Will hybrid working hold back junior employees?

What will the long-term experiences – and prospects – be for new hires in a world of hybrid working?

On 19 July, the Government guidance to “work from home if you can” was officially relaxed in England (in Scotland, this has been postponed until August). But as workers begin to shuffle slowly back to their desks (the Government has recommended a “gradual return to work”, after all), the workplaces many abandoned in March 2020 will now look very different, with many companies rolling out a ‘hybrid’ model of working – whereby staff go into the office for only part of the week.

The big four have been the biggest champions of hybrid working, adopting the following policies:

  • KPMG is moving to a ‘four-day fortnight’ where staff only need to spend an average of two days a week in the office (workers also get an extra 2.5 hours a week off during the summer)
  • Deloitte is giving employees the chance to decide “when and where they work”
  • EY employees can now spend at least two days a week working remotely, with the rest of the time spent working at a client site or in the EY office.
  • PwC staff can now spend 40-60% of their time with colleagues (either in the office or client visits), with the rest of the time at home. Staff can also personalise the structure of their working day, by starting or ending earlier.

Other big accountancy firms are following a similar path, such as Anderson Anderson Brown (AAB) and BDO; the latter is allowing staff to decide for themselves when to come into the office.

Accountancy lends itself well to remote working, largely because much of is it digitised, and therefore can done online from anywhere.

But remote working might be fine if you’re an actuary or chartered accountant with a lovely big house in the countryside and a book-lined study to work from. But what if you’re a recent AAT Level 2 student, eager to kickstart your career? How are you expected to learn from senior accountants and gain hands-on experience for tasks such as preparing accounts, or if you’ll be spending most of your working week toiling away in a shared house, arguing with housemates about who gets to work from the kitchen table?

It’s a conundrum accountancy firms the world over are currently puzzling themselves with. About to enter the workplace for the first time? Here’s what you can expect…

The argument for the office

While the profession of accountancy has been among the most eager to embrace hybrid working, it’s a different matter at the banks: most of whom are summoning staff back to their desks, citing it’d be difficult to train new recruits otherwise. Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s boss, recently said hybrid working “doesn’t work for younger people”, while both Barclays and Goldman Sachs have voiced concerns they wouldn’t be able to guide future generations of bankers if working remotely.

It’s backed up by a survey from the British Council of Offices (BCO) earlier this year, which found seven out of 10 workers surveyed said the office was crucial for learning and networking, while two-thirds said their career had been boosted by relationships made in the office.  

The UK’s largest business lobby group, the CBI, has also stressed the importance for new recruits to be in the office. 

“There are so many benefits from being in the office, particularly for young people, particularly for new starters: the mentoring, what you learn, the innovation, the creativity, the buzz,” said CBI president Lord Bilimoria in June. “All [of] that takes place when you’re face-to-face in an office environment, let alone everyone else that benefits from being surrounded by an office – both the restaurants and all the other businesses that rely on an office economy.”

Indeed, working remotely makes it hard for young accountants to learn from the physical habits of more senior staff, as well as the successes/mistakes of their peers.

There’s another risk with the hybrid model: if younger staff are only spending a couple of days a week in the office, they’ll be less visible to bosses who may promote them in years to come. Could the days when new rookies enjoy a meteoric rise-through-the-ranks be over?

“People who are in the office are more likely to be closer to what’s happening and the people-of-influence than somebody working from home,” says Chris Biggs, partner at accountancy consultancy Theta Global Advisors, which has conducted research into hybrid working patterns. “It’s hard for employees to manage and creates a separation in the workforce between those who are connected and those [new recruits] who aren’t.”

Does Gen Z even want to return to the office?

Despite the benefits of face-to-face training and the struggles of working in cramped living conditions, it seems younger generations don’t want to return to the office under the old nine-to-five, five-days-a-week model. A recent Bloomberg survey found 39% of US adults would consider quitting their jobs if flexible working wasn’t offered; for millennials and Gen Z, this number increased to nearly half (49%). Perhaps it isn’t without significance that some banks have been wooing staff back with incentives usually offered at Silicon Valley firms, such as free breakfasts and exercise classes.

“Having human contact is a big need of Gen Z, but they also want flexibility and don’t want to necessarily work a regimented eight hours a day,” says Biggs.

Gen Z’s aversion to the commute-and-cubicle culture could be because they’ve seen previous generations succumb to burnout, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, and mental health issues. Biggs doesn’t find this surprising: “I spent over 25 years working at the big four and sometimes heard hushed conversations in corridors about partners being burnt out. By the time I was leaving, it was affecting trainee accountants too. It’s the wrong way to do it….”

Offering hybrid working will attract potential employees to accountancy firms

Given potential employees are increasingly viewing pre-pandemic working patterns as outdated (see above), any firm that doesn’t offer some degree of flexible working could lose on out recruiting talent.

“It’s interesting how so many accountancy practices have adopted a flexible style,” says Biggs. “After all, nobody wants to be the outlier [not offering flexible working]. With Gen Z coming through the pipeline, they clearly want to attract young talent, but it also prevents a potential exodus [of staff] to other firms.”

KPMG’s chief people officer Kevin Hogarth says their “four-day fortnight” is all part of “having an attractive employee value proposition, being able to demonstrate why you would want to join or stay with KPMG”. He adds, “We’re seeing so many other professional services firms adopt a similar approach, so that mix is something that really resonates with people.”

For many businesses, hybrid working also opens up a larger talent pool that isn’t confined by geography; it means they can hire people who may have accessibility issues (and unable to commute), or parenting/caring duties, or live outside major city centres.

What will (part-time) office life look like for new employees?  

Many of the larger firms that can afford it are reimagining office space, discarding the endless rows of desks in favour of larger meeting rooms, Zoom pods and more plants. PwC, for example, is spending £75m refurbishing its offices with café-style meeting rooms to encourage collaboration.

“Some activities such as training, collaboration and motivation are much more effective when people are gathered together,” says Hogarth, who notes that KPMG offices will now have “larger collaboration spaces so we can bring teams together.”

Meanwhile, training will still be delivered remotely for some practices. “Microsoft Teams has made it possible to train anyone, anywhere,” says Karen Stewart, chief HR officer at AAB. “Even though there are times when learning together is the best solution, we’ve had no option but to work hard to bring our new recruits into the business and make the best job of remote learning possible for the next generations of talent.”

As KPMG embarks on its ‘reconnection phase’ (to help employees become more accustomed to office life and the dreaded commute again), Hogarth acknowledges that as they adopt their hybrid framework, there will be an element of “testing” to find the “right balance”. It’s something echoed by EY, who recently said they would “start a period of experimentation from this September in which it will test, refine and evolve its approach to ensure the model meets the needs of its people, clients and other stakeholders.”

For any AAT student starting out in their career, the first few months of working under a hybrid model will inevitably feel strange. There may be some benefits (better work/life balance; absorbing knowledge in the bigger meeting rooms, less cattle-pen commuting). But it remains to be seen if this will turbo-boost their professional lives in the same way that on-the-job training, face-to-face mentoring, team camaraderie, networking (and yes, even going down the pub after-work) did for previous generations of accountants. Is the future of work brighter? Or is it semi-detached? Watch this space.

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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