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Online collaboration tools will support more flexible accounting team deployments
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How to harness the flexible, contingent workforce


Alan McMillen, CEO of Repstor, offers practical tips on how to organise practice teams to weather the continuing storm of Covid-19 and the more fluid work environment it has introduced.

21st Sep 2020
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Most analysts and business leaders are agreed: the workplace and patterns of working for knowledge-based industries will never be the same again post-Covid.

Even if a successful vaccine is found, the recent challenge to established norms has been deep and long enough to have made a lasting difference. Companies, their employees and their customers have discovered just what is possible at distance and via digital means. This realisation – along with continued social distancing and targeted shielding – is shaping the re-emerging workplace.

Added to all of this is the inevitable recession, now confirmed, which puts new pressure on margins and cost models for professional services firms. In April, the Financial Times suggested that UK accounting firms were facing the biggest crisis in a decade and the closure of firms up and down the UK supported this assumption.

While businesses and self-employed individuals will always need accounting services and tax advice, their expectations of what constitutes value for money are changing. Are face-to-face meetings really necessary now, for instance? And should clients be expected to pay the same if they are using apps and self-service web portals to submit paperwork and upload receipts?

More often than not, it’s bespoke advice that clients are seeking now – the advance of the proactive, advisory accountant has been a perennial topic on AccountingWEB for some time now.

On-demand team assembly

The big firms have been trying to get ahead of the shift, re-evaluating their operating models, their use of digital tools and channels, and the make-up of their talent pool so they remain relevant and competitive. Now more than ever, firms’ adaptability is critical to survival and success.

In its musing on the future for professional services value chain, KPMG recently talked about the growing importance of the “flexible contingent workforce” in future advisory engagements. The Big Four firm envisages a scenario in which at least 20% of talent – including specialist expertise – is sourced on demand.

Once teams are optimally equipped to execute projects remotely, as they have had to over the last six months, the more sense it makes to draw on experts as and when needs arise. This allows the core business to stay nimble and agile: less cost-heavy and vulnerable to fluctuations in demand for particular service lines.

Of course, many firms have had to furlough people since March and not all of these professionals will return to work - either because the economics no longer stack up, or because individuals have chosen a different future that doesn’t include commuting.

Creating dynamic, digital pathways

At a practical level, relying more intently on a contingent workforce requires that it is easy to bring external professionals online quickly and securely, so that they can hit the ground running – working productively from their own homes or offices, as a proactive contributor to a virtual team. All of this, in turn, relies on firms’ digital capabilities – which will have been stress-tested in the extreme since March.

Those accounting practices that haven’t made a full switch to the cloud, to store and manage their client engagements, struggled to access the latest information at the peak of the pandemic. Many defaulted to email to pass documents back and forth – risking content duplication/version control chaos, security and governance issues, and reduced efficiency.

In the meantime, more modern mainstream tools have risen in prominence – familiar apps that anyone can install on their home desktop, laptop or mobile device, and start using to spontaneously collaborate and share files.

Microsoft Teams quickly became so intrinsic to everyday collaboration from March onwards, for instance, that many managers have vowed never to revert to the convoluted and unintuitive methods of old.

Legacy systems hamper adaptation

Widely-used cloud-based services came into their own during the national lockdown, especially where firms were able to link in their everyday business applications to tools for accessing content or managing client engagements so that everything could be channelled through already-familiar interfaces such as Outlook and – increasingly – Teams.

For the accounting sector and the pressing information challenges it is facing, using collaborative tools such as Microsoft 365 to simplify IT complexity and support new modes of working is enormously appealing.

Not only does the online working environment consolidate and reduce complexity; it significantly reduces the costs faced by firms using niche document management solutions. Some mid-sized firms we have spoken to have been spending more than £500,000 a year on hosting/cloud facilities for these systems alone – and that’s without factoring in the scarcity of skills around specialist products, and other premium costs that could arise if they need to add other capabilities or integrate with other business systems.

Digital transformation decisions aren’t just about what firms want to achieve now, either. Legacy systems tend to be far behind the curve when it comes to incorporating the latest features – such as smart workflow, intelligent data analytics, or advanced process automation – while online platforms with large investments behind them are adding new innovative capabilities all the time. Given that these kinds of tools will be critical to keeping track of contingent talent pools, and their performance, this is an important consideration as firms go forward.

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