The year the earth stood still
The pandemic continues, but we are a year down the line from its initial impact – and hopefully a year wiser. Practitioners explain what they’ve learned from many lockdowns, and why a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work.
As we move through what is, hopefully, the the final stretch of lockdowns, one thing is certain: the business working environment will never be the same. So, what have accounting practitioners learned in the past 12 months, and how are they preparing for future ups and downs?
Key issues that practices have faced are managing a remote workforce, ensuring technology and cyber security are up to date, as well as ensuring communication lines with staff and clients have remained open.
Flexiblity of working practices has also been key, whether it’s juggling home life and work, or the in/out nature of the office during and between lockdown periods.
Samantha Rollins, a partner at Trinity Accountants, cites managing productivity as an area that has required a lot of thought, and changes to working practices, in the past year.
“One of the biggest lessons is to understand when your working patterns are and when you are at your most productive,” she says.
“For example, it’s better for me to work really early in the morning but, [putting thought into] understanding when members of staff are more productive.”
In a similar vein to Ms Rollins, Vibrant Accountancy co-founder Beverley Wakefield believes the pandemic has highlighted that everyone’s working patterns are different and trying to force everyone into a set regime can be counter-productive.
However, not everyone agrees remote working is always right. “I don’t think productivity is high when staff are working from home because there are too many distractions,” says Dermot Kennedy, partner at Giltinan and Kennedy.
Mr Kennedy found most staff came back to the office when allowed, rather than working from home, because they benefited from its structure. It is also harder to train staff remotely, and “you can’t put a price on office banter”, he says. People are social animals, so being isolated could be adding to mental health issues, he suggests.
Sean Toomer, managing director at Diverso Accountants, puts effort into a more project-focused approach. He organises his team with targets so they can work flexibly. “There are never set working hours but there are minimum targets. As long as those are achieved, and clients are happy, I don’t really care what time or what day they were achieved,” Mr Toomer says.
Placing trust in your staff – and delegating more often – was one of the biggest lockdown lessons for Ms Rollins.
“I spent too long micro-managing,” says Ms Rollins. It didn’t help staff, or herself, but just added to everyone’s stress. “By giving staff autonomy it was better for their, and my, mental health and created a happier and more loyal working environment,” she explains.
If practices become more project-focused, and individuals are left with greater responsibility to manage these, then it will impact on the type of people you look to bring into your firm and, by definition, you will alter your working environment and its culture.
Mind over matter
While it is widely regarded that mental health has been talked about across more offices than at any other time in history, tackling it is varied across the profession.
With a lack of casual, ad-hoc conversations, or even ‘water cooler moments’, firms are working harder to ‘formalise downtime’ – even if it seems oxymoronic.
Ms Wakefield and her team participate in virtual yoga and “cuppas and chinwags” to ensure everyone continues to have personal interactions with their colleagues – and those chats aren’t always business-related – which would match office-based conversations. Mr Toomer, similarly, encourages staff to take a break from work, but still talk to each other. Diligence about not overworking has also come to the fore.
“I have a dog, so I switch off and go for a walk, rain or shine,” says Ms Rollins. While John Lawrence, partner at Guida Accountancy, says, “Pets are great at helping with mental health issues, with my dog also helping with exercise and her support has been invaluable.”
He adds that the difficulties posed by the pandemic have made people appreciate what they have, and that “family is more important than time at work and time is more valuable than money”.
Rachael Singh is a freelance journalist