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How COVID transformed this major accounting firm

17 Aug 2020: The pandemic forced Moore Kingston Smith’s leadership team to rethink its working practices as a quick response to the challenges of lockdown. Managing partner Maureen Penfold believes it has opened up opportunities for the future.

Moore Kingston Smith’s early preparations for the coming pandemic in February, before anyone knew how serious it would be, was about managing the pandemic in the office through greater safety measures. As the weeks went on, it became apparent that something more drastic needed to happen. The firm quickly pivoted into a fully remote working approach – while it had been gradually working on facilitating more remote working across the period, the transition was seemingly overnight.

“My plan was to go on holiday on the 17th of March,” explains managing partner Maureen Penfold. Instead, I moved all of our 650 people home overnight. So it was a strange few weeks.”

Moore Kingston Smith’s IT department really stepped up to ensure that this sudden transition was as smooth as possible, making sure that everyone was equipped to work as normal the next day. A contingency planning team worked to make sure everything was coordinated.

“It's been incredible, and I'm really proud of all of my people,” says Penfold. “We've managed to move quickly and work very well from home. “Of course there were a few hiccups, but generally people have been able to function well and serve our clients well, which in the end is what we're about.”

In some cases, the firm’s clients were struggling with the change. Moore Kingston Smith serves a lot of charities; the peak charity audit period overlapped with the lockdown, and the firm ended up helping them with technology issues as well as the usual services.

“We offered to share our experiences with our client community and one or two of our smaller charities spoke to our head of IT for advice, he felt great helping them and they were delighted as they had no idea where to start with working remotely.”

Some new working policies had to be developed as issues emerged. The schools lockdown blindsided a lot of organisations, but Moore Kingston Smith made a swift decision to change its policies to allow fully flexible working. “We’ve got to service our clients, but you also have to adapt to what is realistic for people. We quickly realised it was such an important part of people's well being,” Penfold explains.

The firm really increased its communication, putting more structure around regular touchpoints to make sure that the team felt as connected as they would in the office. This included work catch-ups and mentoring, but also facilities to help with people’s mindfulness and wellbeing. Again, this change was implemented during the lockdown. “We spent a lot of time in the early days putting in cascade positions to make sure everybody was being communicated with regularly,” says Penfold. “It wasn't a pre-plan. It was: ‘right now, how do we keep everybody together?’”

This was a huge sea change in working culture in a very short space of time; while the business allowed flexibility and agility in how people could work, it was still predominantly an office-based business with regular hours. “It was a dramatic change: forget everything you've ever done. This is the new way.”

Communication with clients increased tenfold; the bulk of client relationships are now advisory-based – even those that were purely compliance previously. “We spent a lot of time chatting to them and supporting them through the pandemic, interpreting all the new measures coming out of government,” Penfold says.

One of the most interesting changes in the client relationship was the increasing softer support provided. Moore Kingston Smith started talking to clients about their own learnings in adapting working policies, supporting people’s wellbeing and social interactions and how to use technology to be more efficient when working remotely. “It was about really showing our human face and making clients feel a part of our community. We're a people business and with our clients, it's all about people and innovation.”

The firm is now looking at how it will transition again into a post-COVID new normal, something that Penfold sees as both challenging and exciting. “We know how to work in an office and we know how to work at home. The future is a combination. I don't believe the office is obsolete. I believe it's part of the values and the culture, but we've got to be much more questioning about why we go into an office and what we want to use it for.”

The firm is in the process of reorganising the offices so it’s adapted to more home working and, in-office, more collaborative or culture-building tasks. There are still conversations to be had about how values and culture are maintained and learning and development is managed – the firm’s leadership team is looking at that at the moment.

It will certainly bring some benefits. Audits that were successfully delivered remotely over lockdown have proved that it’s possible to run them without travelling to a specific location. This is particularly useful when audit committees are spread across the country. Penfold is excited about the possibilities that this brave new world can offer up

“I think it's going to move us all to a future that was going to be five years away. For the profession, I think it's an opportunity to prove our value to our clients, that we are the link between people and business. I think it's a fantastic opportunity for us as a profession to reposition ourselves.”