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What will a post-COVID accountancy practice look like?

4 June 2020: As lockdown restrictions ease, many businesses are now taking tentative steps to return to the office, but what will the ‘new normal’ look like for accountancy firms? Practice owner and author Della Hudson assesses which working practices will change for good, and which will revert to their pre-virus state.

Back in March many accountancy practices were forced to change overnight as a result of social distancing and lockdown. Some could already work remotely, but few had used it as their sole way of working. Others had never considered anything other than office working and remained in the office as safely as possible without the parents amongst their team or shut down completely.

We’ve now had a few months to get used to lockdown conditions, and a few weeks to analyse the government’s ‘safe return to work’ guidelines. For practitioners, there are several key factors I believe are important in assessing what we want our ‘new normal’ to look like.

Will firms still need offices?

We have realised that the vast majority of work can be carried out from home, but will we still need offices and why?

The office is often the social hub for the working parents of young children. Somewhere they can exchange the constant call of ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ for grown-up conversation while knowing that their little angels are enjoying the company of their peers at school or in childcare.

Younger members of the team will be glad to return to the office as they have had enough of trying to work at their student desk in their parents’ house. Because home working is best with dedicated space.

All but the most introverted of accountants will be glad of a little social interaction sometimes. Particularly with people they know well so there is no need for small talk.

Communication is infinitely easier when face to face than over Slack or Zoom or whatever you’ve been using.

Training apprentices is also easier when they can sit alongside a more experienced accountant as well as watching and listening to other office conversations. 

On the other hand, for those who are disciplined enough to work productively from home, there will be days when they prefer to work uninterrupted (once home-schooling obligations are over)

It’s my view that most firms will end up with some sort of physical premises so that their team can choose where to work. These will be much smaller than previously as not everybody will be in the office every day. 

Inclusivity of home workers, parents or carers and disabled

It would be lovely to think that workplaces will become more inclusive once they are less about a single place. Having shown that it is possible to include remote and part-time working around family life or disabilities it would be easy to continue this in future. 

But I somehow think that people will forget and drift into working their old hours again and our worship of the long hours-driven culture will resume. Once this becomes the new norm, will employers be as keen to adapt for those who want or need a different lifestyle? I’d love to be proved wrong on this and to know how businesses and individuals intend to maintain their post-lockdown ambitions.

Technical requirements

The move to cloud software, accelerated by Making Tax Digital and turbo-charged by lockdown will continue. It will be an evolution rather than a revolution as software on hosted desktops and local servers is gradually replaced with true cloud equivalents. 

Improvements in practice management tools for all sizes of firm allow for slicker, more transparent ways of allocating, tracking and analysing work internally, while advances in client portal and electronic signature software ensure a safer, more efficient virtual workflow. Communications tools such as Slack and video conferencing software like Zoom do a workmanlike job of filling in any gaps. In short – those looking for an excuse not to move to the cloud now have their work cut out.

I believe that this progress will continue unimpeded now that attitudes have been forced to change.

What about clients?

It may depend on the age profile and attitude to technology of our various clients whether they are happy to continue with Zoom meetings or whether they are eager to get together face to face. Even those happy to work remotely are likely to want a ‘getting to know you’ opportunity. 

But this may not necessarily be in the office. A catchup at a local networking event or a chat over coffee may be enough to keep in touch. Some firms already run beer and curry evenings as networking events for their clients and this sort of activity may become more normal when the true business is conducted remotely.

There are so many possibilities and it will be exciting to see what accountants intend to do and which of those intentions will stick.