The return to the office...by
Is a return to the office right move for accountants and their mental health? Steve Cox explores the issues firms will face.
Our freedoms are returning, bit by bit and we’re even officially allowed to hug our families. But what does this gradual shift to our former understanding of normal mean for accountants? Do you want to get back to the office as soon as possible? Many of you reading this may already have been back a while. Or are you now happy to work from home for most, if not all, of the time?
What are the big firms doing?
Some of the biggest accounting firms have already indicated they will move to a mix of home and office working, including Deloitte, PWC, and KPMG. The BBC surveyed 50 of the UK’s biggest employers very recently and found most do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. And 43 said they would embrace hybrid working - a mix of office and home, the latter for up to three days per week.
Historically, the job of accountants is very much face-to-face, but have you enjoyed the extra freedom digital channels have provided?
The mental health question
It’s relevant here to reflect back on my previous column where I posed the question: is loneliness the forgotten challenge of busy season? Well, loneliness has clearly been an issue for many during the pandemic. Does a return to the office offer an escape from isolation?
A Royal Society for Public Health’s survey found 67% of workers who shifted from the office to home during the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues. And 56% said they found it harder to switch off, while 38% said the change had disturbed their sleep.
Does this resonate with you? Do you crave the normality of an office environment? Surely, mental health must be a key part of the equation when discussing how and where do we work in future.
New practices, new approach?
If you’re an employer, what approach do you take? Will you be creating a new flexible working policy? Without allowing staff some flexibility and choice, you may risk losing them to other businesses that are offering remote working.
If you’re a start-up, which way do you go? Do you really need an office? There will be many thinking they can save on the costs and work just as well without. At IRIS, we know of many such examples, including Hannah Walton and Karen Fletcher, who run Peppermint Cloud (follow the link for their case study video).
The talent gap
One underappreciated aspect of this topic is the impact on trainees, apprentices and graduates. The lockdown made traditional on-the-job training nigh on impossible and added to the ever-growing talent gap. Does that mean for certain staff, a return to the office is vital? How do young staff learn the ropes without face-to-face training and guidance from their colleagues?
Striking a balance
There are clearly pros and cons to the different options for where staff work. Travel time saved versus creativity and collaboration. The pandemic proved in many cases that it’s simply not necessary to be in an office the whole time. But, arguably, it also confirmed that for certain elements of a job, nothing beats face-to-face.
Everyone is an individual, with different preferences. Not everybody works well in the same environment and getting the right balance to suit each person’s mental health is paramount.
Perhaps that is why we’re seeing an increasing move towards a blend of the two, with much greater flexibility. Ultimately, each accountant and each practice will have to decide for themselves.
And what about the client’s perspective? I’ll be delving into that in my next column.
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Steve is Head of Accountancy for Commercial at IRIS Software Group; a technologist and chartered accountant (FCCA) who looks at how technology can simplify the modern working environment.
He joined IRIS in 2002, who’s career at IRIS has spanned many areas of the business including Customer Support, Engineering, Product Management and...