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WFH or not? Firms grapple with home/office balance


Freedom Day might have been a disaster but we will soon have to make big decisions about home/office balance. The Imprudent Accountant offers some thoughts about working from home in future and canvasses your opinion.

22nd Jun 2021
Partner An unnamed firm
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Freedom Day might have misfired but even the most pessimistic must be beginning to think about a time when a year or more of strict coronavirus measures seem like a bad dream.

There has been much recent press coverage about the Big Four’s attitude to homeworking, which has been congruent, unlike that of some of the major banks.

My initial reaction was that this is because big firms think alike. On reflection, I did begin to wonder whether it was actually the result of competitive need.

If someone works for a big firm of accountants which sets in stone a rule that office attendance is compulsory, then they might just decamp to a competitor who is working on a 60:40 attendance basis or even allowing freedom of choice.

In that context, it becomes easy to see why the big guns have followed a broadly similar policy.

Realistically, they also know that they are likely to get even higher performance and greater commitment from staff members who no longer need to waste time travelling to and from the office and are on call 24/7.

We are lucky that we work in a profession where the vast majority of employees are wholly committed and will perform at best adequately and often superbly without any need to crack the whip.

This weekend saw the other end of the spectrum in the controversial opinion of Conservative bigwig Dame Andrea Leadsom.

In the Dame’s eyes, workers are wage slaves who enjoy nothing more than sitting at home for 15 months accepting furlough, worrying not a jot about whether they have any future with their existing employer or, in many cases, with anyone at all.

In my experience, it is a sad fact that there are a small number of people working in accountancy who are happy enough to swing some lead given the opportunity. They are the ones who take full advantage of sick leave and do a strict 9-to-5, if you ignore rolling up late, sneaking off early and surreptitiously extending the lunch hour.

Frankly, anyone who continues to employ such slackers after the pandemic has given the perfect opportunity to cut the dead wood is either soft or desperate.

Assuming that you have taken any necessary opportunities to ditch lazy workers and got staff numbers to an appropriate level, now is the time to take that big decision.

Some will close offices completely, others cut space significantly while adherents to Dame Andrea’s philosophy might already be sending emails to all members of staff insisting that they chain themselves to their desks all day, every day for the foreseeable future.

There are even suggestions that the government might enshrine the right to work from home in statute. Since this was originally a Labour idea, I’m not holding my breath but you never know.

For most, a middle ground that sees people coming into the office at least once or twice a week is likely to be the perfect solution.

Of course, there will always be exceptions.

Junior members of staff may need to be in more often so that they can receive direction and support from colleagues.

There will still be meetings to attend, though far fewer than in the past, and we might have some people who find it impossible to work from home for a number of reasons.

However, the Big Four have shown the way forward and I will be very surprised if, whenever we finally reach the new normal, that many practices require everyone to be in place more than 60% of the time.

If readers have strong views or have formulated novel plans, do please let us know.

Replies (2)

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By Hugo Fair
23rd Jun 2021 10:41

"Junior members of staff may need to be in more often so that they can receive direction and support from colleagues" ... so presumably the more experienced colleagues also need to be in, otherwise from whom will the juniors get that direction & support?
And if the more experienced colleagues need to be in more, then the support/admin staff will need to be there so that the higher paid can maintain levels of (profitable) efficiency?

Basically, if you don't change the ways of working (not just the location), and the hierarchical structures, and the manner of measuring productivity, and .. and ... then you will have to return to the modus operandi that we're used to (or suffer increased costs & reduced efficiency).

What the WFH experience *should* be leading to is a new way of working altogether. No hostages to fortune, everything can be up for being done a different way.

There are major but unresolved societal changes ahead. One example being - more space at home (if you need to have two wage-earners plus school-children et all in the same space) vs. smaller homes in blocks of flats (if you're going to keep everyone warm using carbon-zero technologies that are not efficient for single households). And similar questions over private vs public transport, or shopping as an experience vs a delivery channel, and so on.

I don't have (many) answers, but the govt is unlikely to tackle issues with an outturn more distant than the next election ... so we all have an opportunity to start changing our lives (and those of our bosses and/or employees) by moving towards a future that isn't constrained solely by questions of work location.

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By wilcoskip
23rd Jun 2021 13:29

Am I the only one who keeps reading WFH as WTF?

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