By Steve Cox, Head of Accountancy for Commercial, Taxfiler.
Do you feel a semblance of normality has returned to your life lately?
There have been some significant changes since the so-called ‘freedom day’ came and went. Many of you reading this may have been back at your office for a while. Some of you may still not be back. Some may be desperate to get back to the old style of 5 days a week in the workplace, while others are fully signed up to home-working.
So, is the return to the office good for accountants, their mental health, and for clients?
The mental health factor
I’ve recently written about loneliness and whether it is the forgotten challenge of the busy season. Well, loneliness has been an issue for many during the pandemic. Does a return to the office offer an escape from isolation?
A Royal Society for Public Health’s survey found 67% of workers who shifted from the office to home during the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues. And 56% said they found it harder to switch off, while 38% said the change had disturbed their sleep.
Does this resonate with you? Do you crave the normality of an office environment? Surely, mental health must be a key part of the equation when discussing how and where do we work in future.
A new approach?
If you’re an employer, what approach do you take? Will you be creating a new flexible working policy? Without allowing staff some flexibility and choice, you may risk losing them to other businesses that are offering remote working.
If you’re a start-up, which way do you go? Do you really need an office? There will be many thinking they can save on the costs and work just as well without.
What are the big firms doing?
Some of the biggest accounting firms have already indicated they will move to a mix of home and office working, including Deloitte, PWC, and KPMG. The BBC surveyed 50 of the UK’s biggest employers very recently and found most do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. And 43 said they would embrace hybrid working – a mix of office and home, the latter for up to three days per week.
Historically, the job of accountants is very much face-to-face, but have you enjoyed the extra freedom digital channels have provided?
What about trainees?
One underappreciated aspect of this topic is the impact on trainees, apprentices and graduates. The lockdown made traditional on-the-job training nigh on impossible and added to the ever-growing talent gap. Does that mean for certain staff, a return to the office is vital? How do young staff learn the ropes without face-to-face training and guidance from their colleagues?
How do you strike a balance?
There are clearly pros and cons to office versus remote. Perhaps that is why we’re seeing an increasing move towards ‘hybrid-working’ – a blend of the two.
What do clients want?
The office return isn’t just significant for staff. What does it mean for accountants’ interactions with their clients?
Around 18 months is a long enough time for new processes to bed in and for people to create new habits. I believe there will be no ‘back to normal’ for most people, with routines, patterns, and attitudes changing, at least to some extent, for good in both personal and professional lives. That applies to all of us, including your clients.
Clients’ attitudes changing?
Do clients still want to interact face-to-face with accountants? Firms have put new protection measures into their offices to improve safety.
Of course, each client is an individual and will have their own views. Some will still be wary of the risks attached to personal contact, with the pandemic far from over. That may depend on their circumstances, while there are many still who aren’t vaccinated. Some will be very keen to get back to seeing their accountant in person and getting more from their time – a virtual call doesn’t cater for the ad hoc conversations that come from being in person.
Friends or suppliers?
While there are no doubt plenty of strong relationships and friendships between clients and accountants, ultimately for most people an accountant is a supplier to a business rather than a pal who you go for a drink with.
So, for those clients, now we are well-versed in the virtual way of doing things, is meeting in person perhaps even less appealing or necessary from the client’s perspective?
But, on the other hand, do you get higher quality interaction with the accountant from face-to-face meetings? Being able to read a client’s body language allows for a different level of conversation to be had beyond the virtual equivalent.
Does the process have to alter?
Traditionally, the accountant needs to own the client process, but what happens if clients demand a different way of doing things because of COVID and the adoption of digital tools?
If a one-size approach doesn’t fit anymore, how do you report on efficiencies and progress on process? Do you need to bucket people into different client cohorts/personas? And then create processes for each individual? The mind boggles at the number of connotations! What do you do in your firm?
An HR element?
I can see that in a post-Covid world, the emphasis moves more than ever towards the client relationship. That’s not to say it wasn’t before, but it puts it front and centre for every staff member, not just those who are client-facing. There has been a lot of focus on staff mental health, but what about that of clients – does a client manager become more like an HR representative?
Like many elements of business in this much-changed world, it will be fascinating to see how the client-accountant relationship develops and evolves in the new normal.
How can software help?
Accountancy and tax software like Taxfiler can help you work effectively and securely if you go down the remote or hybrid-working route, making it seamless to switch between the office and home working. Discover more here on our website – taxfiler.co.uk
You can find Steve on Linkedin here.
AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.