Remote working and the small practice
With the whole country’s business network now largely remote working, how can practices ensure work is undertaken eﬃciently and accurately if staﬀ can’t work together in an oﬃce?
By the time you read this, the advice from the government, as well as working conditions and mortality rate, would have changed. While so much is fast-moving, what seems longer-term is that you and your staﬀ will be working remotely.
Putting these together, what does that mean for your practice’s ability to serve clients, and ensuring work is undertaken eﬃciently and accurately by an understandably anxious workforce?
The ﬁrst thing to consider is the practicalities: do you have the software capabilities to be 100% remote?
“The technology is available regardless of the size of your ﬁrm,” explains Vipul Sheth, MD and founder of AdvanceTrack.
"There is a lot of free software out there if you need something quickly. You can use anything, even spreadsheets can be hosted in the cloud using Googledocs or Oﬃce 365,” he adds.
Many ﬁrms are already using software that has cloud capabilities – but it might be worth paying extra for a more advanced version, says Michaela Rees, director at Sterling Rees Tax & Accountancy.
It is especially important to think about security and cyber attacks during this time, she points out.
“Everyone uses smartphones, but you have to ensure there is proper security and identiﬁcation software you can trust that you can use on your phone and your employees’ phones to ensure the security of the data,” she says.
Sheth points out that for many ﬁrms, spending that bit extra may be an issue if you are losing clients: “In a normal scenario you could spend £2,000 on software and training for your staﬀ , but right now people may not have the time or money to do that.”
Ultimately, now is “not the time for penny-pinching”, argues Heather Townsend, founder of the Accountants Millionaires’ Club.
“The loyalty of your clients, many of whom are panicking, will go out the window if you can’t help them”, she says.
Townsend stresses there are practices which are having to shut because they don’t have the software or IT support to enable them to help their clients or carry out remote working during this crisis – so investing is money well spent.
There are of course other factors to consider. If clients require more detailed help, such as cashﬂow forecasting to support a loan application, can you manage the information sharing? And if extra work starts to dominate your ﬁrm’s time and resources, how do you manage charging and billing?
“How much would be considered ‘putting food on the table’ and how much would be considered ‘proﬁteering’?” she asks.
Communication is key for both the clients and the staﬀ in all scenarios: whether it’s changes in fees, IT software, or workload and mental health. In a remote environment we have to move to a “trusting communicative environment”, Townsend explains.
You have to work with your team to understand the resourcing and capabilities of your ﬁrm before you can help the clients, says Will Farnell, founder of Farnell Clarke.
“Resource your managing after speaking to clients, so that you can be agile and adapt,” he says. Clients are asking for fee reductions and diﬀerent types of work to name the key headwinds, he explains.
“Once a week you have to speak to your clients then take a view with your own operations,” Farnell adds. “One thing to bear in mind is to not panic and be realistic”, says Rachel Sestini, managing director Sestini & Co. “Look at the work expected for your ﬁrm in the next 6-12 months: then you have to sensibly think what can fall by the wayside."
Now might also be a good time to set up links and arrangements with other ﬁrms, she adds. For regulatory reasons sole practitioners must nominate another accountant/ practice to ensure continuity of work, but now might be a good time to extend that or create your own mini network, Sestini explains.
A micro-network could help relieve pressure on your staﬀ who may be struggling with work/life balance.
“You have to check in with your staﬀ regularly and be aware of their mental health so they can feel supported,” explains Rees. Working with your staﬀ to ensure that they feel secure in their role but ﬂexible enough to structure their own days is vital.
“Now, more than ever before, good management styles will win,” says Sheth. “Otherwise after this crisis your staﬀ will just walk.”
You need team camaraderie because everyone is working together.
“Everybody is in the same situation and is understanding of everyone else’s circumstances,” adds Farnell.
“You have to be a human – not just a boss – because the team needs to know you are there for them,” concludes Sestini.
Everyone is unanimous in their agreement that taking care of clients, the staﬀ and your own health can be diﬃcult to navigate. But by communicating often and honestly with your team, peers, family and friends, remote doesn’t necessarily have to mean isolated and alone.
Rachael Singh is a freelance journalist