Thursday, 03 September 2020
How will the pandemic change the working practices of professionals in the short and long term?
The business world is easing out of lockdown and moving to a new normal, one defined by social distancing, digital communication, and working from home. Here, four experts from the professional services sector highlight the behavioural changes influenced by the pandemic that will impact accountants and lawyers, not just in the immediate future, but for years to come.
Peter Taylor is managing partner at Paris Smith solicitors, Southampton and Winchester
“It takes 21 days for a habit to be formed, and over the past weeks we have seen new behaviours that will become the norm for many years. Video-conferencing is now part of everyday life for lawyers, with team meetings, client conversations, and training and collaborative events all taking place virtually. Human beings are social animals. We want to spend time in the physical company of others, but we have discovered that we can achieve certain outcomes quickly, effectively and at lower cost using digital tools.
“Flexible and home working will become part of the future and employees will be seeking employers who offer it. How many people can say they have missed their daily commute, now they have got some time back for themselves during the day?
“Nevertheless, law firms will expect professionals to spend some time in the office in order to maintain the culture of the firm and ensure that everyone stays in touch, as well as to facilitate the effective training and development of staff, especially those at the beginning of their careers. In the office they can watch and learn from their more experienced colleagues, receive face-to-face feedback, and address any concerns.
“We are increasingly using digital communication for messaging and thought leadership. Virtual gatherings have replaced physical events. These trends will undoubtedly continue. Business relationships have also been formed through this online activity, while shared experiences and greater collaboration are coming to the fore. Human kindness and understanding for each other are more prevalent. Long may that continue.”
Heather Townsend is founder of the Accountants Millionaires’ Club
“Travelling on public transport into busy town and city centres, which most law and accountancy firms required their staff to do pre-coronavirus, has become inadvisable until there is an effective vaccine or treatment for the disease, which could potentially be years away. Most firms are now looking at a long-term strategy of predominantly virtual working for the foreseeable future.
“Staff training and development is being delivered virtually, but a top priority for most learning and development teams is helping their staff thrive while working and managing others virtually. Meanwhile, virtual events and inbound marketing have become the first port of call for marketing teams in firms.
“Most firms are now looking at a long-term strategy of predominantly virtual working for the foreseeable future”Heather Townsend, founder, Accountants Millionaires’ Club
“Coronavirus has also accelerated the pace of change that we were already witnessing, for example, video calls via Zoom or Microsoft Teams are no longer the preserve of the early adopters but are rapidly becoming the default phone call or conference call. Cloud-based software that can be accessed from anywhere in the world is now the first choice for any firm’s IT department, and any legacy software that doesn’t support this will be ditched.”
Fiona Czerniawska is joint managing director of Source, a provider of research on the global professional services market “Many professionals have found working from home highly productive and liberating, in that it frees them from excessive travel and gives them more time at home with their families. However, it’s possible that this is working well because we are generally working with colleagues we already know, rather than trying to build relationships with new ones. So, while the future is likely to see far more remote working, the ultimate result will be more mixed, and some office life will resume.
“Some of the changes we’ve seen during the crisis were happening before it started. Remote working has been part of the business world for more than two decades. The difference now is that every office-based employee has had to do this, rather than a minority of people whose commitment might be questioned by colleagues, or who felt marginalised. No one has been disadvantaged by working from home.
“It’s likely that we’ll see a clearer distinction between independent working, when you are focusing on a specific task that is hard to do in an open-plan office, and collaborative working, when you need to be with people. This could lead to open-plan offices being reconfigured to create more project rooms that people use for specific reasons.”
Della Hudson FCA is author of The Numbers Business: How To Grow A Successful Cloud Accountancy Practice
“Long term, I don’t think very much will change. We’ve made a radical move to working from home and working flexibly, with greater recognition of family life, but ultimately I think we will drift back to where we were. Accountancy firms have the technology to work remotely, but the office will be the default because people still want some separation of work and life. It provides a social element of work, communication is better done face to face, and most homes are just not designed for full-time working.
“Then there are the mental-health issues. I’m an introvert, used to working from home, and therefore mentally best suited to the situation we’ve experienced during lockdown. But I am missing people, seeing them face-to-face and spending time with them. If I’m feeling like that, then the extroverts must be really struggling.
“From a timing perspective, Making Tax Digital (MTD) has accelerated the adoption of cloud software by accountants, buffered a lot of practices, and, in a way, helped the profession prepare for this crisis. This also bodes well for the new generation of accountants: the good things that were happening before have now accelerated; and we have made five years’ progress in three months in terms of operational progress and mindset, with kinder attitudes towards flexible and part-time working. The practices that survive because they have adapted their businesses will have all the options that the next generation of accountants are looking for – options that most of us have been looking for, but been shouted down over, for many years.”