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Make flexible working work for your practice
An increasing number of accounting firms adapted to flexible working due to the pandemic, but is this approach sustainable in our ‘new normal’ world?
Flexible work has exploded over the last two years. Firms already embracing cutting edge accounting technology led the way, while the pandemic forced every practice to adapt to more flexible work methods.
When Covid-19 hit, the transition to remote working was somewhat easier for the former – minimal disruption was caused within the firms that had already got to grips with Cloud-based approaches.
However, even the most prepared practices have met challenges along the way; flexible working isn’t just about allowing relaxed and varied work hours and using remote technology.
Successful flexible work requires a shift in mindset – the mental approach to work is less focused on time, and more on value. Rather than supervising and measuring employee’s utilisation through the hours they put in, flexibility allows productivity to be measured through the merit of services delivered to clients. This is also a factor in many firms’ pivoting to value-based pricing strategies.
The spread of coronavirus may have been the catalyst that several firms needed to shift towards this way of working, fast-forwarding the timeframe of the direction office-based business was heading.
PwC recently announced their shift to flexible work, with the hybrid option of blending office and home-working and the added bonus of half-days every Friday throughout summer. Now that social distancing measures are being reduced and offices will be opening their doors once more, will flexible work continue to trickle down into smaller accountancy practices?
Making it work
While flexible working has taken on new connotations throughout the last year, some firms have been adopting this approach since the ‘before’ times.
Heidi Thompson, HR Director and Head of Payroll at Duncan & Toplis, told AccountingWEB that their practice has always been pro-flexible and is thinking about the possibility of carrying a flexible approach through to the other side of the pandemic.
“We were able to still continue providing a great service to clients because of our technology and infrastructure as well as the dedication of our team members,” she said of remote working.
For Thompson, seeing everyone forced into what could be an uncomfortable working situation during the past year has given the benefit of showing her team what works well and what doesn’t work well with remote working.
Wellbeing in the workplace
Although some probably jumped at the chance to work remotely at the beginning of lockdown, the reality of WFH can be extremely isolating.
“Wellbeing is, for me, the critical part,” commented Thompson. “Certainly people’s mental health has suffered. We know that people do struggle on their own.”
While there are a plethora of video conferencing platforms available to communicate with your team (and even a new surveillance app called Sneek that allows managers to spy on their employees working from home), there is more opportunity for struggles to go unseen.
Seeing someone every day at the office allows you a visual check-in on their mood and motivation – you can engage clearer and quicker with how they’re coping at work. This aspect can become hidden at home.
“Make time to have those non-work chats, because you need to know how people are getting on,” said Thompson. “You have to then put in the effort into putting wellbeing at the heart of your company’s culture, otherwise people could just get lost and be really struggling. Without deliberately taking efforts to check people are ok and to speak to them, you might not notice so you’ve got to stay connected with people across the team.”
Creating healthy boundaries
One of the biggest concerns with flexible working throughout the pandemic has been the infamous work/life balance. Some firms have reported employees working far more at home than they would have in the office, Thompson commented.
“On one hand, you can see people working harder and think, that’s really good. But you’ve got to ask whether they’re working too much, are they stopping to have a proper rest, is there a natural endpoint, is it healthy and is it sustainable? If someone is working longer hours than they were in the office, it’s probably not. It’s also important to ask why they might need to work lots more than they used to, because their hard work could be covering up a bigger issue within your company.”
The relaxed approach that comes with flexible working can have a very positive impact on the stresses of work. However, the blurred edges of office and home life can quickly lead to work spilling into overtime.
Setting boundaries with your team to ensure they’re not burning themselves out is crucial to making flexible work for your firm. Encouraging regular breaks away from screens not only benefits people’s wellbeing, but a more productive workflow when they are back at their desks.
Organising your team
Working flexibly, although great for the individual, can meet challenges with organising your firms’ calendar as a team.
For example, it might suit one employee to come into the office during the evening, or work all day Sunday. This might not work with another employee who needs a response first thing in the morning, or who doesn’t work weekends.
“You've got to plan as a team. Just because it suits you, you might actually inadvertently put a lot more pressure on another team member as well,” explained Thompson. “It comes down to management and team planning, in terms of workload.”
Communicating with your employees
Ultimately, talking to your team and considering your culture at work is key to creating truly flexible work, Thompson advised.
“You're going to have to have a really strong culture - it's going to have to be based on strong values of trust. You’re going to have to have a really open dialogue.”
If you’re wondering how to implement flexible working into your firm, Thompson suggested focusing on these key points:
- Is this for us? Explore whether flexible working would make your team flourish or flounder - get feedback from your employees and take their opinions on board because each team member may have different preferences and needs.
- What might it look like? Have strategies in place prior to shifting to flexible work, to ensure you’re prepared for any challenges that lie ahead.
- Where are we as a firm? Assess the qualities of your team - how strong is your management? And if any managers aren’t as skilled as others, how are you going to upskill them without putting too much pressure on them?
Ultimately, successful flexible work comes back to a strong foundation of leadership, management, dialogue, and being willing to review and reflect on what’s working for you.