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A year of challenges and changes

Covid-19 has presented organisations and businesses with a host of challenges in 2020, forcing them to adapt at an unprecedented rate. Jane Walker talks to some ICAEW Chartered Accountants in Scotland about how they’ve responded to events in a year like no other.

As 2019 drew to a close very few people could have predicted what the upcoming year had in store. Back at the start of 2020 we took face-to-face meetings, business travel and time in the office for granted. Since March, those everyday events have been off the table – how have ICAEW Chartered Accountants in Scotland coped with the challenges and changes?

Out of the office

One of the biggest changes for many people was the sudden switch to working from home. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, in April 2020 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home.

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Of those people, 86% did so as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With those in professional roles among those most likely to be working remotely, it comes as no surprise that many ICAEW members found themselves cutting the commute and working from home – a move that has both pros and cons for members, largely dependent on the nature of their business.

For Paul Adderley, Founder and Director of Edinburgh-based sustainability consultancy Beyond Green, making the move from the office to remote working has brought a number of benefits. “We gave up our physical office in May and have no major regrets” says Paul, who acknowledges that the cost savings made have helped protect not only the livelihoods of those already in the team, but potentially means that they can take on an extra member of staff going forward.

Paul says that whilst the company already allowed some homeworking, points raised in an ICAEW webinar promoted him to make flexible working permanent across the board, “I remember watching the discussion and it being a really crystallising moment” he explains. “The more I thought about our office space, the more I realised that its limitations both in terms of its size and the fact that it was a shared space meant that we couldn’t realistically adapt it for our team to work safely.”

Whilst the move to remote working has brought benefits for Paul and his team, for organisations that rely on being able to welcome the public into their businesses, months of lockdowns and other restrictions have proved to be a challenge.

For those in the arts and hospitality, for example, the impact is huge and organisations in these sectors are fighting for survival. While there is £98m emergency funding available for the arts in Scotland, when you consider that applications for the £15m of funding from the Culture Organisations and Venues Recovery Fund alone totalled £22m, and that other funds are likely to be equally over-subscribed, it’s unlikely that every arts organisation and venue will receive the funding they need.

Dovecot Studios (a world-renowned tapestry studio whose public offering includes a working tapestry studio, exhibitions, a retail space and café) has made successful approaches to new funders this year, which has provided a valuable lifeline. But as their Head of Finance & Resources, Alison Howe explains the impact on them has still been immense, “as a charitable organisation, we’ve worked hard in recent years to increase self-generated income from tapestry commissions, ticketed exhibitions, talks, weaving workshops, gallery tours and facilities hire. The Covid-19 lockdown therefore had a huge impact on our resources.”

Alison says that it’s not just the loss of income that venues have to deal with, there are ongoing costs even for a mothballed space, meaning that there was a real urgency around reopening as soon as possible, “we had to close our doors to the public in March and we watched each government COVID-19 announcement to see how we could best adapt to the latest restrictions. Throughout this we were bearing ongoing building, staffing and operational costs. After nearly four months of lockdown, we took the decision to re-open our doors to the public as soon as government restrictions permitted on 15 July 2020, with a new exhibition, Mid-Century Modern.”

Adapting to change

Whether it’s been in ICAEW’s Pandemic Perspective talks, or local online panel sessions and member discussions, one thing has come up time and time again – the need for businesses to be adaptable and agile in their response to unfolding events. And whilst planning ahead in the traditional way has not always been possible due to the speed with which things have evolved, quick responses, and adapting (and bringing forward) existing plans and projects have been key to how businesses have coped with the challenges of corona.

“Adapt has been the key word this year” says Dovecot’s Alison Howe. As she explains, flexibility and creativity have been essential for survival, “the already varied roles of the Dovecot staff became broader, and have been embraced to the full. The challenges of the pandemic have only heightened the need for creative responses to reimagine how the sector can survive and thrive. As both a fine art tapestry studio and a public-facing gallery and arts centre, Dovecot represents a unique model in Scotland. But it is this mix of activities that has enabled the organisation to respond imaginatively to the challenges of the pandemic.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention!” says Clare Beck, Finance Specialist at Heineken, who explains that the company has needed to be particularly responsive and adaptable this year. Recent months have seen them implement a number of changes including taking staff training online and implementing Swifty (a Heineken payment and loyalty app for bars, pubs and restaurants which also offered the order and pay functionality which is essential for contactless service).

John Dalley CEO of Scotmid (Scotland’s largest independent co-operative) echoes Clare’s thoughts, “it was very encouraging how quickly we were able to (adapt) and how, in a crisis, it breaks down the change barriers so you can move quickly.” He cites the way that Scotmid accelerated their partnership with Snappy Shopper – an online local delivery service that enables users to get a top-up shop delivered within an hour – as a prime example of pushing plans forward and making the most of technology to address unprecedented needs.

Harnessing technology

Charlotte Tucker, Director at Prime Numbers Accountancy Services, agrees that technology has played a huge part in dealing with things this year, “fortunately we had already been embracing technology over the last few years as the profession and HMRC have moved towards cloud-based platforms. In that respect, I think we were well placed to continue to deliver support to our clients throughout the initial lockdown months.”

Charlotte adds that whilst technology has enabled her practice to keep operating and helping clients, the switch to digital has been a mixed blessing, “the biggest change for me was not seeing clients in person: I was used to spending the majority of my week on-site with clients or in meetings with them. Now we have adjusted to virtual meetings on Teams or Zoom and whilst this has led to efficiencies in terms of time, I’m missing real face-to-face contact. I am definitely looking forward to the return of some catch-ups over a coffee!”

As well as re-opening their doors as much as possible, Dovecot have also explored ways to make the most of digital technology, as Alison explains, “we’re moving to make exhibition content available online, exploring the possibilities of online education, and introducing an online shop. Weekly ‘Mid-Century Musings’ – free virtual 10-minute talks – were introduced to engage a wider audience and to promote the sale of exhibition tickets, as well as promoting paid online talks by Dovecot curator/director.”

Dovecot (with the support of the Art Fund) have also introduced a new ticketing platform, ‘Art Tickets’ which allows exhibition ticket sales to move predominantly online via their website – a move away from the previous mix of online and over-the-counter. An increased online marketing drive was required to reach a wider audience, as the number of “drop-in” visitors diminished significantly, particularly as tourist numbers in Edinburgh decreased dramatically during the summer due to travel restrictions and the cancellation of Edinburgh’s numerous August festivals. Their new approach resulted in a number of benefits including a notable increase in Dovecot’s social media followers and engagement.

Doing things digitally has been something of a success story for Dovecot, as Alison explains, “our targeted digital mailing open rate has exceeded the sector average and since reopening, we’ve welcomed 34% of our average exhibition visitors – which is very encouraging as Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions and Department for Culture, Media and Sport Museums have reported that, across the sector, footfall was at approximately 17% of average numbers from July-October 2020.”

Flexibility makes a difference

From adapting to new ways of working, finding new ways to use existing technology or responding rapidly to change (both good and bad), it’s apparent from our members that flexibility is a key tool to survival.

“The punches have kept coming this year,” says Heineken’s Clare Beck, “there were good ones from Rishi Sunak; the VAT change – changing VAT on many products from twenty percent to five percent, was unheard of at such speed, no one would ever normally do that, but even welcome support and initiatives created new challenges for us – when the Eat Out To Help Out discount scheme was announced just two weeks before it went live, it presented us with a very challenging time scale in terms of adapting our systems so that they would apply the discount with minimal button pushes for the teams working in the bars – but we did it.”

Prime Numbers Accountancy Services’ Charlotte Tucker says that whilst some elements of her practice’s work have been largely unchanged, new demands from clients have resulted in new ways of working. “In terms of compliance, things have fortunately been able to remain ‘business as usual’. However, understandably many clients have needed more support than normal with cash forecasting, cash management and business planning” she says. “This was difficult in that everyone wanted and needed support at exactly the same time so we have had to be very disciplined about managing our team’s workload. We have upgraded some of the technology that supports our practice to help be more efficient. I was concerned that helping with the cash challenges at some clients could come at the expense of contact with others so we have also made a conscious effort to ensure that we publish monthly newsletters and we have increased our social media posting to ensure we are commenting on key changes.”

Unexpected opportunities

Whilst the year has presented businesses and organisations with a range of challenges, some of the changes have brought about unexpected positive benefits and opportunities.

For Beyond Green this was the chance to broaden the diversity of their team going forward. Their former office was in the basement of a Georgian tenement, which could only be reached by steep stone steps, making the building inaccessible to wheelchair users and those with mobility issues. The inherent limitations of the property, plus the challenges of adapting leased space, especially one within a World Heritage site, precluded them from making reasonable adjustments to facilitate accessibility.

The move to remote and flexible working means that there are no limits to who they can recruit to the team in future as founder Paul explains, “people with great skillsets may previously have been excluded from traditional workspaces and I think that remote working addresses this, there are no constraints on who you can hire; if someone has the right skills it doesn’t matter where they’re located or whether – for whatever reason – they’re unable to work onsite in an office.”

On a personal level, Paul has found the move to remote working beneficial and has spent the time he’d usually spend commuting into central Edinburgh to go for a walk or do some bird-watching before work, as well as taking to opportunity to hone his baking skills. He recognises the importance of everyone in the company getting the balance right and is happy for his team to take a flexible approach, “there’s no clocking in and out, as long the work gets done, I’m happy for people to balance their day in a way that works for them.”

Scotmid’s John Dalley agrees that remote working needs to factor in the needs of the team, “I hear a lot of people say that if you’re on Zoom, Teams, Webex etcetera all day then that is very tiring, so what we’ve done is put a policy in place where we’re not having meetings in the middle of the day unless it’s absolutely essential, this means that on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays people can get out and have a walk in the middle of the day. We’re stressing the need for people to get out and have a break over lunchtime – and for people to know that they have that opportunity.”

There’s no denying that this has been year of unprecedented challenges and unexpected changes but, amidst it all, there have been opportunities to rethink the way that we work and take stock of things.

“It has been a bonus to have the opportunity to reset the practice, embracing the technology available and being able to review how and when we can work remotely. There are certainly many advantages, such as avoiding a daily commute. However, I have also been reminded of the value of real-life contact and informal conversation and I am looking forward to the return of a healthy balance, hopefully in 2021. Our job, as advisors, hinges on us getting to know our clients and that is much easier in person than over a screen” says Charlotte.

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