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Is the shopfront office a thing of the past?

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As the profession moves towards a more online and hybridised approach to work, does this spell the end of the brick-and-mortar firm? 
 

23rd Jun 2022
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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. 

Shopfront shake-up

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?”

Community hub

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.”

Home-office balance

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.

Replies (18)

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wolfy
By rob winder
23rd Jun 2022 09:58

We have used a virtual office for over seven years now. Our address is a local business centre who also answer the phones and have meeting rooms that we use for a fixed fee. Apart from allowing us to work from home the the cost is significantly less than we paid for a physical office there.

I wouldn't want to be exclusively home based as we still need to host client meetings. It would be a bit pervy asking a female client to "come up to my spare bedroom". Being exclusively home based would also result in unwanted clients showing up at the door unannounced at all hours.

Going back even further we had a high street office on a very busy road with a 6 metre wide sign and almost no walk in's. I don't think this was particularly effective at driving custom as when we received an enquiry it was predominantly a referral or the result of a Google search.

Thanks (1)
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By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 10:53

No
But then I said that last time

Have you asked the big 4 if they are getting rid of their buildings? If they are then the next KPMG article will need a new photo

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Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
23rd Jun 2022 11:13

Yes I think this is as polarising as Brexit as some people love it some will always struggle with it. I guess it depends on what else goes on in your household.

My house is very busy and I find it very difficult to focus for long periods of time if doing something that needs concentration. In the lockdowns I felt I was at my desk for 10/12 hours to produce 8 hours of decent work as there were that many interruptions.

I also found that as there was nothing to do in lockdown, you just ended up doing more work which is not great, it was more "living at work" than "working from home".

I am currently commuting to work 4 days per week and work from home on a Friday but looking at renting an office in Northumberland and will maybe come to Durham 1 day per week for any meetings and work from Northumberland the rest of the time. I would always keep my Durham office as a virtual address as works well for SEO.

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Replying to Glennzy:
wolfy
By rob winder
23rd Jun 2022 11:21

That's quite a trek Glenn, equivalent of one working day a week in the car. Good opportunity to make those irritating phone calls. Unless you're setting off at 6 in the morning.

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Replying to rob winder:
Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
23rd Jun 2022 13:38

Yes its far from ideal, I guess I am a little worried after 30 years operating in Durham that referrals may drop off if I am no longer present, but that might be just over thinking. I am still testing the water on it.

The office I have found in Alnwick is not available until the Autumn as it has a bat problem apperently such is the real world problems that come with country living.

We must catch up for that pint sometime in town one night maybe go to Above, where can you try your "Do you wanna go upstairs line"

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Replying to Glennzy:
wolfy
By rob winder
23rd Jun 2022 13:44

Defiantly Glenn. Give me a shout whenever you are down south.

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Replying to rob winder:
RLI
By lionofludesch
26th Jun 2022 13:13

rob winder wrote:

Defiantly Glenn.

Inappropriate - but I like it.

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By Geoff56
23rd Jun 2022 11:32

"Surprisingly, the responses were largely in favour of having a physical workplace outside of the home office"

I must confess that I wasn't surprised in the least.

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Replying to Geoff56:
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By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 12:39

Nor me
But Aweb tend to be driven by cloud providers promising MTD and digital combined saving £17,000 per year, digital nomads and WFH is the new normal.
We both deal with real life people not future fantasies

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By jon_griffey
23rd Jun 2022 11:54

If anything I would say that high streets will increasingly have fewer shops and more offices. My firm moved into former bank premises a few years ago when the branch shut and I know of a number of other professional firms that have done similar - there seems to be few other takers for high street property. WFH is fine, but as I see it the main reasons you need a physical office is (i) clients get comfort knowing you are established and have a tangible presence somewhere, and so you are more likely to attract bigger clients (ii) if you are training staff, WFH is not feasible. We get very, very few walk-ins.

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Replying to jon_griffey:
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By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 12:47

What I get is walk bys. Potential client then uses email or telephone to make contact.
I usually ask clients why me and it is prodominantly referral, followed by 'I have walked/driven past', with website so far behind as to be trivial.
My website is a PracticeWEB one, a part of the same group as Aweb

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
23rd Jun 2022 15:12

We get plenty of website referrals, so maybe have a look at your website to see if it is optimised for your target audience?

We get zero "walk ins" and only a very few "driven past" type benefits.
Work comes first from client referrals and then from our direct contact with prospects.

Word of mouth is very powerful, so we have to turn away some work....

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By Genio
23rd Jun 2022 13:47

We have a shopfront office, clear views inside along with a shared office space in the centre of town and a web presence.

All 3 work really well and without a shopfront office we would not have about 35% of our clients. Its also good for local businesses to know they have a place they can pop into and meet the team to discuss any queries. It also feels more real for clients to see a physical venue rather than a home office..

It not a solution for everyone I admit - we are in a low commercial rent area but get plenty of walk ins and are noticed by people driving past.

I would actively look for vacated bank buildings in our local area in the future as we expand.

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Replying to Genio:
wolfy
By rob winder
23rd Jun 2022 22:43

I'm not trying to be flippant or condescending but do you not find the quality of client you pick up from walk ins is a lower class, higher maintenance client. You may be based in a more affluent town centre but every other, possibly more, shops in the nearest town centre to me is a takeaway or bargain basement business. These businesses typically expect you to work for peanuts and want you to drop everything the minute they shout. There used to be 3 accountants within 1/4 of a mile of each other here and they have all disappeared now. I've thought about a shopfront office a few times but decided the costs involved, the clients it would attract and the additional irritation it would lumber me with are not worth it.

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Replying to rob winder:
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By Geoff56
24th Jun 2022 08:57

I have been a partner then a sole practitioner for 40 years now. Almost all my decent new business has come from referrals from existing clients. The very few walk-ins have been a waste of time. I have not advertised for years.

I have a very small, inconspicuous high street office. I keep it for three main reasons: to separate home from work; insufficient space to work at home; and I don't want to work alone.

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Replying to Geoff56:
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By tedbuck
30th Jun 2022 16:47

That is spot on.

I am in the same position for the same reason.

Working from home during the pandemic was a bit like a jail sentence - fantastic when you get out and can speak to people face to face again.

Not, I should add, that I speak from personal experience in respect of the jail sentence!!

Thanks (1)
Replying to Geoff56:
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By tedbuck
30th Jun 2022 16:47

That is spot on.

I am in the same position for the same reason.

Working from home during the pandemic was a bit like a jail sentence - fantastic when you get out and can speak to people face to face again.

Not, I should add, that I speak from personal experience in respect of the jail sentence!!

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FirstTab
By FirstTab
23rd Jun 2022 20:59

Good to see this article Will, since it is close to my heart.

Also, I am finding the response helpful.

It is still wait and see for me, on which way I will go.

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