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2020/21 Reporting Season: lessons from a lockdown year end

16 December 2020: Network Rail had to prepare its 2019/20 accounts as the UK first went into lockdown. Its group chief accountant explains what it taught the team.

Network Rail prepared its last set of accounts at the height of the pandemic back in March and April, hitting its busiest period while trying to adapt to a completely new way of working. The team also relies on graduates to help with accounts preparation at each year end and this year, had to bring them on board without meeting them face-to-face. 

“We had to integrate them and coach them, build a team spirit and ensure they were contributing fully pretty much straight away,” says Network Rail’s group chief accountant Ian Ramshaw. “And we had to do it remotely.”

Thankfully, the first hurdle – ensuring people had the tools to work and communicate remotely – was relatively smooth sailing, thanks to the hard work of the company’s IT department, allowing the accounts team to hit the ground running. 

“We’d hardly ever used Microsoft Teams before we started doing this process, and now we're all dab hands at it,” says Ramshaw. “As we worked, we were getting used to using different software packages and using them to try and build a team spirit.”

It was the people management and leadership aspects of the job that made the difference when ensuring the team pulled together to deliver the accounts on time and to a high standard. One of Ramshaw’s biggest concerns as the team started working was that junior members of the team could end up feeling lost and unsure about whether they could ask for help: after all, you can’t walk across the office and check if someone’s busy when you’re working remotely. 

“We had to make it very clear to people that our metaphorical door was always open; they could call us or catch us on Teams at any time,” says Ramshaw. “Don't let anything build up. If there's an issue, let us know straight away.”

With nurseries closed, the team also had to dispense with usual working hours. Team members would work from 4.00am or finish at midnight. “It sometimes felt like we were working in different time zones.”

All of this disruption is why Ramshaw believes that wellbeing is one of the critical factors for delivering a set of accounts during the pandemic. Reporting seasons can be intense at the best of times, so people needed to be able to take time for themselves.

“As managers, we must make sure we’re not asking too much of individual people. If we had to move work around or roll our sleeves up and do things in a different way, then we did it. We won't leave anybody exposed.”

If this meant speaking with auditors to find flexibility in the schedule, that’s what had to happen. The team would expedite certain aspects of the accounts to buy more time for areas in which people were struggling. To ease the pressure on team members juggling work and home issues, the focus was purely on outputs rather than working hours. 

“You have to accept that people will start and finish at different times,” says Ramshaw. “As long as the work’s getting done to the standard that we need and deadlines are being met, that’s the important thing.”

Another important factor in building morale and wellbeing is learning and development. Ramshaw’s team put together a programme of 18 online events, delivered to 1,300 staff. The team tried new online delivery methods for training through a new internal website. Its first events drew 600 unique views and 7,500 site visits. 

“It brings together all of the finance community across Network Rail; they all feel part of something bigger, which is hard to do when you’re working at home. It's really helped to keep things going while we wait to be able to return to something more normal.”

Network Rail has just completed its interim accounts, following a similar approach to its previous year-end. The team is now more confident when working remotely and is now making preparations for next year-end.

“This year, we will make sure that we get our graduates in a little bit earlier to get to know them a bit more while we're still working remotely,” says Ramshaw. “We’ll monitor how quickly the vaccine is rolled out to see if we can move towards more in-office work, but we expect we'll still be working remotely.”

When there is uncertainty, preparing accounts can be difficult. The important thing, says Ramshaw, is that you go in with a structured plan, communicate often and be prepared to be flexible. 

“Be prepared for a little bit of downtime within the timetable. You might need it, because one, you might get delayed, and two your people may need a little bit of a rest, particularly if they're struggling with the boundary between work and home life and are working really long hours.”

Further reading

Wellbeing in the 2020/21 reporting season

With the 2020/21 reporting season likely to be difficult for many, ICAEW reminds members of the resources available to them and their families from CABA.

The Audit and Assurance Faculty are sharing their webinar on maintaining wellbeing during audit busy season broadcast on 11 January 2021. Watch the recording.