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Accounting post-COVID: MHA MacIntyre Hudson

7 August: Ahead of his panel discussion at ICAEW’s Virtually Live event, MHA MacIntyre Hudson chairman Rakesh Shaunak explains how his firm has adapted to the new normal.

MHA MacIntyre Hudson’s leadership team realised in January that it would have to do something – and fast – to combat the Coronavirus. 

The firm immediately put in place health and safety measures to increase distancing between staff and reduce any possible exposure to the virus. As the infection rate started to climb, the leadership team started to look at more drastic measures, explains group chairman and managing partner Rakesh Shaunak. “We became conscious of the need to do something more radical.”

As other firms started shutting down in the City and lockdown measures started to be broached by the government, Shaunak and his team started to look at shutting down their offices. The first priority was ensuring the health and safety of the staff, but allowing them to work effectively in the safety of their homes took some thought. Thankfully, the organisation had been investing in remote working tools before the lockdown. 

“That was a godsend. When we moved to our London offices, the model we followed was to create more collaboration space. That thinking really worked to our advantage in that, you know, we had the capability to adapt.”

Maintaining interactions within and between teams was crucial, as was ensuring that clients got the same level of service as they did before the transition. “We use a very flexible methodology for that. We have portals that we use to share data with colleagues and clients. So again that that heavy investment last year paid real dividends. Most of our clients are IT savvy, so we were able to continue to collaborate with our clients and continue to collaborate as a team.”

To ensure the consistency of service and sustainability of the firm, MHA MacIntyre Hudson’s leadership team created a task force to ensure that everything – from IT and finance to HR and operations – continued to function as it should. 

One of the major reasons why everything worked so well was MHA’s people. Staff adapted very quickly to the new way of working and raised their game to make sure that the new way of working really delivered for the firm. Shaunak was particularly impressed by how well the junior members of staff adapted to the new normal, and how proactive they were at coming up with ideas for how the organisation could work better. “The way that people adapted to the technology was really inspiring. It seemed to happen very naturally.”

The more senior staff, in places, found the transition more difficult. They were given access to all the support they needed until they adapted to the new way of working. “We had regular meetings and bulletins to guide people on what to do what not to do, how to avoid the pitfalls of being locked in a room all day long, how they could break the day up and so on.”

As part of the firm’s regular check-ins with staff to ensure they had both the equipment and the emotional support that they needed, the leadership team started talking about a return to ‘the new normal’ to get staff used to the idea that things would not be the same once they returned to work. Alongside that, they started having regular discussions and surveys with staff about what that new normal might look like. 

“What the surveys were showing was that only 4% of the people wanted to continue to work in this way. 10% wanted to be in the office full time, and the other 86% wanted a mix of both – the remote working and physical working from an office,” says Shaunak. “And so we took that on board.”

Shaunak and the rest of the leadership team knew that for this to work in the long term, a one-size-fits-all approach would not cut it. While there needed to be some consistencies, staff had different issues in different regions. “What applies in Birmingham, Manchester in London doesn't necessarily apply in Northampton. So we tried to personalise the experience for people as much as we could.”

The London office will be the blueprint for the rest of MHA MacIntyre Hudson’s office network. Spaces will be used more for collaboration and creative thinking, with some hot desk spaces available for individuals to work. The firm is looking at both renovating existing locations and finding new ones to make that happen. 

“The spend on the space side of things will reduce, but on the tech side of things, it will increase. I think that's one definite change. And communication with clients is going to change as well.”

Shaunak explains how the team was able to do an audit for one of its FTSE clients almost completely remotely. The client’s accounts department is situated overseas and on a typical year, MHA MacIntyre Hudson would send staff out to conduct the audit in person. This year was very different. “We had all of the audit committee meetings and so on via video conference. So I think communication with the outside world is going to be very different.” 

Clients are also looking for more collaboration and communication from their accounting firms, so MHA McIntyre Hudson’s new approach is also about adapting to changing client needs. “Different sectors are going through different phases, and they want a more bespoke service,” Shaunak explains. “If they're in leisure and hospitality, they want to know if there is a future in that business, and if there is, how can they transition to that future? Startups are looking for a different solution. They're looking for a collaborative and supportive relationship. Client needs have definitely changed from almost a transactional perspective to a more partnership-type approach, where they're looking for ongoing support.”

What has been Shaunak’s biggest learning experience throughout the pandemic? That his team can really step up and adapt when the chips are down. In particular, Shaunak was pleasantly surprised at how productive the firm was with everyone working remotely. “Having, to be honest, initially been sceptical of whether working from home, as I used to call it, is effective, this has proved to me that it's not just effective, but more efficient in many ways”. 

The crucial next step for the firm is to ensure that as people transition into the new normal, they don’t fall back into old habits. The way forward, says Shaunak, is something that combines the best of the pre-COVID world and our current working environment. “That's going to be the challenge; how we manage to transition. You must make sure that you give people the environment and tools that they need, but equally, make sure that the organisation has those checks and balances.”

Rakesh Shaunak will share more of his experiences as part of ICAEW’s Virtually Live conference, which takes place between 18-20 August. His session: The lasting effects of COVID: A tale of three partners, will take place on the 18th at 14:15. Register for the event here.