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An engaged workforce in a remote world

Nick Huber looks at how working practices will affect working relationships and productivity.

An engaged workforce in a remote world
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  • Nick Huber
  • September 17, 2021
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“Hi darling, how was your half-day at the shared workspace?”

After more than a year when many of us worked from home during the pandemic, it’s time to go back to the office. Sort of.

On 19 July, the UK government lifted its instruction for people to work from home where possible, although employers are being advised to consult staff on future working arrangements - because some staff are understandably anxious about returning to work.

The majority of workers have got used to the flexibility of working from home and want to continue doing so for at least some of the time after the pandemic, research from the CIPD suggests.

How can employers train staff remotely, foster a team spirit and share experience and ways of working previously done informally, by office chats, in a training room − or in the pub after work?

Financial Accountant asked accounting firms and accounting experts for tips on engaging workers in an increasingly digital world.

Reinvent the office

“If you use an office, what’s the purpose?” says Della Hudson, a consultant to accountants and business owners, who previously owned an accounting firm.

“Other than a mailing address you don’t need to have an office. What do people get out of the office? They get all the communication but my kids’ generation and [often] for me as well, all my communication is online. I coach accountants around the world, and I haven’t met many of them.”

Practice management software can help run the firm and manage client workloads.

Firms can use video call technology such as Zoom and Microsoft’s Teams for meetings. Slack can be used for office communication and ‘banter’.

“One thing I’ve seen work quite nicely during lockdown [is what] people call ‘Zoom roulette’,” says Carol Rudge, head of not-for-profit and coaching at accounting firm HW Fisher. Colleagues are paired randomly and spend about ten minutes talking about anything they want, ideally non-work related, to replicate the random conversations that help employees bond.

In-person work events are still important

Like many accounting firms, PKF Littlejohn is taking a ‘hybrid’ approach, with its staff working some days each week in the office and others (up to three per week) at home. Trainees will have to come in more frequently. New starters, and their line managers, should initially be in the office more than twice a week as they get up to speed.

To boost team spirit and communicate that hard-to-defi ne but crucial work culture, the firm is holding events to encourage people back into the office and to meet colleagues outside of their immediate teams.

They included regular firm-wide Zoom calls hosted by its managing partner, online quizzes and challenges, and “Tuesday Talks at 12.30” which are a “sort of online ‘Speakers Corner’,” says Rachel Prebble, PKF’s HR director.

Blend online training with in-person training

Prebble says that online staff training has been popular with staff, especially for technical training, but adds that in-person training is still important.

“We’ve found that in-person training and on-the-job learning is particularly important for our new trainees, so they get to learn from others by sitting near them in the office or at client sites.”

Planning and project management software, such as Trello, Basecamp and Asana can also help dispersed workforces do their work and share effective work methods.

Slack, a communication platform, can replace internal email messages and be a substitute for in-person discussion.

Emotional intelligence: Managing a hybrid workforce

When more staff work remotely, managers need to be mindful of their emotional wellbeing, including things such as family commitments that may affect their performance at work.

“Managers need to check in with people they are managing. Ask more open questions,” says Rudge of HW Fisher. “Go beyond the ‘how are you?’ type of question.”

Employers must always make sure that employees working mainly from home feel as valued as office-based colleagues, experts also say.

Client work is likely to move increasingly online

Most client work can be done online, apart from things like stocktaking. Accountants say that many of their clients are, like them, moving to a mix of office and home working.

“When I ran Hudson Accountants, I had clients I had never met in person, so it has always been possible to [work] online,” says Hudson.

“There will be some older clients who want to meet face to face, but that’s not the sort of business I want to run.”

Some firms will prefer to work in the office

Alexander & Co, a Manchester accounting firm, is returning to the office. Some staff are typically in the office for three to four days per week. Others full time.

“Much of our work relies on team collaboration and junior staff benefit from being in a working environment where they can ask questions and be mentored,” says Stephen Verber, partner at Alexander & Co. “Although these things can [be] done over video calls or the telephone it works much better face-to-face.”

 

Nick Huber is a freelance journalist.

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