Content seriesView full content series
Remote working: Why and how we’re all going hybridby
Twenty years ago, there was a buzz going around about how we were going hybrid. But post pandemic, the fashions have moved on from petrol/electric cars to how we organise our working lives.
The UK white-collar population responded with admirable resourcefulness to the government’s March 2020 “work from home if you are able to” guidance. Spare bedrooms, kitchen tables and even under-stairs cupboards were pressed into service as flexible working spaces.
The long-term behaviour patterns of our Accounting Excellence Award entrants indicated in 2020 that more than a third (36%) of entrants already allowed some form of flexible working, often in tandem with cloud-based tools that allowed their teams to work remotely. That made coping with lockdown easier.
But firms that hadn’t undertaken such experiments found the transition more difficult. Even as they were trying to keep up with the latest government Covid announcements and client cashflow emergencies, practice owners and managers were struggling to solve the conundrums of co-ordinating dispersed teams and keeping the lines of communication clear and open between colleagues and clients.
Having shifted to remote working for health and safety reasons during the pandemic, many organisations realised that that the productivity and resilience benefits were worth keeping. The result was a series of public announcements earlier this year from the likes of PwC, Deloite and BDO that they were committing to hybrid working models that allowed their people to switch between home and office as circumstances required.
Rather than feeling our way into the digital working labyrinth and learning by trial and error, this article summarises some of the main issues around remote working and draws on advice and insights from those who have been doing it for longer than the past year.
“Class of 2009” practice founder Della Hudson built her firm Hudson Business Accountants and Advisors around cloud accounting systems and flexible working and confirmed that it was sustainable in the pre-Covid world. But she acknowledged that every firm and every individual faces different challenges.
The logistical and technological issues involved in moving workloads between clients and staff and ensuring they all know what’s expected of them and when are not trivial. But, she added: “A flexible mindset can be harder to achieve than the actual flexible working.”
As is so often the case, the human factors are much more complex than the operational issues. The employees’ flexibility to work autonomously will not sit well with a firm owner or manager who does not feel they are being kept in the loop or who cannot track their preferred measures for job completions, utilisation and billing.
Those who run the firm may have to change the most to adapt to the new working culture and overhaul how they think about accountancy as a business and run their firm. Whether in large firms or small practices, communication is often the most difficult part of the puzzle to solve.
Seymour Taylor HR director Joanne Kingsnorth emphasised this point in the recent How to stop your staff leaving you webinar. While stepping up the usual team check-ins and one-to-one meeting structures in the virtual environment, her firm also opened up Zoom rooms at lunchtime for people to chat.
“It’s amazing how much you miss just the relationships and the bonds with the people you work with. We wanted to make sure people were keeping in touch with the social elements, but also remembering the little acknowledgements like thank yous - the appreciation that doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re working remotely,” Kingsnorth explained.
The Victorian tradition of maintaining and monitoring the output of accounting clerks by observing how long they sit at their desks and totting up the hours they devote to each remains strong. We don’t have time to review the philosophical implications or rehash timesheets vs value pricing arguments here, but there’s no question that hybrid working will finally make bums-on-seats and timesheets obsolete as productivity measures.
This transition could challenge traditionalists, but all it requires is a new way to measure the firm’s outputs - for example client queries answered and resolved within so many hours; management accounts and reports completed on time; statutory deadlines met; client contacts and conversations, and actions arising recorded and completed; new clients taken on board and the most significant mesure of all for organisational health - how happy clients are with the overall service.
At Greenstones in Peterborough, Simon Chaplin has been operating a results-oriented work environment for a decade. What used to be a radical practice of agreeing targets with team members and letting them organise their workload to meeting them provides a remarkably simple basis for operating more virtually. If a working parent has a bad night with their child, they can recover by resting the next day and make up for it a day or two later by putting in a few extra hours in the evening.
As Chaplin points out, if the parent is happier and less stressed, the efficiency and quality of their work will be better, leading to a better end result for them, the client and the practice owner.
“The reason it has taken so long for firms to go hybrid or allow working from home is they don’t trust their team to deliver on performance,” he said. “They're the practice owners who end up running around on the 7th of the month, desperately filing VAT returns. The team members find it difficult to deliver because the practice owner hasn’t defined what they are supposed to deliver, usually because they haven’t defined it for themselves. Then they go into a cycle of suspicion and ‘I can’t do what I want’ resentment.”
Building up trust around clearly defined practice values and targets is a major undertaking that will be covered in more detail in the next article on management and cultural issues. As a starter, however, Chaplin reminded practice owners that the people working for them are essentially volunteers. So the objective is to create an organisation where they want to work and where they feel the same energy as the owner when they’re working with clients.
Flexible working tools
For all the pronouncements from bigger firms, If you want to find out where hybrid working is really taking off, look to see what small practices are up to, advised Connect4 founder Andrew Jordon.
Jordon’s startup is taking on the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams with an online meeting app designed specifically for accountants. Connect4 integrates with other cloud apps like Xero and QuickBooks Online, reporting tools such as Fathom and Futrli and most of the leading practice management programs.
Most of the early adopters of Connect4 come from smaller firms of the kind who enter and sometimes win the Accounting Excellence Awards, Jordan noted. “Because they’re smaller, they’re more flexible and can implement new tools and systems more quickly,” he said.
While some pioneers were already doing this before 2020, virtual meetings exploded into all our lives in 2020 and the race is on to supplement remote meetings with facilities to collaborate on shared documents, capture video and text ideas at source and to build in follow-up actions.
Another tool that has come into its own during the Covid emergency is Calendly, an online calendar and appointment booking system that gives clients of means to grab a slot with their time-pressed business advisers.
Then there are all the varied text and chat tools such as Slack, WhatsApp, Google Messenger and Microsoft Teams to support fast and informal interchanges by dispersed project and service teams. What might have been seen as distracting toys a year or two ago now need to be bedded into the practice communications infrastructure to ensure that your people can respond as quickly as possible to questions and quibbles as they arise.
No one article can tackle all of the factors that underpin a successful shift in working behaviour. As part of our commitment to explore all aspects of post-pandemic working initiatives, AccountingWEB will dig more deeply into the cultural, managerial and technological aspects of hybrid working over the coming weeks.
If there are any specific issues causing you trouble, raise your concerns by commenting below and our writers will do their best to find and publish answers in the articles to come in this series.
You might also be interested in
AccountingWEB’s Editor at large has been with the site since 1999, rising from news editor to editor in chief, global editor and head of insight. As a roving editor, he continues to investigate the profession's use of technology around the world. He devotes his spare time to technology history and an oddball collection of stringed instruments...