Is working from home the future of accountancy?
Taking a break to ponder what reality currently means for the average accounting professional, Tom Ford considers whether the Covid pandemic has set the template for accountancy’s future.
It’s become a cliche to remark on how the pandemic has accelerated key social and economic changes such as remote working and online collaboration. But statements like that become cliches because so many people subsribe to them.
What first felt like a temporary and and occasionally comic arrangement for working from home is now likely to become a permanent fixture as companies finetune and capitalise on the remote working systems they put in place to deal with social distancing and lockdowns.
Futurist Ian Khan picked up on this theme on our sister site AccountingWEB.com last November. “The accounting profession must learn and adapt to the needs of the post-pandemic world. If operating lean means moving to a smaller space, offering the chance to work remotely, and getting used to collaboration via video conferencing and shared documents, then firms are pivoting towards being more future-ready,” he wrote.
Remote workers are often more productive in their home environment and downsizing offices or eliminating them altogether can free up budgets for other parts of the business. As a data-heavy, knowledge-based industry, accountancy is a prime candidate for remote work; digitisation has already made hunching over wads of paper documents and receipts a historical curiosity.
As an example of this trend, Deloitte is to four of its 50 UK offices and will switch 500 staff to permanent working from home contracts, a move that is trickling down to smaller firms like Mazuma and Complete HQ.
Benefits of working from home
With a laptop and a decent internet connection, an accountant on the other side of the country doesn’t need to leave their home study to be an invaluable member of your team.
Avoiding the commute saves employees time and money and gives them more flexibility to schedule their work around their personal situation. Right now, that’s essential for parents who have to homeschool their kids; tomorrow it could help families with younger children.
The productivity benefits are great for employers too, until the Wi-Fi cuts out, or someone spills coffee over their laptop. If the employee is in a hard to reach location, getting a replacement or carrying out simple technical support tasks could be difficult.
Face the risks
There are other risks to consider, like who would be responsible if an employee working remotely injured themselves while performing a work-related task? How to ensure sensitive information is protected at remote work locations is another challenge, as the organisation will not be in a position to control physical access or internet security in the employees’ homes as effectively as it can in a centralised office.
While futurists like Khan insist that working from home is the future, there are a lot of specifics to sort out to make this option the long-term default.
The pandemic exposed underlying problems of remote work, including poor communication between managers and the rest of the team. Automation has been brought into play for daily tasks, some of which can be tackled by software assistants that bridge the co-ordination gap.
But so much more of the challenge can be tackled by good, old-fashioned communication, Regular catch-ups - using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Zoom can keep everyone on track and maintain motivation and morale.
When predicting that working from home would be the future of accountancy, Ian Khan talked about how this people-centric view held the key to effective online collaboration. This strategy represented “true prudence”, he argued, by distributing risk across different locations, while enabling the organisation to come together when needed.
The pull of the office
The benefits of WFH are clear, but as a recent graduate and newcomer to the world of accountancy, it would be sad if the whole profession switched to home offices. I know that I wouldn’t want my colleagues confined to panels in Zoom calls for the rest of my career.
Contrary to popular belief, accountancy is a people business. Even before the pandemic forced so many accountants into an isolated existence, employers were learning that their teams appreciated and were more motivated when they could operate in flexible environments.
Over the past 10 months, we have all experienced conditions such as Zoom fatigue and felt the urge to gather around the kettle again to talk about sports results, boxsets and office politics. As long as there’s a longing for the sense of belonging that in person contact can bring the office will be here to stay.
But as many accountants discovered during the pandemic, it was quite a relief to be able to stay under the senior partner’s radar or avoid the firm’s David Brent while working productively from home.