Are staff in accountancy practices more productive or less productive working from home?

13th Jan 2021
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Whether you like it or not, and whether you had adopted “working from home” before, the COVID situation has changed working methods dramatically for some in a very short period of time, with the intention of keeping everyone safe and keeping the business running. The accounting practice is no exception.

For some, the necessary infrastructure was already in place; for others, it was literally flying by the seat of the pants whilst putting systems in place.

Working from home is not all about laptops and video conferencing, although these are important. Do home workers have the “right” equipment, desk and chair? In the office, they may have two or three monitors or a wide screen and a high spec desktop PC; to suddenly working at home on an old laptop brought out of retirement and maybe one screen is not conducive to productivity or working methods. In some instances, it might be practicable to pick up the office setup and transport to someone’s house. This situation does not however lend itself to flexi-working – spending some time in the office and some at home.

Not everyone can have a dedicated workspace at home either and working on a kitchen table or sitting or lying on a bed trying to work has disadvantages too. Connectivity can also be another issue to overcome; not every household has a superfast or even a fast broadband connection!

Funding the purchase of equipment to provide both a home and office setup can also be an expensive option.

There are dozens of surveys and “findings”, but increased productivity comes out as a benefit in many of them. Whilst working from home has potentially different distractions from office working, it seems there is an ability to control these better in the home environment. However, stopping a dog barking or a child crying in the background whilst on a video conferencing call does present unique challenges.

From the employee viewpoint, the commute to work disappears, resulting in less stress, and certainly less expense in terms of both travel costs and buying lunches from the café down the road. These savings could be substantial.

Allowing employees to work from home provides a sense of trust – however some employers have a certain trait that doubts whether employees are working – the “control freak” for want of a better phrase. There needs to be implicit trust that the employees are productive and working.

Many staff will have found working from home suits them, and may well request this as a matter of course, although the employer may not be so keen. On the flip side, there will be many that prefer the “buzz” and human interaction of office life. Being alone and away from work can make it more challenging to remain motivated and focussed.

The use of tools such as Slack or Teams which offer features such as instant messaging, voice and video calls can help everyone stay in touch to a degree. However, instead of wandering down the corridor to bend an ear or seek advice from a colleague which would take a few minutes, this can now result in “telephone ping-pong” calling and returning calls and missing each other, or extensive long messages typed out and sent – often via email which also pings back and forward. Trying to mentor or provide on the job training can also be a challenge when working remotely.

The use of a free version of Zoom does have some added benefits – that version restricts meetings to 40 minutes, which may also be a good thing!

Many employers too will prefer having staff in an office environment. The ability to “keep an eye” on staff wherever they work is possible using various software products – key logging, web site tracking etc. Big Brother is watching! It is much more difficult to see how staff are performing in other areas such as interactions with clients, other staff members, rather than just focussing on output and hours worked. The fact that staff are trying to creep into the office half an hour late on a regular basis is much more noticeable with a physical presence as opposed to a virtual one!

For many employers, the physical office is now something of a white elephant, sitting practically unused and draining cash from the business in terms of rent or mortgage repayments, rates, utilities, insurance etc. And who knows how long this will continue to be the case?

So back to the question posed at the start – are staff more productive or less productive?

As there are advantages and disadvantages to remote working, so some staff are likely to fall into both camps – some more so, some less so.

There is probably not a definitive answer – but whether it is a Yes or a No we all just have to get on with it…and stay safe!