How are accountancy firms managing an office return?

Hybrid working brings a new set of challenges – how are finance teams approaching them?

Many UK businesses are preparing for an office return after the last raft of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were lifted on 19 July, a month later than originally planned.

Some firms have embraced a hybrid approach, introducing a mix of working-from-home days and in-office days and providing staff with a choice. In May, the BBC spoke to 50 of the UK’s biggest employers and found that the majority (43) were implementing this hybrid approach.

PwC have previously said they were giving staff more choice over their working hours and working environment, while EY said staff would be able to work from home for at least two days per week on a permanent basis.

So while it’s fair to say that the pandemic and the necessary shift to remote working has brought about a sea-change in what a ‘normal’ working day now looks like in terms of hours and workplace environment, many firms will nevertheless be opening their doors for the first time in eighteen months, under the latest government guidance.

But for many, there are likely to be significant logistical issues to contend with, including:

  • dealing with staff shortages due to large numbers of staff self-isolating at the same time,
  • managing concerns and fears between vaccinated and unvaccinated colleagues,
  • managing concerns around return to the office amid rising infection rates, and
  • managing and engaging with disparate teams of both home workers and those in the office.

We spoke to several accountancy firms to find out how they intend to navigate some of these challenges.

We’ve invested in software and hardware to ensure business continuity in any environment

Simon Thandi, director, UKLandlordTax and FixedFeeTaxReturn

The main concern is should any member of staff contract covid we are all then forced to isolate. However, we have had a wake-up call since the first lockdown where we realized that we needed to invest in software and hard tech. We now have a VoIP telephone system, installed our own network and invested in hardware to allow a seamless approach for staff to work at home or in the office. We are also moving towards a fully digital exchange of records with clients, which also cuts down the need for transporting paper files back and forth between home and office.

We also discussed working options in an open and frank manner with staff. Younger staff, in particular, preferred to come into the office while some older staff wanted the option to work part of the week from home. We agreed home-working on an individual basis and so far it has been working really well with staff feeling less stressed, enjoying a better work-life balance and there’s been improved productivity and client service.

Next steps: Talk to your staff and get their input. Agree on an approach that you all feel comfortable with.

Verdict: We’ve invested in software and hardware to ensure seamless business continuity across office and home environments.  

We’re continuing with home working set-ups and enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing policies for office days

Eunice Onyema, founder ENO Accountants

ENO Accountants have always embraced home working even before the pandemic, but we do recognize the need for face-to-face contact in some circumstances.

We are a small company with just three staff including myself, so workload management will continue as normal. Any concerns and fears will be managed through encouraging health and wellness and having weekly catch-ups.

We will also be adopting a minimal contact office as much as possible, continuing to work remotely with a day in the office per week.

Anticipating the potential conflicts between vaccinated and non-vaccinated colleagues means that we will continue to encourage our employees to maintain distance and wear face masks where possible. Hand sanitizing will continue to be encouraged and adopted as company policy.

Staff will be expected to self-isolate when required but because we will continue to work from home, this won’t affect us that much. We will continue to embrace and use technology for communication as much as possible

Next steps: Maintain social distancing rules along with mask-wearing where possible to reduce conflict and concerns between vaccinated and non-vaccinated staff.

Verdict: We’re continuing with home working overall with social distancing and mask-wearing policies for office days.

We’re listening to every staff member to ensure policies reflect everyone’s needs

Claudine Norden, Tax Manager, Clive Owen LLP

Communication is key to ensuring that potential problems are addressed before they arise.  Staff have been asked about their preferred working arrangements, and these will be balanced with the needs of colleagues, the firm, and clients. 

Managing staff shortages from self-isolation or infection will be a challenge. We are mitigating this with very safe work environments to minimize workplace transmission risks.  For example, we are asking for the retention of face masks, maintaining social distancing and reducing the number of staff in our offices and staff seem comfortable with this.  We have invested heavily in our IT systems in recent years and with the help of our IT colleagues, who have provided us with fantastic support from day one of the pandemic, to date our staff have been able to work remotely even when they are self-isolating therefore reducing the impact on both the business and our clients.

We already know we can work remotely or in a hybrid office/home blend and have done so successfully over the last 18 months. Keeping in contact with remote working colleagues is vital, to ensure they feel supported and able to carry out their work to the best of their ability. There are some areas where this is not the best option, particularly for younger members of the team and trainees who need to benefit from ‘in office’ learning.  We are taking our time and getting feedback from everyone, not just senior leaders and managers.  This ensures we can get a majority approach and adapt to changes and challenges as they arise. 

Next steps: There is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Talk to your staff to work out what is best for your firm and your staff.

Verdict:  We’re listening to everyone to ensure policies meet everyone’s needs and can adapt to any challenges as they arise.

We implemented a phased transition to an office return before we reopened fully

Sherad Dewedi, Shenward Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers

Throughout the pandemic, the majority of our team worked remotely. When the world began to reopen, we recognized that we needed to implement a phased return in order to protect the wellbeing of our team and allow them to readjust to office life. We initially operated a rota-style workforce, whereby certain members of the team would spend some time in the office whilst others worked remotely and vice versa. As a result, the full return to the office has been a smooth transition. We also did the following:

  • We addressed concerns surrounding face-to-face client meetings and specific requests from the team who prefer to reduce contact.
  • We utilised video conferencing facilities for meetings and one-to-one catch-ups.
  • When colleagues have to self-isolate colleagues, other team members are supported in picking up outstanding tasks. We also have tools and systems in place to enable continued home-working.

From Monday 19 July, both offices fully reopened. A select number of colleagues, owing to their seniority and role, are continuing a hybrid working model with a minimum of 3 working days in the office.

Next steps: Ensure you’re regularly checking in with all team members to find out how they are adjusting and any support they need. Don’t penalise them if they are honest with their struggles. But also, remember that as a business owner, you also have to consider what’s right for the business. In some circumstances, continued remote working just isn’t suitable.

Verdict: A full office return has been made possible by a phased transition which helped staff prepare and adapt to an office return.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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