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Back to the office

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed how we work. As lockdown is eased and people return to work, how can small accounting practices and accountants in small businesses adapt their offices to make them as safe as possible? 

Back to the office
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  • Nick Huber
  • July 10, 2020
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I s it safe? This is the question many of us will be asking as the UK lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is gradually lifted and more of us return to the office.

How can accounting practices and companies employing accountants make office work as safe as possible, without adversely affecting the quality of work? Will Covid-19 lead to long-term changes in how accountants work?

Although the UK government’s advice at the time of writing was for people to work from home whenever possible, more people are likely to return to office work during the summer. There is detailed government guidance on opening offices, including who should go to work, ‘social distancing’ (keeping two metres apart to reduce the risk of infection), cleaning workplaces and personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Employers should discuss return-to-work issues with individual employees before any physical return to office as part of a “sensitive and supportive” conversation, says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD.

This should be part of a ‘reinduction’ that considers adjustments or ongoing support that people may need after lockdown. It will help ensure that teams feel more confident about returning, Suff says.

Employers have a contractual duty to take care of employees’ health and safety and should undertake risk assessments, which should be reviewed as government advice changes. Employers can refer to the Health and Safety Executive website for more information.  Martin Bissett, founder of the Upward Spiral Partnership, a UK consultancy for accounting firms, says many are adapting their offices for a return to work in three main ways.

The three methods: rotations/shifts; screens in offices; and the “airline approach” − people sitting further apart, with reduced numbers of people in an office, such methods are also likely to also be used by accountants in business.

Option one: rotation/shifts

“A number of firms I’ve spoken to have used health and safety consultants to reconfigure their offices, their desks and so on, to allow for a socially distanced workplace but with a reduced capacity,” Bissett says.

For example, a practice may divide its workforce into three teams. In week one, team one comes in and teams two and three work remotely. In week two, team two comes in, and teams one and three work remotely and so on.

“They are rotating on that basis with a new floor plan with clear [instructions] as to how to keep a safe distance, with hand sanitisers having being installed and with rules and regulations for communal areas, such as canteens, or kitchens or bathrooms,” says Bissett. “Especially in bathrooms, if one person is in, you stay out. So, it’s a one in, one out in the kitchen … and bathroom.” 

Accounting firms have asked their clients for recommendations on health and safety advisers, Bissett says.

Option two: screens

Some firms, particularly large firms in central London, have installed clear perspex screens between employees’ desks (on both sides and in front of the desk if necessary). But for small accounting firms and small businesses, installing protective screens between desks may not be practical due to cost or space.

Option three: change the office layout

Another option could be what Bissett calls the “airline” approach.

If a firm or business has a row or pod of three or four desks, the equivalent of the aisle and window seats would be occupied and the middle one(s) would be unoccupied.

Bissett says that he has heard about a couple accounting firms doing this. “So, you still might bring in more than two thirds of the team [but] you might seat them in such a way that they are now [sitting further apart].” How anxious are accountants who are returning to work? “That’s press talk,” says Bissett.

“I [see] a lot more written about [people’s anxiety about returning to work] than I can find evidence for.” 

Employees are asking their employers how they can we get back to some form of routine without compromising their health and safety, he says. Will Covid-19 inevitably lead to long-term change in where (and how) accountants work?

Covid-19 has shown accounting firms and accountants in business that much of their work can be done remotely.

Some types of accounting − such as cashflow forecasting, interpretation of management accounts, and dealing with tax affairs − are fairly easy to do remotely. However, some other services, such as audit, are harder to do remotely.

“Counting a surplus of potatoes that a farmer has in their garage,” says Bissett. “That’s not going to happen remotely, in the short term, unless you are a [Big Four accounting fi rm] that uses drones for remote audits.

There are certain things that can’t be done remotely. You do have to go on site and physically count 12 of this and 15 of that.” 

Nick Huber is a freelance journalist

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