethought.

My (previously quiet) street now looks like a race-track for competing delivery vans on a daily basis (upwards of 40+ per day) ... mostly 'delivering' (aka chucking over the gate in general direction of front door) copious volumes of (mostly tiny) packets like a badly choreographed darts team.
And, ignoring the inefficiency of Amazon's (and others) processes and the environmental impact, it all works remarkably well most of the time ... IF there's someone in (or nearby) nearly all the time.

BUT of course, that is now starting to fall apart.
First to suffer were the real stay-at-homes (unemployed and retirees) who started by being helpful but then withdrew their labour (keeping an eye on things and/or bringing packages inside for safekeeping) as it started to feel abusive ... amazing how people come to expect things of their neighbours.
Next, couples (or flat-sharers) who tried to schedule their enforced attend-the-office rotas so that the house wasn't left unattended ... even if the excuse used was 'looking after the cat/dog' ... with the resultant sudden strain of not spending as much time together as they'd become accustomed to.
However it's those who live alone (I believe verging on the majority now in the UK) who lose out most ... whether it's being in for deliveries / playing with your pet, or gardening / exercising (during what used to be commuting hours), they've evolved a whole lifestyle that is threatened by the need for regular office-time.

And here's where I get a bit theoretical, observation suggests that many of these people (particularly those under 40) have now developed this behaviour as a fully ingrained habit.
I've suggested to many of the afflicted some rather basic coping mechanisms (like making a list of what you need until there's enough on there to warrant a consolidated order or even, frabjous joy, a trip to do some shopping) ... but the sound of jaws dropping to the pavement is quite off-putting, so I've stopped.

In conclusion ... the habits of substantial chunks of the population have evolved (in their minds anyway) from being office-fodder, and their opportunities to follow my suggested walking to retailers (in lunchbreaks or whenever) are closing weekly.
Add to that the ludicrous price of public transport (when it works) and the hatred of cars by our political masters ... and there's little incentive for many to recognise any employer 'carrots'.
Conversely, with the increasing shortage of skills (unless you believe in an AI dawn on the horizon), there's little evidence that employers still have a 'stick'.

May you live in interesting times, indeed ... but I don't think "the remote working experiment is slowly fading". Adapting like a chameleon maybe, but here to stay.

Thanks (5)
Routemaster image
By tom123
11th Aug 2023 07:48

Great answer from Hugo. I never had to experience the tedium of working from home, as manufacturing didn't have to 'stop'. Indeed we even made some ventilator parts.

Having said that, in my current role, I am more than happy to let a day of WFH occur if things like washing machines are being delivered, etc. Having that new flexibility - which was not really a thing pre covid, helps people manage their lives better - and hopefully retain staff - which I can't really do with salaries much.

Thanks (2)
Michael Pemberton
By Michael Pemberton
11th Aug 2023 10:20

In addition to WFH days, employers and managers also need to be aware of employees making flexible working requests. Unless you can come up with a valid business reason (from the ACAS Code of Practice), there's not much that can be done to keep employees working in the office. There is a proposal to allow employees to request flexible working from 'day one' of employment but not sure when this will come into force. Seemingly all the cards are stacked in favour of the employee these post-pandemic days!

Thanks (1)
Replying to Michael Pemberton:
avatar
By Mr_awol
11th Aug 2023 12:20

It is worrying. Rights that are very much necessary to protect employees from unscrupulous employers can easily be manipulated by staff and it does feel like the odds are against the employer a lot of the time. It is also a concern that you could employ someone on the open understanding that it's an office-based role and them take it, only to request flexible working once they are here. To an extent there is protection under the two year rule on unfair dismissal i suppose.

That said, i think the key thing is to consider the request properly and communicate the reasons for rejection clearly. I would have no qualms about refusing WFH or Hybrid working, as we can easily justify a rejection. You just need to be careful to avoid making sweeping generalisations or vague excuses (such as GDPR compliance - ok it's somewhat valid but how comes it wasnt an issue during covid, or when i decide i want to spend a day at home, or when we let staff do it as a one-off to see the boiler man, etc).

Also it's a lot harder to turn down if it is connected to a reasonable adjustment request rather than for pure preference.

Thanks (1)
avatar
By Mr_awol
11th Aug 2023 10:44

WFH is fading because the novelty wore off and employees became more entitled.

During Covid we all 'had' to WFH and there wasn't a lot else to do. With restricted freedoms most staff did their hours, went for a run or something during their typical 'commute' time, and if (when) the inefficiency of WFH led to lower productivity one of two things (possibly both) happened:
1) Employers accepted it, because any output was better than nothing, the staff were doing their best, and everyone was glad just to be able to work/earn
2) Employees realised they were saving an hour on their return commute (maybe more) and were grateful to have a job/for their employer support, and did a bit of 'free' overtime.

And so the myth that WFH could/would be as (or more) productive was born. Workers were also , to an extent, able to short-cut and reduce standards and keep the myth running a bit longer. Some were even able to do a genuinely decent job due to their experience and other personal attributes but training of new staff obviously suffered.

Now, staff are WFH for new employers, whom they owe nothing/less to, and see WFH as a right not a privilege. They arent as keen to do extra for free (and to an extent why should they) and employers arent as willing to put up with paying for the inefficiency (and to an extent why should they) so are requesting staff return to the office.

All of this is fine - the hard workers that want to get on will do so, those that want to keep their 'life-work balance' will do so and will stagnate. Except that hasnt happened yet. Instead, particularly in our industry with a shortage of good candidates, employees are demanding high wages for flexible working and employers are having to bite their tongues and concede. If/when we hit recession and jobs are in shorter supply, some people have a hell of a shock coming to them.

Thanks (1)
avatar
By the_drookit_dug
11th Aug 2023 11:52

Flexibility is key in retaining talented employees. Why should good employees be tethered to their desks in the office from 9am to 5pm - particularly those who are task-orientated and regularly go above and beyond their contracted 40 hours per week?

Hybrid is definitely the way ahead - I'd imagine few workplaces work at their best when staff WFH 100% of the time, however a couple of days a week at home allows employees space to get their heads down free from distraction, as well as the work-life balance benefits, be that deliveries, childcare, reduce commute time & costs or whatever.

Problem is useless employees will do as useless employees do and use it as an opportunity to take the p1$$.

Thanks (1)
paddle steamer
By DJKL
14th Aug 2023 11:20

ALL THESE COMMENTS ARE RE SECONDARY/TERTIARY MARKETs, WE DO NOT LEASE PRIME OR ANYTHING LIKE IT

We are seeing home working/hybrid continuing with some tenants giving up their offices, others reviewing their current position as leases say expire in 2024 but they will not currently commit to continuing beyond that point.

I have already been running desktop appraisals to say change these offices into shared space like small studios etc, different model, landlord covers utilities etc, but this is likely the future. If this or A N Other alternative does not work then residential planning will be the solution for a lot of our space, heaven help the business market if they change their mind in ten years from now, the tertiary rental market will by then be greatly reduced and what now gets converted to residential will imho not get switched back even if office demand does come back (a fair number of the properties we own were back in the 40s/50s actually residential that had planning changed to office use back then. )

This is all common sense, if I rent tertiary offices at £12 psf then with a short lease and current interest rates as an Investment Property the office might be worth at best £120 psf, yet as residential it will say be worth £375-£500psf, unless conversion costs are out of sight most older tenement type offices in strong residential locations ought to be able to be converted to residential. (Subject, of course, to planning zones/local development plans etc and energy performance requirements which can be expensive in older existing buildings)

I suspect in interim by 2024/2025 a lot of our office space will start to be taken by people involved in small craft industries (the sort of activities where a garage/large spare room is needed to operate from home) and if that market flags residential conversion will become the norm for us, however other established smaller Edinburgh developers look like they may go straight to conversion. (Studio letting is higher management input than more traditional office letting so is not for everyone)

Large property investors/developers are like oil tankers, takes them time to change direction, small ones (like us) can move market as if they had performed a skid turn, imho change of market re these type of properties will become more and more prevalent.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By AndrewV12
15th Aug 2023 08:59

There are two people who work from home (post pandemic) down our street, one is always walking his dog THE oTHER is always in his garden.

I have even heard of NHS staff working from home, I don't mean admin I mean eye surgeons and nurses, GET THEM BACK.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By ayazca
15th Aug 2023 09:59

Hi everyone

Does anybody know how to access the list of articles you saved as CPD on AW ?

I can't seem to find the articles that I have saved as my CPD content , any help will be much appreciated, thank you in advance

Thanks (0)
Replying to ayazca:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
15th Aug 2023 22:41

Not sure why you've posted this here.

If you'd gone to the page from where you post a new thread, you'd have seen a pointer to:
https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/any-answers/introducing-the-save-content...
... which is hopefully what you're looking for?

Thanks (1)
Della Hudson FCA
By Della Hudson
15th Aug 2023 10:42

I’m happy to confirm that Minerva Accountants will continue to run remotely. This suits all our team and, combined with our part tine contracts, enables us to recruit high calibre staff.

We have based our communications very loosely on the Agile methodology used in the software industry which has been supporting remote working for years.

Every day starts with a ‘standup’ brief team meeting and we can schedule any extra meetings for more in depth problems/training.

We have a half day planning session each quarter which can be F2F or online but this is our only F2F interaction.

Thanks (1)