The way accountants work has been changed forever by COVID.
Some of those changes were already on the way, hastened by the sudden shift to digital communication under the lockdowns imposed in many countries. But the most fundamental impacts on working digitally, remote from a central workplace, had previously been treated as optional by many practices.
As clients and employees revert to traditional ways of working, what are the implications for accountancy practices of the rise in popularity of hybrid working?
What is hybrid working?
Hybrid working is distinct from both the traditional office-based model and remote-working models. It’s the most complex of the three to manage, as it involves elements of both the others. Employers need both to provide a traditional office base and have the technology and policies to deal with individuals working away from the office, whether at home or in some other environment.
Is it compulsory?
No, though many accountants, having enjoyed benefits from a period of working from home, would see it as a significant factor in managing their work–life balance. The model that works for a particular practice will depend on both the staff and the client base.
What are some of the risk areas specific to accountancy practices?
The biggest regulatory risks concern client data and confidentiality. Keeping digital information secure involves managing both the technology and the staff using it to ensure that proper policies are in place and are followed. It’s important to make sure that the policies are practical – going too far will encourage staff to ignore or work around anything they see as unworkable.
For practices that have moved to all-digital models, the shift to enabling hybrid working will involve ensuring that all staff who work remotely can access the right hardware and software, and understand how to use it. Recognising the importance of keeping work credentials secure and preventing unauthorised access to client confidential information is an essential part of staff induction and regular training.
Many practices will still have clients who maintain physical records that are delivered to the accountant for processing. Managing the secure storage of client records when staff are working remotely will pose specific challenges that must be managed according to the practice’s circumstances. Some staff may have secure storage facilities at home, although it might be difficult to ensure that documents are not accessible by family members or visitors during the day. Alternatively, physical records could be kept on business premises, with staff required to do the relevant work on them there, as part of the ‘hybrid’ aspect.
In the long term, the biggest risk may be to staff training and morale. Larger practices have typically worked in expectation of a hierarchical progression through the profession/firm. Continuous on-the-job training enables staff to develop in their roles. The preparer/reviewer model allows for live training while ensuring that quality of client service is maintained. That model works well on many tasks that also need a degree of physical proximity, with constant queries and feedback keeping staff on track.
Replicating that real-time interaction in the remote phase of hybrid working can present a significant challenge. Teams can use available tools to stay in touch on collaborative projects, and cloud-based documents allow for real-time editing. Such tools, linked with video-calling, can also replicate many features of more traditional training models. Even so, the transition to remote supervision may involve retraining of existing staff. Moreover, the tasks that historically lent themselves to this model are often being superseded by the digital tools that enable the remote working, adding a new challenge to the development of training models for the new ways of working.
Hybrid working models will vary according to the practice. Where processes (and clients’ systems) are digitalised, the transition to the remote side of hybrid working will be easier, and may offer scope for other developments, such as recruiting staff from further afield, or potentially even abroad. Firms should be wary of creating two classes of employee, though – existing hybrid workers and entirely remote new joiners – which could create tensions if there’s a perception of unequal treatment. Engaging with employees from a different jurisdiction would also introduce an added layer of regulatory complexity, covering not just employment rights and taxes but also, potentially, cross-border data transfer restrictions.
Computers have changed what accountants do and how they do it. Digitalisation is freeing information from its physical constraints and freeing people from the need to gather where the physical information is stored. It promises new and different ways for accountancy practices to serve their clients and engage with their staff. Finding the right balance for your practice may involve trial and error, but ignoring the new developments altogether is not a long-term option.