Information overload - one of the perils of hybrid working
iStock_Information overload_ismagilov

How to make a mess of hybrid working

by

​So, you and your team weathered the pandemic work and you’ve seen the press reports trumpeting the cost savings and general trendiness of hybrid working. If you’re thinking about joining the flexible work revolution, here’s now NOT to do it.

27th Aug 2021
Editor in Chief AccountingWEB
Columnist
Share this content

Except for the smug minority who had already put the necessary infrastructure and management processes in place, the sudden transition to working from home in March 2020 was traumatic. 

Yet many organisations discovered unexpected benefits when they sent their teams home. Staff were often more productive when they had more control over their working arrangements and didn’t have to waste hours each day slogging into the office to sit there unproductively from 9am-5pm every day.

To hear it from bigger firms such as BDO, the potential property cost savings from this new arrangement are spectacular. City centre offices are prohibitively expensive and if hybrid working can reduce the firm’s space requirements, there’s a lot of money tied up in unnecessary property assets. Looks like it’s time to cash in the hybrid working dividend!

Mistake 1: Assume that you’ve already cracked it

Accountants of all sizes can appreciate the potential savings. But just because your firm successfully responded to the Covid-19 emergency, it would be foolhardy to assume you’ve solved all the managerial challenges of hybrid working

This lighthearted guide sets out to signpost some of the most common pitfalls when making fundamental changes to your firm’s working culture. Everywhere you look in the virtual workplace, there are new issues waiting to leap out and surprise you.

Mistake 2: Do it because it’s trendy

Of course you feel the need to keep up with Jones & Partners next door and burnish your image as a progressive, modern accounting brand. But just because hybrid working works for some firms, that doesn’t make it ideal for yours. 

The cost-cutting Big Four firms have HR specialists and process consultants on tap, not to mention chunky IT budgets to fund their hybrid working arrangements. Big firms also tolerate a higher turnover of lower level staff than less exalted accountants, so they may not rely as much on trusted and experienced (or shall we say less flexible?) team members as a mid-size regional practice.

Greenstones managing director Simon Chaplin has been operating a “results oriented work environment” for more than a decade and wondered why it took a pandemic to convince so many accountants to embrace flexible working. “The reason why so few accountants have gone for hybrid working is they don’t trust their team to deliver on performance,” Chaplin argued. “The practice owner hasn’t defined what they want from their teams. Often they haven’t defined it for themselves, so they find it difficult to deliver.”

Starting with a clear picture in your head of what you want your firm to be, how it works with clients is the key first step, said Chaplin. Then you can then define the outputs you expect from staff to meet those objectives. We’ll come back to that later.

Mistake 3: Neglect your people

Hybrid working seemed like such a no-brainer while you were on your West Country staycation that the first thing you did when you got back was to email the team with the good news and issue a press release to the local press. Now you can sit back and wait for that productivity boost to feed through to your profit margins… 

You could end up waiting longer than expected.

The most important ingredient in Simon Chaplin’s results-oriented work environment is communication. There’s no point in going hybrid if none of your people are interested. Start by asking them for their opinions and how they would like to organise their work.

Giving employees more autonomy can boost their motivation and engagement and feed through to enhanced productivity, but don’t make this your sole focus. There are risks with the hybrid approach too, such as isolation, work/life imbalances and loss of motivation. 

Failing to know and communicate why you want to implement changes could doom your hybrid adventure to a downward spiral of suspicion and resentment - and this risk will accelerate if staff feel the exercise is all about squeezing more productivity out of them.

Albert Goodman technical and training partner Sophie Parkhouse offered some useful advice on the importance of wellbeing and teamwork when working remotely in a recent podcast.

“We’re proud of our culture, which already has a lot of flexibility around working from home and hours. We let people do the hours when they need to,” she said. “Our focus is on more objective outputs - do they get the job done? If so, it doesn’t matter when they do it.”

Working remotely with paperless systems and virtual meetings imposes a responsibility to pay more attention to the human element - for example by setting aside time dedicated to listening and being human.

“Yes, everybody can work from home. What you lose is the whole-firm feel and learning by osmosis from what you overhear and observe. It’s hard to maintain that without office/together time.”

Like Greenstones, Albert Goodman increased the amount and regularity of its firm-wide communications during the pandemic and maintained its internal meeting schedule online to ensure its teams keep moving in the right direction when working remotely. 

Mistake 4: Fail to set objectives and output measures

Let’s assume you are one of the elite practitioners who uncovered the secrets of optimising practice performance before the pandemic struck. Thanks to diligent time-keeping, administrative discipline and a passion for excellence, your KPIs for utilisation, completions, client retention and fee lockup were second to none. 

The new Sneek spyware you’re planning to install will ensure that similar standards are maintained in the new environment.

Well, my high-performing friend, those measures could let you down once you enter the land of hybrid work. Input measures such as bums on seats and timesheets are poor indicators of productivity; in a more flexible environment what matters are outcomes linked to business objectives and value creation. Resolution times for client queries, perhaps tracked by a helpdesk-type app like Zendesk, or client delight as measured by a net promoter score (NPS) are some of the things that entrants to the Accounting Excellence Awards track.

Mistake 5: Assume your systems are up to scratch

You’ve got the cloud accounting apps, the Zoom licence and the team are all signed up to WhatsApp. They all held up OK during 2020-21, so you’re all fixed up for hybrid work, right? 

Think again. Those management information systems and internal KPIs we just talked about are fed by your existing systems. The chances are that if you tinker with operational objectives and KPIs, you’re going to have to reset your operational processes too.

As Sophie Parkhouse at Albert Goodman pointed out, when everyone is in the office, you can see how they’re getting on - but it’s ad hoc. The flexibility hybrid offers adds a new layer of complication, not just internally, but also with clients. If some people are in and out on different cycles, scheduling meeting times when everyone is in the same place takes a lot more effort. Looks like you're going to need a shared electronic calendar.

Then there are all the other office productivity tools. Can they keep up if sometimes you’re in the office and at other times you’re at home with the laptop? Document management and syncing are the new name of the hybrid game; if you can’t maintain that single, definitive source for a file, version control nightmares will haunt the rest of your working life. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to explore the potential of collaborative online environments such as Microsoft Teams and Google’s GSuite.

Email, too, can struggle to cope. Ping-pong email chains do not make for a very satisfactory experience for either side and are a poor way to archive your interactions. It may be time to consider CRM tools to automate and track client communications, along with dedicated accounting portals that allow you to solicit information with clients and share and collaborate on reports and official documents.

Mistake 6: Assume what works now is how it will always be

Now you’ve read this article and addressed the silly mental slips that could spoil the firm’s new vibe, you can set the dials for success and let the ship steer itself. 

Really? Every one of the false assumptions tackled in this article stems from a fixed mindset. Motivation and progress are governed by variable factors; if you’re not constantly monitoring and responding to them, you’re likely to drift off course. 

It’s down to you, the practice leader, to identify early signs of apathy or division and address them. That means keeping an eye on objectives, outputs, staff policies, contracts, rewards and even recruitment. If you want to succeed with hybrid working, you need a team of responsible, self-reliant characters you can trust.

“Do not assume you know the answer. Get data and act on it,” advised Sophie Parkhouse. “Talk to people, check with them and identify who needs support. Take the time to ask and use the information you collect to continually evolve.”

Replies (4)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

Quack
By Constantly Confused
27th Aug 2021 10:54

Thanks John, interesting read.

I can certainly understand the issue with goals - the few times I have been able to work from home these last few years I have often found myself having a productive day but then being treated like I had slacked off all day - there is no metric agreed between staff and firm to say what a 'good day' is when working from home (or, to be honest, when in the office).

Thanks (1)
avatar
By mumpin
27th Aug 2021 19:08

Thought provoking piece!
I just think that for those of us servicing mostly micro clients, where producing an FRS Vat Return might take 10 minutes, home working for staff is going to make you somewhere between 20% and 60% less efficient.
And if it is the future, then its just a stepping stone to outsourcing grunt work to underdeveloped countries.

Thanks (0)
Replying to mumpin:
avatar
By Andy Reeves
31st Aug 2021 11:28

Absolute nonsense. Why would it make the task take any longer? If anything, the absence of normal office distractions would aid speed and accuracy.

Thanks (0)
Replying to Andy Reeves:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
31st Aug 2021 14:27

Where I found inefficiencies at home arose was having a much smaller desk to work at and ring binders falling down onto my head as the room I was using just did not have the space.

The other limiter is if everyone in a house is working from home do people actually have the space within modern houses, last year had me working in one study, my grown up son working in another (small room previously used as a second sitting room), wife working downstairs in the lounge and grown up daughter working in her bedroom or in the other small room downstairs (former dinning room) where we hang the laundry, but we are lucky, we have seven rooms plus kitchens/bathrooms to work from, most people have far less space.

Thanks (0)