With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, what will the future look like and what part will technology play. AccountancyManager has been working in partnership with Alternative Events to deliver a series of Accountancy Hangout sessions. In our recent session the discussion focused on what’s next for the accountancy practice as we delve into how we retain the new ways of working and the momentum that has gathered, and look at what is essential when it comes to supporting both employees and clients in this journey.
The starting point of most discussions at the Hangouts is employees
How best to support employees and make them as efficient as possible in their work environment. And as the country moves towards re-opening the office, the debate is no different. Office safety and social distancing measures dictate a reduced office capacity, which for Andrew Yearsley, Chief Technology Officer at Bishop Fleming is around 20-30% capacity of their workforce in the office at any one time, compared to 80-90% previously.
So with the majority of staff having to work outside the office environment, employee productivity becomes a focus. Sisi Lagrem, Director, Advisory & Transactions, Financial Services Sector, CBRE, shared the survey statistics that 93% of employees felt more productive working from home. And when looked at from the perspective of the practice, there was equal confidence in employee effectiveness. This was backed up by the Hangout audience, who when polled on the question of how essential it is to return to the office to operate efficiently, the majority of 63% stated that it is not crucial and that staff will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.
Ali Jones, Partner at Sagars, went as far as to state that she couldn’t see everyone in the office at the same time going forward unless it was for social events. To support the home working assumption, many organisations have been surveying their employees throughout lockdown – an approach taken by both Ali Jones, and Paul Crichton, Managing Director at MMG Archbold. Staff surveys have indicated around 90% of the employees are happy to work from home for the bulk of the week, with 1-to-2 days in the office for collaboration purposes or social events. All evidence indicates that home working will be the norm, with office hubs for collaboration, and it seems that in general, accountancy practices are happy to support this new flexible approach.
An essential consideration in establishing this environment is the client. The ability to engage, support and service them effectively plays an important role when it comes to making changes. When the Hangout audience were asked to rate the firms current biggest challenges, the top selection with 28% was working out how to engage with clients digitally/remotely. Followed by the financial management of the firm in second with 24%, then in third, with 20%, was anticipating how clients’ buying behaviour will change.
In total, 72% of the audience highlighted interlinked aspects around the client and the financials of the business.
So when it comes to maintaining business momentum, the ability to support clients from home is all the more critical. The part of technology is fundamental and has undoubtedly been the enabler when it comes to changing working practices, not just in interacting with clients, but also in ensuring employee productivity around client delivery.
A point made by Paul Crichton, for whom employee productivity is all- important. MMG Archbold has placed the focus on employee output and the need to meet the expectations of clients. They have moved away from timesheets when it comes to billing, and focused on engaging clients upfront, scoping the job and pricing accordingly. Often historical data and information are used to sense check costs, but billing by the hour is a thing of the past and considered to drive the wrong behaviour from remote employees.
Systems and tools that are now widely in use across firms can also be used to make the client more efficient, as pointed out by Paul Crichton. Platforms that can deal with the end-to-end client journey will be vital in future. Not only can they make the process more efficient by matching the client’s workflows, they can also support practices when it comes to making changes to the service and in delivering new service offerings.
The accountancy back office has changed
The crisis has forced through changes that many were previously resistant to but have now proved to be beneficial in making the process more efficient for clients. E-Signatures have become widely accepted and seen as the new norm, collaborating on digital files and sharing of documents is becoming commonplace, and of course, printing has fallen by the wayside.
Most firms are now looking to go 100% paperless, a considerable cost saving and massive culture shift for many.
It’s fair to say that there have been some significant shifts in approaches in the last few months. Digital has been embraced in ways previously unknown, with change forced through and technology adopted in a matter of weeks, rather than the months or years that these projects typically took to get off the ground. It seems that the audience agrees that changing behaviour has been an essential step in the evolution of the firms. When asked what they see as the most significant opportunity for the practice as a result of the Covid crisis, two areas were winners, both with 32% of the vote; the chance to rethink the firm’s culture, and the chance to make fundamental changes to their working practices.
The crisis has certainly forced through and brought about a different mindset and culture, one that both Paul Crichton at MMG Archbold and Ali Jones from Sagars are adamant they don’t want to lose. Holding onto progress is vital. And with that, the technologies that streamline workflows and support employee productivity and client efficiency must surely be the focus for Accountancy firms as we step into the future normal.