As Britain ponders another lockdown, and accountancy firms contemplate yet more remote working, there’s never been a better time to ask: what next? What will accountancy’s “new normal” be when it’s finally safe to go back to the office?
Read on for our predictions on which working practices will go back to the old normal, and which will be changed forever...
The onset of lockdown in March forced many accountancy firms to change overnight. Some had remote working capabilities, but had never used them as their main modus operandi. Others weren’t remotely ready and either maintained what office presence they safely could or shut their business down for the duration.
Now we’re aware of what lockdown involves and what a COVID-safe workplace looks like, practitioners need to ask these key questions to determine what their “new normal” should look like:
Will accountancy practices still need offices?
We’ve realised that accountants don’t technically need offices to carry out the vast majority of their tasks. But accountants are also people, with needs that are more than technical.
While working parents may appreciate the freedom to choose to work from home, how will they feel if they’re trapped at home permanently? For many, the office provides their main respite from childcare and their main opportunity to talk to an adult.
Young workers who’ve been working from their bedroom in their parents’ house will also likely be glad to go back to the office. Home working works best when you have your own home to work in.
While many accountants may be introverted, few are so asocial that they’d prefer a work life with zero face-to-face interaction. And even for those who do, communication is still easier in person than through video calls and emails.
Trainees have also been losing out; it’s much easier for apprentices to learn when they can actually sit with a seasoned accountant, and can see and hear others working around them and get involved in office conversations.
However, those who have taken well to home working will probably still want it to be a part of their work life, if not all of it. So the likelihood is that firms will still have physical offices, but will downsize them significantly, as not everyone will be in the workplace every day.
Can we stay inclusive of disabled workers, parents and carers?
A noted upside of home working has been the inclusion of people who need to work from home because of disabilities or care responsibilities. We’ve seen that it’s possible, so it would be easy for firms to continue it – but will they?
The realistic likelihood is that people will drift back into the old long hours culture, and employers will once again start looking askance at those who need a different work pattern. However, we’d love to be proved wrong.
Can we meet the technical requirements of a permanent virtual office?
The move to the cloud, speeded up by Making Tax Digital and sent into overdrive by lockdown, is bound to continue, but at a less frantic pace, with true cloud software gradually replacing local servers and hosted desktops.
Better practice management tools for accountancy firms of all sizes enable more efficient allocation, tracking and analysis of work internally, and new advances in electronic signature and client portal software boost the efficiency and safety of virtual workflows. Communication platforms like Zoom and Slack have also proved their worth, leaving little excuse for those who object to moving to the cloud.
Now that COVID has forced a sea-change in accountants’ attitudes, cloud-based accounting is likely to continue its forward march.
What will clients think?
Of course, this depends on the client: some will be happy to continue with remote meetings, while others will much prefer to meet face-to-face – and even those who don’t are likely to want at least a quick coffee to get to know their accountants.
However, there are places for a quick coffee that are not the office, as well as larger networking events. Some accountancy firms already run networking events for clients; beer and curry evenings may become a larger part of the job when the real business is done online.
With so many new possibilities, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of “new normal” accountants want to create.