Lockdown measures have proved that much of the work performed by chartered accountants can be done remotely, with some even reporting extensive productivity gains from a shift online.
However, there are aspects of this new way of working that have raised concerns among accountancy professionals, chief among them recruitment and training – two parts of the profession that are perceived to require a more personal touch.
The recruitment impact
COVID -19 has had a dramatic effect on the UK’s labour market and recruitment is no exception to this. Consultancies have reported renewed downward pressure on UK pay in January, backed up by a fall in starting salaries and temporary wages in January, according to a KPMG and Recruitment & Employment Federation (REC) UK report on jobs.
The current and upcoming job landscape has been compared to the financial crisis of 2008 - the same time as chartered accountant Simon Gray started Cherry Professional, a recruitment company specialising in recruiting accounting and finance staff for both practice and industry.
In the early days of his recruitment business, Gray realised that the number of people you could physically face-to-face interview in any one day was very limited.
“Sometimes you couldn’t interview candidates you wanted as they couldn’t travel, couldn’t get out of work, or you were unavailable because you had to be somewhere else. So, I experimented by doing our vetting interviews online”, Gray said.
“We started to use Skype and interview candidates digitally, putting them to the employer in a shortlist after having only met them digitally. What I found was that the information you can get only from interviewing them online was nowhere near the same as what you would get from a face-to-face interview. The quality of my product – the ability to shortlist the right candidate – was diminished by me just doing it digitally. For this reason, we stopped doing it.”
Gray, who now runs Career Codex, a career coaching business, added, “In my view, you can’t make that decision online. It’s about that gut feeling for a place and an environment that you need to experience first-hand. It’s the same way people buy houses; you never buy a house based on the particulars on Rightmove. You walk into the physical house and get a feeling – that gut feel is much more than just the facts and figures about the house. It’s the same when it comes to job search.”
He added that recently qualified accountants need to experience the industry before they commit to moving jobs. “If you’ve just qualified as an accountant and you want to go work in industry or continue in practice, what you need to be doing to make an informed decision is experiencing different organisations.”
One of the most prominent is around the training received by accountancy students. Wendy Bambrick is Senior Audit Manager at Mercer & Hole and looks after the ACA trainee cohort across the top-40 firm. She is adamant that COVID will not get in the way of student futures at the firm.
While Mercer & Hole already has plans in place to onboard and train the following September’s intake online, Bambrick believes a physical workplace is still vital in a post-COVID working landscape.
“Although training still works remotely, my preference would still be to be in an office with the trainees to help them as they go along. It is a lot easier face-to-face,” she says.
“For as long as possible last year, students worked in our office. Other members of the team that were in would be there with them, but we couldn’t go to clients. We were doing audits remotely, so they were supported that way.”
When the government advised businesses to work from home where possible, Mercer & Hole decided to switch online. This was when the firm introduced its ‘wellbeing champion’ initiative to keep contact going between the teams. “This is being run by our HR department, who asked for volunteers to come up with worker wellbeing initiatives to run during lunchtime. Each office has a wellbeing champion”, said Bambrick.
“For the trainees, we’ve been doing different events online to keep everyone in touch. We’ve been doing things like quizzes, a Christmas jumper competition and wine tasting where we received six little bottles and had an expert on Zoom telling us about the wines.”
She added: “If we’ve felt like there was a training gap where some of them didn’t learn something, we’ve been doing sessions on Zoom to make sure people know what they are doing on specific things.”
In the next and final part of this series, a Head of Finance and Global Head of Tax professional (who has been working remotely long before the pandemic arrived) share their wisdom from years of home working experience.
Remote working series:
- Part 1: virtually onboarding new talent
- Part 2: slung in the deep end
- Part 3: the lack of ‘real life’
- The KPMG and REC, UK Report on Jobs
Click this link to read more insights in ICAEW’s ‘Taking remote working into account’ exclusive five-part series.
Simon Gray is also Chair of the Business Committee for ICAEW. The committee is a group of volunteers that work with ICAEW and their business and strategy team about member proposition, what info they should be communicating to members and what’s happening on the ground with members.