Rapid changes were necessary when working from home became widespread overnight, and the main drivers in decision-making were the need for immediate remote access and ease of use. But remote working as part of a more hybrid model may demand a more considered approach to virtual communications.
Take videoconferencing. “Before the pandemic, its use was minimal,” says Stephanie Boyall, Assistant Manager at accountancy firm Azets, but for discussions with colleagues and clients, it quickly replaced phone calls. “You can have a more constructive conversation, as you can clearly identify who is talking and read peoples’ visual cues.” Initially, Boyall used various programs, including Skype and Zoom, but for the majority of client video calls she now uses Microsoft (MS) Teams.
Some post-lockdown product rationalisation was perhaps inevitable – and Teams is effectively ‘free’ for any company already paying for the MS Office Suite. For Azets, Teams offers practical benefits. “Teams integration with Outlook makes setting up meetings simple,” says Boyall. “It also has a good webchat system. That allows for quick and informal conversations between colleagues, either one-to-one or in group chats, which are particularly good for group assignments.”
The future of instant messaging apps such as iMessage, Slack, and WhatsApp, remains to be seen. Some firms are re-evaluating all virtual communications, before deciding which systems they will or will not take forward and why. Just a few of the many potential considerations are cost, data ownership, efficiency, integration, limits on user numbers, security, overall tech strategy, context and purpose. What are you trying to communicate? What audience are you trying to engage?
When it comes to virtual communications tools, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution, says Becky Shields, a partner at Moore Kingston Smith. “We are using different tools for different things.” Widespread uptake over the past year has shown that although some benefits are intrinsic to each technology type, individual products can be more or less suitable for different scenarios. Such as partner meetings, whole-firm communications, discussions with overseas clients, career events, remote stock checks, webinars, workshops and so on.
Screen sharing has become the norm in some scenarios. Andrew Moyser, Head of Audit Innovation and partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson sees it enhancing control and saving time when sharing information with clients and colleagues, reviewing audit files (including other firms’ files from past audits), and recording audit evidence. But product features like concurrent user numbers and integration with apps such as calendars vary, so although the quickest and easiest option may be bundled into your videoconferencing, it may not always meet your needs.
PwC UK uses various platforms including ON24, Webex Events and VirBELA, which hosts COVID-safe virtual events that have replaced the firms’ traditional careers fairs. “We saw virtual worlds as a really engaging way to reach out to students from the UK and abroad,” says Jeremey Dalton, PwC lead on virtual reality and augmented reality. PwC ‘s ‘Virtual Park’ allows students to build their own avatar, then visit virtual locations and events, to learn about the firm’s culture and values and hear from PwC staff avatars about their careers.
A winning combination
At Moore Kingston Smith the preference for recruitment-related scenarios is Zoom: “Its breakout rooms are really popular,” says Shields, and Zoom will still have a place, despite the firm’s ongoing transition to MS Teams for most virtual communications. Features in Teams such as automatic notetaking, dictation and live translation are part of its appeal, but there are other reasons for reducing the variety of tools the firm uses [see box-out below ‘Sustaining innovation’].
As firms rationalise their virtual communications tools, two favourites seem to be emerging. “In the past few months, I’ve noticed the vast range of technologies people were using earlier in the pandemic being whittled down to either Zoom or Teams,” says Moyser, and this also needs to be factored into firms’ decisions. He says: “When you are communicating with somebody virtually, you want it to be easy and simple, so it helps if you follow their preferences.”
Moore Kingston Smith has made pioneering use of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) over recent years. The firm’s strategy has been to maximise flexibility going forward and to retain ownership of important and valuable data. “We decided to create a data lake and pool all of our data in one place,” says Shields. Some of its accountants can write executable code, to extract and analyse information from that data lake.
But as remote virtual communications have grown in variety and volume among those working from home during the pandemic, collecting the associated data has become more difficult. “One would want to deploy some sort of AI to our correspondence in the future, to build up our knowledge bank of interactions, and that is going to get harder as forms of communication become more diverse,” she explains.
This is one reason why the firm is migrating to MS Teams; the efficiency of having a more integrated virtual communications setup also appeals. Teams, along with Office 365, will become the firm’s platform of choice: “We’ll get back some centralisation,” says Shields.
The consequences of doing, or not doing that, may be something that more firms will need to consider as we transition to a more blended working model and the potential value of data continues to grow.