How has the pandemic changed working in accountancy practice?
2021 hasn’t been the start to the year that we had hoped for in terms of people being back in the office, but we do have the vaccine roll out underway and the hope that we might have some normality back by the Summer. We spoke to Grant Thornton and MHA Moore and Smalley to find out how both the larger firms and smaller independent firms had weathered 2020 and what was in store for 2021 and beyond.
Before COVID-19, 70% of companies had digital transformation projects in place or were working on one when overnight, most businesses were forced to keep their people at home and make quick decisions about the technology to enable work to continue.
How the acceleration in digital transformation presented itself during the first lockdown seems to have varied. For those further along the digital transformation journey, the acceleration manifested with rapidly changing perceptions of the sceptics with regards digital solutions, versus practices who had to
accelerate the implementation of new digital systems. It was clear that practices adapted
well and fast to the virtual world and the new social interaction with clients and teams. From introducing “camera on” team catch ups at 9am each morning to constant Teams virtual communication and client working. Keeping people connecting and motivated continues to be a priority.
Andrew Matthews, Partner
MHA Moore and Smalley
“Within only a matter of days from the announcement of an impending lockdown in March 2020, the firm implemented seamless
remote working and the bulk of our over 330 staff have been working like that ever since. Whilst not without its teething problems, many of the efficiencies we have adopted will become permanent changes in the way we work.”
With further changes on the horizon for practices with regard’s the evolution of Audit and data interrogation software and the move by HMRC to fully digitise tax compliance by 2026 there will be more transformation to come!
So how did our practices see office and workplaces changing in the wake of the digital transformation? Regardless of size, practice staff have mostly been working from home for nearly a year now. When office working is required, social distancing measures are in place limiting the number of people able to work from the office. Practices have adopted a range of solutions from App based, desk booking systems, to rotas for being in the office to allow team collaboration face to face where needed, but this has been very deliberately limited.
Offices are very much still seen as the face of business within a city business district. Going forward offices may be smaller and focused around hubs and collaboration spaces for both employees and clients but they will still be there! Its anticipated that people will work from the office 2 to 3 days a week with the remaining days working remotely. This change will reduce travel and allow more virtual interaction and meetings to be held in one day. It will also allow for better a work life balance particularly for those individuals with young families or caring responsibilities or without their own transport. However, the blend of office and remote working settles in the future maintaining social interaction with colleagues and mentoring of less experienced team members will still be a priority and physical office space will form an important element of this.
Already the market is seeing the large firms dealing with Public Interest Entities separating out audit and advisory services. Client interaction is changing, and technology and systems continue to evolve! How did client interaction change and how will the services delivered change going forward?
Andrew Matthews, Partner
MHA Moore and Smalley
“Following lockdown, we utilised our document exchange and interrogation software much more, enabling us to communicate with our clients and share data, files, documents and evidence much quicker and more efficiently without ever needing to be on site.”
With data analytics and interrogation software evolving all the time, changes to tax software will follow. Full digital tax compliance with HMRC is targeted for 2026 so with time to adapt how will service teams within practice and the roles they fulfil, adapt?
Neil Sturmey, Tax Partner
“In the future tax is going to all be advisory led and tax compliance will be about managing risk, with no manual data entry. There is a natural fit with our other advisory service lines, so through increased earlier in career working together this should develop commercial acumen as well as technical experience. Audit separation is inevitable and possible scenarios are being considered. It’s a matter of timing. How we all do business will be affected, but the profession is very adaptable.”
Client interaction during 2020 was forced to go digital but people and systems adapted well. With meetings generally being telephone or video call both practices found availability for meetings easier to find and the removal of travel meant more meetings could be fitted into the day. This worked really well if relationships were established, but developing new relationships with emerging clients was more difficult, especially with the absence of entertaining to help grow rapport.
Following the developments of 2020 and as we move further into 2021, clients will continue to need professional services support! Practices are already adapting to meet future markets and with the professional services sector buoyant and recruitment very active, what does that mean for candidates considering a role in practice?
With significant recruitment underway how is personal development of less experienced team members being approached and what advice would you give to people looking to move into practice in this climate?
During the first lockdown recruitment into practice slowed as we learnt how to work fully in a digital world. As we start to navigate through 2021 demand for candidates in practice is on the rise. Although areas of the economy have been devastated during the pandemic some sectors are flourishing and all businesses are needing professional services even more than before. Recruitment has changed and during 2020 many new starters were hired, new positions started and training delivered through video and digital interaction along.
A big challenge for practices has been navigating personal and technical development with less experienced team members who are working from home during the pandemic. One benefit of the digital transformation has been the accessibility for less experienced team members to be able to sit in client meetings and listen - the removal of travelling to meetings make this easier and more accessible. Firms are also implementing live working through Teams with a camera on approach, file sharing and working on live documents. These approaches can be just as effective as sitting across a desk from a more experienced colleague. But what are practices looking for?
Neil Sturmey, Tax Partner
“The skills we need are basically the same – bright, enthusiastic, a care in what they do, motivated, resilient and above all they like people and do the right things by them, both internally and externally. Part of this will be achieved by ensuring we properly reflect our local communities, by way of diversity in all things.”
In a digital world where you can work from anywhere, geography is no longer a barrier and the search for talent can be widened beyond the location of the office to find the relevant skills and experience to meet the needs of the local economy.
Recruitment slowed in 2020 due to the pandemic but the demand for quality people within practice is still very much there, indeed there is significant recruitment underway!
A future that embraces agile and remote working will address the gender pay gap. With agile and remote working more freely available to women in practice with caring responsibilities, it will make balancing work and family more accessible resulting access to the same career progression opportunities. This of course also applies to anyone with caring responsibilities, the flexibility that agile and remote working offers is a very welcome change!
Digital transformation was at very different stages across the market in March 2020, nearly one year on it’s clear that the geography barrier limiting recruitment and job prospects has virtually disappeared. The enforced digital transformation has convinced many sceptics that although face to face interaction is preferable, digital solutions work well and this opens the door for candidates who might otherwise have ruled out or been ruled out from roles due to location.
Geography is no longer a barrier!