Remote working for accountants

In this article, prepared exclusively for GI, Mark Lee invites you to consider which of the most common remote working challenges you have already addressed and he shares loads of related practical advice and tips.

Even if you weren’t considering the idea of working from home before the COVID-19 lockdown, now there is little option.

With very few exceptions accountants and their staff are having to work remote from the office, remote from colleagues and remote from the partners (or from the owner of the firm).

In this article, I invite you to see which of the more common challenges you have already addressed and which you may need to consider in the near future.

You will also find a list of upsides you may not have fully considered and a range of practical tips and insights. These are drawn, in part, from the lessons learned by accountants who have been forced to embrace remote working over the last few weeks.

I’ll avoid making any of the standard opening comments you have read many times about the speed with which life has changed for all of us this year.

The challenges

Congratulate yourself as regards any of these that haven’t caused you or your firm ANY problems:

  • Accessing office systems (securely and safely) from home – to work on client affairs, maintain office records, keep in touch with tem members, generate emails from your office email address etc.
  • Ensuring the office phone line could be answered or that the answerphone gave out a suitable alternative home number.
  • Overcoming poor broadband connectivity at home.
  • Identifying slow and outdated laptops/pcs that need replacing – to run video conferencing and other modern facilities –  and ensuring that suitable security programmes are downloaded in each case.
  • Holding true to the firm’s values, culture and principles as set out on your website and/or office wall.
  • Communicating with staff and colleagues so that they work by reference to agreed priorities and goals.
  • Keeping track of those who may be struggling with remote working – leading to physical and/or mental health issues. Many people prefer a clear distinction between home and work.
  • Team building – especially as regards any newer staff now working from home.
  • Recognising and sharing with the team the recognition of work done well (all be it remotely).
  • Dealing with interruptions from children, pets and family.
  • Encouraging a healthy work-life balance and discouraging anyone from working too hard – to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
  • Ensuring that everyone has adequate (home) working conditions – in terms of adequate space, a suitable chair, desk/table and storage etc.
  • Updating your email signature, out of office message and your website with new contact details, an explanation for clients and, especially, for contacts and prospects about your new working arrangements.
  • Maintaining security around client data accessed at home and over who can access the office systems remotely.
  • Dealing with client work when key staff have been furloughed.
  • Acquiring additional screens as 2 or 3 per person make remote (and office) working in the cloud significantly easier.
  • Keeping non-furloughed staff sufficiently occupied so as to warrant keeping them on full pay.
  • Deciding when/whether to chase clients for o/s fees.
  • Deciding whether and when to charge additional fees for additional work occasioned by the lockdown.

On the plus side

You and/or your team members and colleagues may have experienced some upsides from the lockdown. These might include:

  • Savings in commuting costs – be that petrol or train tickets etc.
  • No time wasted commuting – for some people this means more time to work. For others, it means more leisure/family time (at home).
  • Many firms are reporting increased productivity – other than for furloughed staff of course.
  • Anticipated willingness to allow staff to work from home even after the lockdown ends – thus potentially increasing staff loyalty, staff retention and reduced work time lost to sick/family leave etc.
  • Easier to convince clients to adapt to the use of cloud bookkeeping systems. This should also lead a big reduction in the number of ‘paper bag’ and ‘shoe box’ clients that many firms have yet to discourage.
  • Clients have more time to collate all of their records ready for you to complete accounts and tax returns well before the normal deadlines.
  • A huge test of business continuity plans and backup processes – and a guide to what needs to change so you can be even better prepared for ‘next time’.
  • As training is a permitted activity for furloughed staff, you can encourage and help them to enhance their key business skills as well as their technical knowledge. This way they will be of even more value when they return to the office.
  • Less resistance to the concept of (cost effective) outsourcing. After all, if client work is going to be done remotely, what difference does it make if the work is done, managed and reviewed by a specialist outsourcing company?  This also has the added advantages that:
    • client work can be processed, reviewed and completed promptly without breaking the furlough rules or prematurely bringing anyone back from furlough; and
    • it will be more cost-effective as you can simply pay for the work on a project by project basis, with no overheads, training or ongoing commitments.

Practical solutions

You won’t have been alone in experimenting and adapting as the days and weeks have passed by.

It would be a mistake though to assume that the habits and processes you evolved very quickly are adequate in the longer run.

You can wait for things to go wrong or you can involve your team and seek their input as to what’s working and what changes they would like to make to the processes you all adopted without much analysis or planning.

Regular team calls on zoom have become pretty standard. Other video conferencing systems are available of course.

One accountant I know talks with his (small) team three times a day every day:

1 – First thing to check how they are doing and what are their plans for the day.

2 – Early afternoon – for a quick update, to discuss/resolve any issues that have arisen, and to see if everything is on course as planned

3 – Last thing for a quick reflective session and ideas and plans for the next day.

Of course, team members can also call him or each other during the day to discuss things just as they did when they worked together in an office.

Some firms are also making increased use of project and/or practice management systems and online team collaboration tools. Slack, for example, is increasingly popular as an alternative to emails.

You also need to check that your systems, office and client data are adequately protected from hackers, incompetence and negligent use. Your short-term approach may be just about sufficient but is it really reliable and sustainable? Is it GDPR compliant? Is your IT support person/team capable of providing all the support you need when you and your team are working from your own homes?

Do you have a decent Virtual Private Network (VPN) and/or are you making good use of well-managed, reliable and secure cloud services.

At some stage you will need to make time to update your internal processes, policies, guides, manuals and handbooks – which should, of course, be easily accessible online by all staff.

I have yet to hear of many firms that have reviewed, let alone updated, their documented staff and office working procedures

This is important for two reasons:

Firstly as a positive motivator for current staff and to assist new recruits.

Also so that everyone knows what behaviours are and which are not acceptable among those working from home and among those managing remote workers. You will want to avoid leaving the firm, partners or managers open to accusations of inconsistency, favouritism, discrimination or constructive dismissal.

I mentioned GDPR above. What about your Health and Safety obligations as an employer?

Have you checked that everyone has suitable working conditions when working from home? Everyone is doing their best to make this work but most firms are working it out as they go along.

Related to all this is the idea of collating and sharing best practices for your firm. This would include checking who has become the in-house expert(s) to resolve tech issues and to help address other day to day remote working challenges. Does everyone know who to go to or are you assuming that the (old) office grapevine is still working – even though it may not reach everyone any more.

One suggestion here is to encourage use of wikis, shared (google) docs or other facilities where anyone can share useful tips and strategies – for example, on how to manage interruptions or switch off at the end of the day. Anything that helps remove the feeling of remoteness that many people suffer from when working from home.

And I’ve already mentioned the potential use of an outsourcing company to deal with pockets of work that would otherwise have to await the return of furloughed staff. You might even find that this solution has longer-term implications and benefits for your firm.

Going forwards

The longer the lockdown continues the more the challenges listed above will need to be resolved; the more the practical issues will need to be addressed; and the more important it will become to consider your business strategy going forwards.

No one really knows how soon we will get back to ‘normal’ and stop worrying about ‘social distancing’. It is increasingly clear that many people will not feel comfortable commuting or visiting crowded spaces or offices even when the official lockdown ends.

The longer everyone spends remote working the sooner you will be able to compare their productivity with life before the lockdown. Some reports suggest that remote working increases productivity reduces absenteeism and improves staff morale.

Whether this will be the case in your firm depends on many factors. So you will need to monitor your key measures to know whether continued remote working, in some form, could be an attractive prospect.

What will this mean as regards your firm’s remote working policies? And equally, what about the flexibility you will offer to keep key staff and to manage those who continue to work from home? Even if this is acceptable to you, will you want to retain (or introduce) any regular in-person obligations?

At some point, you will also need to decide how much office space the firm will require once the lockdown ends – both in the short-term and in the longer-term. Will the firm and staff want to embrace regular remote working to some degree even when it ceases to be a necessity?

One of my mentoring clients has long had a remote working team. He retains regular access to a single room in a shared office building. This is used for monthly team meetings and for meetings with clients. It costs significantly less than maintaining a conventional office and he can always rent additional rooms in the building if need be.

This is also how many firms operate as regards their ‘City office’. Might a similar arrangement be the way forward for your firm if remote working becomes the norm?

And finally, do consider how many of your solutions to the practical challenges listed above are only really suited to the short-term.

Author: Mark Lee FCA

Mark is a Fellow of the ICAEW, the CIOT and the Professional Speaking Association. For over ten years he has been routinely ranked as one of the most influential online accountants and was once identified by Accountancy magazine as the most networked accountant in the UK. You can find out more about his speaking and mentoring activities from his website: bookmarklee.co.uk and connect with him at http://www.linkedin.com/in/bookmarklee

Posted in For Accountancy Practices.