Is the shopfront office a thing of the past?by
As the profession moves towards a more online and hybridised approach to work, does this spell the end of the brick-and-mortar firm?
The idea that we are currently witnessing the death of the high street has been bandied about since long before the pandemic. As the world moves increasingly online, previously household names such as Woolworths and BHS have been tossed into the dustbin of history, only to be replaced by online counterparts.
Now, as the country continues to count the cost of Covid, it seems that some in the accounting profession are also considering leaving behind the shopfront in favour of webfront.
Pondering the topic in a recent Any Answers thread, FirstTab asked the community their thoughts on the disappearance of the brick-and-mortar accounting firm and wondered whether their own premises was in need of a shake-up. “As you know Covid has had a major impact on the way we work. The value of online presence has significantly increased,” they said. “The number of walk-ins to my shopfront office, has significantly reduced post-Covid.”
With this in mind, FirstTab has begun to consider renting out their unit and asked the community: “Do you still get walk-in business post-Covid? Is it worth it? Do you intend to carry on with your shopfront/retail unit?”
Surprisingly, the responses were largely in favour of having a physical workplace outside of the home office, with posters offering a variety of reasons as to why they were continuing leaving home to go to work.
Moving out of the city and setting up shop in rural Northumberland after a “what the hell” moment, regular contributor Glenn Martin has found that, while being out in the country has been beneficial, the strict delineation of work and home is more obvious when in an office. “I find I like a place to get up and go to work in. I can work from home and I do but prefer the distance an office brings,” Martin said, adding that he “would not like people calling at my home.”
While he has noticed a significant drop in face-to-face clientele, Martin seems to be a firm believer in the marketing power of a physical presence on the high street noting: “The amount of walk-ins you get is not a true guide as to the value of your office, but how many people contact you through your website as they are aware of your presence as they have driven past.”
And it’s this presence, not only on the high street but within the wider community, that user andrew55 believes is a key aspect to his firm’s success. “Although we get a small amount of walk-in business from our shopfront, I think the real value is that we are seen as part of the community,” andrew55 wrote. “We have posters in the window for local arts events and so on, and that creates goodwill and awareness of who we are. Although it’s not really possible to track how that repays us with new work, I’m pretty sure it benefits us.”
Yet, while firms continue to hold onto their offices in town, the “new normal” has thrown up a variety of new challenges, with user EGG still looking to iron out some of the specifics when it comes to hybrid work. “Due to a small team and more hybrid working, the office is not attended as much as it used to be. How do you deal with clients who turn up to deliver records/books and so on without ringing first?” they asked.
Although contributors were happy to offer tips on how to best inform clients of the transition – from investing in lockboxes to having a skeleton crew manning the office during home office days – the question sparked a wider debate around the role of the practitioner in a hybrid working environment.
Responding to the original poster’s comment, user JD believed the best course of action was “to do that new thing that is starting to catch on and respects the professional service we should be supplying clients with – working from the office (WFO) and being available to them when they need us.”
Others were quick to respond to JD, with users such as Jimess arguing: “Working from home does not preclude offering professional service. Accountants are entitled to a life outside of work and it is up to the service provider to set their boundaries. You cannot provide a fully professional service if your home life is suffering or you are experiencing burnout or stress.”
What are your thoughts? Is the physical firm really another casualty of a changing high street, or will a brick-and-mortar practice always have its place in the community? Let us know in the comment section below.