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Remote working and coronavirus: tales from accountancy’s coalface

16 March 2020: increasing numbers of employees are being told to work from home to avoid infection and stop the spread of Covid-19. To help in this endeavour, here are some tips on home working for accountants.

While Rishi Sunak’s first Budget pledged £30bn in emergency funding to help the UK economy combat the impact of Covid-19, for many the fight against the virus has moved much closer to home. The latest public health information is that anyone with a fever or a new cough should self-isolate for seven days to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. 

With increasing numbers of employees affected by the virus, employers are now facing the prospect of asking workers, where they can, to stay away from the workplace and make alternative arrangements at home.

Rachel Underhill, Senior Business Strategy Manager at ICAEW, is uniquely placed to contribute her comments as she has just emerged from a fortnight of self-isolation following a two-week trip to Japan.

That month away from her normal professional routine in London proved fruitful. Through having a number of video conference calls and phone-only meetings, the importance of being able to read body language – and conversely the challenges thrown up by its lack – became apparent.

Underhill quickly learned the importance of good chairing and having a clear agenda in meetings where you can’t see everyone. 

“Is there consensus? Has everyone had the chance to speak and have their voices heard? When you can’t see and read the body language, it’s easy for that not to be the case,” says Underhill.She found it also meant much shorter, more productive meetings than if they were conducted in real-world scenarios, typically shaving at least 10 minutes off a half-hour meeting.

From a holistic perspective, Rachel noted the importance of keeping active. When commuting into London she easily hit 10,000 steps a day but found that that figure plummeted to around a thousand when working from home. 

However, the time gained from not commuting, in her case saving an hour each way, she translated into learning a new skill “like butchering a chicken or baking bread”, which she found “really helps with the mental health side of things”.

The temptation to work “considerably longer” hours at home is another issue to be aware of, believes Underhill. “Be strict with yourself and close your laptop down at the allotted time – that’s super important.”

As someone who regularly works from home, Richard Anning, Head of ICAEW’s Tech Faculty, knows only too well that the self-isolation or enforced staying away from the workplace required to combat coronavirus is now far less of an issue than it once was.

“ICAEW has an excellent set-up for remote working. It set up a virtual desktop environment some years back, enabling employees to log in over the internet to their own familiar desktop from any location on any suitable device. Everything is accessible from and stored in the cloud. 

“We have been using video conferencing for some years, and our current faculty chair used to dial in regularly to committee meetings from the Falklands when she was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury down there. We now have volunteers currently videoing in from Cyprus and Australia.”

To benefit from these technological advances, Richard points to the need for a “decent bandwidth for video calls” together with “mature and reliable kit”.

Elaine Clark, owner and founder of the online accountancy practice, cheapaccounting.co.uk, is a 13-year veteran of the remote working scene.

“With home working it’s important to get out of the house – especially with the self-isolation period. You can still have a walk around the local park and get a bit of fresh air. You have to be sensible about this. Obviously, if you have the symptoms you can’t do that.”

On a more general point, Elaine is a passionate ambassador for home working and its wider benefits. 

“This should be a good wake-up call for businesses about how much is spent on office costs. You just get so much more done at home in less time. Being away from all the office politics and the huge amount of time saved from having no commute, it all helps immensely.”