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Lockdown case studies: PKF Francis Clark

29 May 2020: COVID-19 will accelerate the changes to how we all work, and the doomsayers may have overplayed their hand, says PKF Francis Clark tax chief John Endacott.

For John Endacott, tax partner at PKF Francis Clark, the COVID-19 pandemic has by and large been “business as usual” in terms of service delivery to clients, with one or two engaging caveats.

The vast majority of the 750-strong workforce at one of the South West’s largest professional services outfits, usually based out of eight offices peppered across the region from Plymouth to Salisbury, are now successfully homeworking.

Just one administrator and a partner or other high-ranking team member, now physically goes into each office for a few hours every day to primarily collect, scan and upload important postal items.

Endacott, who heads up the firm’s growing tax empire, has been hungrily devouring reading matter around the subject of remote working to satiate his drive for knowledge about the best ways forward during the pandemic. 

And while he has yet to be fully convinced that “what happens in San Francisco or Seattle will fully translate to Salisbury or Truro”, he confesses to much feverish debate among his senior colleagues as to the exact expression of the perfect business model but, overall, he’s very happy with the robustness of his firm’s approach.

Pleasantly surprised

One major surprise, he says, has been how well the various facets of remote working, and the increased flexibility it offers, seem to have been embraced by the majority of his colleagues.

Adapting to life under the virus has been largely ‘issue free', aside from the occasional client that still hankers after a physical meeting at the office, but “as long as clients are happy to engage with an online service we can service them no problem at all”.

Auditing remotely has been a key challenge during lockdown though, with the obvious difficulty of getting people onto sites in a safe and responsible manner. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases innovative solutions have been found to enable the work to continue.

The firm’s technological infrastructure has held up well though, enabling staff to work effectively from their homes.

Endacott says the business was “in theory paperless before we moved to our houses” but those who truly embraced the liberation of paperless working were finding the transition that much easier.

The fact the business has used VoIP for some while with no physical phones has meant those already established lines of communication have been kept easily open, while Skype, Teams and Zoom cover off all the core virtual meeting bases.

Any problems have typically centred around people’s home-working environments, such as space issues, the right computer kit, screens, chairs, and broadband issues. 

“Communication with the whole team has never been as good as it is now,” said Endacott. 

Regular Skype calls have been employed for every office to communicate regularly, with up to 150 people attending office updates, while the business has successfully migrated its seminar delivery online thanks to the BigMarker software programme, with up to 200 attendees each time.

Endacott has been “feeling his way around” what clients and introducers want and adapts his technological platform accordingly. Networking with lawyers has also been successfully enabled via Zoom.

He now has more work-related apps on his phone than ever before and is a big fan of the digital dictation systems which he still uses during lockdown and the benefits of the firm’s document management system.

Optimum balance

It’s a little too early, he says to envisage exactly what the post-COVID-19 world of work will look like once the fog of the pandemic begins its slow lift, but “I suspect we will have a lot more remote working”.

Quick to point out that the business was far from at the zero point pre coronavirus, he and his network of senior business shapers are rapidly “trying to work out” the right balance going forward.

“Some research suggests there’s an optimum balance between remote working and people being in the office and some that it is as much to do with individuals as the work they are doing”, says Endacott, “while another says there are very big efficiency gains in more home working.”

He can see that some “might be happier going to a more structured environment to work – those with young children for example” while “certain teams may be better suited to being in an office if they have lots of drop-in meetings”.

The amount of travelling between offices will reduce, says Endacott, with “more video conferencing going forward”.

Continuing the future-gazing, Endacott believes the number of offices in the network will stay the same but the size of the workforce physically attending each site may shrink as more employees opt to work from home. 

And the nature of the work environment may morph “perhaps more towards café style spaces”, where remote workers can turn up and work at a big, communal table – essentially what was “seen as swankier London” and “not used by boring accountants” will become more the norm. That also means that Endacott “can’t see people dressing up in suits and ties for the experience” and it will all have a more casual atmosphere.

In the South West, in particular, there are clearly many businesses in the leisure, hospitality and retail sectors that have been badly affected by the lockdown. But the “doomsayers may have overplayed their hands”, somewhat, says Endacott, as “many other businesses are carrying on much better than we thought, and with everything so online now I’m not sure there’s a reason for it to stop”.