The pandemic has compelled organisations to suddenly embrace new ways of working with employees being asked to work exclusively remotely for much of the initial twelve months when COVID hit. This has raised a number of ethical challenges that our members have had to adapt to and be innovative in finding new ways to overcome a range of challenges.
One of the major difficulties members have grappled with has been how to maintain the ethical culture and values of their organisations when teams are fragmented. On-the-job training has been severely restricted by remote working requirements with many trainee accountants spending over a year of their training contracts with no time in the office. This has undoubtedly impacted the nature of relationships between staff with fewer opportunities for informal conversations.
Managers have found that many of their staff members are experiencing feelings of detachment from their organisations and teams. Audit staff in particular found that they were having more regular interaction with external audit clients than members of their own teams, putting pressure on their ethical obligations to maintain objectivity and independence from their clients. And without the opportunity to ask “off the cuff” questions due to the remoteness of videoconferencing, staff need to find different ways to challenge and query explanations received from both audit clients and more senior colleagues.
With many organisations looking to retain some element of remote working for the foreseeable future, this article explores a few of the practical steps some firms have taken to ensure that an ethical and supportive culture is maintained whilst teams of staff work remotely.
Reinforce ethical messages through different communication channels
Reassuringly, both our member firms and members in business tell us that they have not witnessed a drop-off in ethical standards due to the lack of physical day-to-day meetings. Rather, there has been a new approach to staff interaction in response to the changes in the working environment. Working remotely has allowed staff greater flexibility and the opportunity to schedule more meetings with many establishing structured daily calls. Ethical messages and policies have been disseminated through a wide range of communication technology options. Whilst video conferencing has been particularly useful for complex conversations, certain key messages have also been distilled and shared through other communication tools, such as Microsoft Teams or Yammer.
Maintain quality of technical work through the use of new technology
One big hurdle that accountancy firms have needed to overcome has been how to complete client engagements efficiently and effectively whilst members of the team are dispersed. The use of Microsoft Teams to create virtual audit rooms has been an innovative example for many firms with added functionality allowing members of the audit team to move into break-out rooms being a particularly useful feature, not to mention the ability to dedicate chat channels to specific topics or technical areas. Remote working has also meant that even when audit seniors are required to move on to the next audit assignment, they are still able to participate in close-off meetings in respect of the current audit, as they are not required to physically attend the office to take part in the meeting.
Ensure that staff don’t shy away from asking difficult questions
For some staff, remote working has made it more challenging to ask difficult questions, which would perhaps have felt more natural in a physical face-to-face environment. This applies equally to situations where employees wish to question/challenge information or instructions received from more senior staff members and where explanation/information is sought from a client. Staff working from home may also be more reluctant to query something they are unsure of, like an unusual invoice, particularly if they were used to informally asking a colleague sitting across from them in an office environment.
To address these potential issues, organisations must first ensure that all levels of seniority embrace a receptive and open environment that encourages staff to raise concerns. A culture of challenge is needed to give junior staff the confidence to speak up, wherever they may be working from.
Some firms have been able to take advantage of the flexibility of remote working to integrate a programme of staff training in between the delivery of client work, covering areas, such as how to have difficult conversations and understanding unconscious bias. This training has also promoted the importance of professional scepticism and the need to corroborate client explanations with other available evidence, regardless of whether the information has been provided verbally, via face-to-face communication or video conferencing, or by email.
Offer encouragement and emotional support
We know that the pandemic has impacted us all in different ways. To address the difficulties that staff may be facing, many managers have made a conscious effort to keep an eye on the physical and mental well-being of their employees during the pandemic.
To reduce the impact of social isolation, some firms have used Zoom to arrange social events for their staff including quizzes, yoga sessions and remote team building exercises. In cases where staff feel particularly cut off, some firms have arranged “walk and talk sessions'' allowing the opportunity for staff to meet with their manager on a one-to-one basis in a park or other open space.
As organisations continue to move to hybrid working models, there will be an ongoing need for managers to promote the emotional support networks available to staff and the opportunities to seek advice and support related to mental health.
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