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Home working - some issues to sort out before it becomes the future of accountancy
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Is working from home the future of accountancy?

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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.

1st Feb 2021
Freelance Journalist
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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.

Replies (9)

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By Paul Crowley
01st Feb 2021 19:53

No

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By GR
01st Feb 2021 20:51

I think firms that go down the WFH route will have 3 major competitive advantages: (1) cost savings in terms of relocating to a smaller office which could then be passed onto clients as a reduction/stalling in their accountancy fees, (2) being able to attract employees more easily (e.g. geography is no longer a barrier and being able to attract employees from firms that do not offer WFH), and (3) employees being able to work longer/flexible hours (if they choose) as they are no longer commuting and no longer need the office key to work on weekends (for urgent work).

If the salary of 2 jobs is the same but one is WFH, then theoretically in some situations the WFH job would be 'better paid' as the employee would lose less money in terms of commuting, lunches out, office clothes, etc. So WFH jobs could become more sort after.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out in 2022, e.g. could more and more firms outsource work overseas (e.g. Ireland or Poland or another country with a similar time zone) rather than employing local staff?

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Replying to GR:
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By johnjenkins
02nd Feb 2021 10:01

Once things are back to "normal" then the internet sales will go down (plateau) and the office will start thriving again. Pubs will once again cherish the 5.30 to 7 drinkers and no doubt the "Monday club" will rear its ugly head again. We will be able to go away (wherever) eat out and generally start socialising once more. It's amazing how much covid has taken away from us, and that's without the deaths.

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By lme
02nd Feb 2021 10:15

I've run my small accountancy firm entirely online for 10 years. We are only a team of three but I am confident it would scale. We speak within the team most days and we meet in person once a year (pre-covid). It's given me the pick of staff because there is no geographical limit - thanks also to great Digita and Sage software. I've run online work experience for students successfully. We meet clients initially and thereafter whenever they or we think it's a good idea. It's not often. We can deal with almost anything by email which also keeps the audit trail good. I love that my staff, who both have young children, can flex things around school pick ups etc. I actually think with at least one of the staff I have a far better relationship than we would if we had to work in each other's space. I've also loved having zoom training in 2020 as it gave us a much better choice and was easier then slogging across great distances to make face to face training.

Have previously tried outsourcing with mixed results. You need scale to make it worthwhile and then you run the risk of reducing ownership so that efficiency can suffer.

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By jon_griffey
02nd Feb 2021 11:13

Something that is widely overlooked in this new homeworking utopia is the issue of training. If the whole office is WFH then how on earth can junior staff be trained up? What future is there for school leavers? Training is hard enough as it is as most of the junior tick and bash work that we were weaned on back in the day has disappeared. It's all very well recruiting experienced staff, but competent, experienced staff are already hard to come by and if nobody is being trained then the skills shortage is only going to get worse.

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By [email protected]
02nd Feb 2021 12:32

I think a blended approach is the future
working from home, with office space available for those who want/need to come in to the office + meeting space for face to face meetings when required.

We are social animals and the "water cooler" conversation is an important, informal networking opportunity that is not available when you are remote...

Re training: true the "quick question" is harder to do when you're not in the same office, but through conferencing and screen sharing you can work through a problem or deliver training together quite effectively. And again, having office space available is valuable.

The biggest danger is "Always on" culture, where people are working and expected to work at all hours! this is one area where the discipline of coming into an office is beneficial. we need to ensure that we put measures into place to protect and respect downtime.

Re IT: Larger companies have and i'm sure will continue to issue corporate kit that remains under their control. smaller companies may do this where the situation warrants. cloud systems, including Office 365, are getting more sophisticated at allowing access when they should and disallowing it when they shouldn't.

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By North East Accountant
02nd Feb 2021 13:29

Be careful what you wish for as if WFH becomes the new normal then loads of companies will employ someone in India/Phillipines etc at a third of the cost.

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By OldParkAcct
02nd Feb 2021 13:52

Two problems why WFH will not work in the long term are:-
Productivity and training
Anyone who thinks they get as much achieved in a day at home as in the office is living by themselves, as soon as partners, children, pets are involved then the productivity falls and workload is only managed by working longer hours.
The training issue for new staff is one that is difficult to do effectively remotely, so if you put the effort in to do this, it will be easier and cheaper to train graduates based overseas than school leavers in the UK.

Those that think remote firms have an advantage in terms of price are correct, but who wants to deal with people who just want the cheapest possible price? There will still be plenty of people willing to pay a premium for a bespoke service.

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By JD
02nd Feb 2021 17:20

No mention of GDPR (to be fair from my scan reading). No client will every put up with their personal records and information being available for all and sundry to read/discuss in the school play ground/over coffee/golf course.

Unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few who have a lockable secure office away from the rest of the family, uninterrupted by kids and visitors to the house, taking a good look at what you are working, then the answer has to be no, WFH is GDPR suicide.

Add to that, I can think of at least one larger firm that are requiring their staff to collect records from the office in the evenings outside of work time. Do you really think that sort of practice will be attractive to an employee for the long term.

As you say accountancy is a people business and that starts with a strong team in the office supporting each other using uncluttered systems. Whist there may be some cost saving for lager practices (ignoring the cost of scanning or travel to the office to collect/deliver records as they will pass that on to their staff), for the smaller firms it clearly involves far more management time, software, systems and costs. WFH does nothing other than make the life of the practice owner much more difficult and expensive. For us on every level the office is definitely king and will remain so.

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