Accountancy firms activate agile working as office premises close

In the face of the covid-19 crisis, accountancy firms have been forced to overhaul their entire working practices, adopt firm-wide home working, cancel face-to-face client meetings and work 24/7 to support their clients. Philip Smith reports on how they are coping

As the order went out for all those that could work remotely to do so, accountancy firms put into practice long-standing business continuity plans, well aware that they were in unchartered territory.

Reacting to developments on a daily basis, they have had to show resilience, flexibility and above all the need to protect their staff while delivering the necessary services to ensure their clients survive the economic and social fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Andrew Griggs is the senior partner of Kreston Reeves, a 550-strong accountancy firm based in London, Kent and Sussex. As of Friday 20 March, the vast majority of his firm’s partners and staff are working remotely away for their offices, predominantly from home.

‘Our London office had been working from home since last Wednesday, with only half a dozen people in the office,’ Griggs says. ‘We have a disaster recovery plan, and this puts it all into action. Three weeks ago, we carried out a survey of all our people to check how many could work from home, either with the firm’s laptops or their own PCs.’

Kreston Reeves uses a Citrix-based secure environment, and in terms of physical security and confidentiality, measures include the inability for anyone to print documents at home. ‘We have taken all the precautions and measures necessary,’ he says.

Ensuring that client work continues in a safe and secure way is one thing. However, the firm has also taken steps to ensure that all its staff are looked after as well – for some, this could be the first time that they have worked in such an environment, one that will also have a unique level of anxiety and stress.

Clear and frequent communications is key to this process. ‘We have spent a lot of time working on this to help people,’ Griggs says. ‘Apart from email, we have Yammer groups, which are now being expanded. We have had video telephones in the offices for a while and now have that working remotely as well, so when I’ve phoned people through Cisco Jabber, we can see each other, which helps bring things to life.’

The firm has also created a section on coronavirus on its internal hub – this is updated daily, not just with news on the virus but also tips on how to work effectively from home and what people should be doing. ‘This is about social interaction and how to take breaks,’ he says. ‘I have been in touch with a number of my partners, and it is like taking a virtual walk down the corridor,’ Griggs says.

Aside from work, the firm has a strong ethos of community involvement, and is encourage staff to help others around them in a safe way.

At BDO, UK managing partner Paul Eagland says the firm has had a business continuity plan in place for ‘many years’, which has been taken through a number of dry runs. He says that in those circumstances the stress level would have been two out of 10 but is now at 10 out of 10.

However, he is confident the plan will deliver. ‘We have created a comprehensive model to deal with the situation. We have clear objectives, know who has what responsibilities, how decisions are made, what the priorities are and a clear communications plan,’ Eagland says.

As with all other firms, there has been a step change in the level of remote working. A week previously, the firm had some 800 people working remotely, now that is over 5,000. ‘Our model allowed us to ensure priority was given to rolling out kit and instructions, so our people had the right equipment,’ he says.

Eagland adds that the firm is balancing central guidance with empowering local teams and offices to do what they feel is right. ‘Each individual will have different personal circumstances, and different clients will have different needs,’ he says.

The firm has 24-hour IT and technical support in place and websites for additional guidance on areas such as how to send large files securely and even set up Skype calls. And embracing social media, the firm has set up the hashtag #stayingintouch, which replaces the physical sense of belonging with virtual belonging, combining elements of care, emotional and well-being support.

BDO staff have already set up virtual coffee meetings, where at a certain point in the day they can get together virtually, to discuss anything they like, just as they would if they were to meet up in real life.

At 6pm every evening, after the daily prime ministerial press conference, BDO convenes a meeting of its ‘COBRA’ committee to review the latest government guidance and act fast to communicate this with the wider firm.

‘We are keeping the offices open at the moment and don’t want to take a guillotine approach, but we want to make sure the empty space is a safe space,’ Eagland says.

In terms of IT security, Eagland says that the firm is going into this situation ‘in good shape’. Each one of the firm’s 5,500 people undergoes cyber security training so they understand their responsibilities. For remote workers who feel their working environment is not secure, such as those living in flat share arrangement, the firm offers guidance, which would include liaison with line managers.

‘Throughout all of this, we are trying to contextualise the situation. As each individual deals with these micro issues, they should also understand and think through in context what is happening. This can help keep the levels of anxiety low, which in turn will help with all these points,’ Eagland says.

With more than 20,000 people on its staff, PwC, as the largest UK accountancy firm, faces a massive task of coordinating its response to the crisis.

Over the last few years, the firm says it has invested in systems that allow everyday flexibility to work from home or remotely. All staff have a laptop, smart phone and cloud access using virtual personal networks that ensure secure remote working. Using Google technology, staff can collaborate digitally on documents, working on the same files at the same time and through video conferences.

‘The norm is that everyone who can work from home should work from home unless it is essential to be in the office,’ says a PwC spokesperson. ‘We haven’t closed our offices yet, but the default is to work from home. We will keep the offices open for as long as it makes sense to do so based on the latest advice, which is under constant review.’

Last week, the firm held a firm-wide webcast, hosted by PwC’s head of people Laura Hinton together with two medical professionals. ‘It was watched live by 13,800 of our people and many more have watched it since on demand,’ the spokesperson says. ‘We had 1,600 questions submitted by staff, which we distilled into common themes to put to the two doctors.’

One key aspect that has been addressed by the firm was the need to separate work from home. However, it was recognised that in some circumstances this might not be possible, for instance with younger members of staff who are living in shared accommodation. In such situations, the firm stresses the importance of clearing work away to ensure client confidentiality as well as marking a break between work time and home time.

The firm says it is encouraging teams to connect on a regular basis and always look for opportunities to talk with each other. A Google-hosted site is updated daily with the latest policies and guidance. ‘With everything developing by the day, it feels like the investment in technology is now coming into its own,’ the spokesperson says.

It is a similar story at KPMG. As its UK head of people Anna Purchas says: ‘We already had a real culture of agile working, with most of our workforce either occasionally or on a regular basis working from home and are of course often out of the office at our clients’ sites. This means it is perhaps less of a culture shock for our people than it might be at some other firms and we have the tech in place to support it.

But Purchas adds that working on your own from home on a long-term basis is unchartered territory for everyone. In particular, the firm is focusing on wellbeing and how it makes sure that people are taking the breaks they need and feel connected to their teams.

‘It is easy to fall in to the trap of working longer hours and never really switching off when you are working from home, so we will be looking at how we can support teams and make sure we are getting both social connections and breaks,’ Purchas says. ‘And we are encouraging people to turn on the video facility on the laptops during calls so we can see each other while we’re talking. It feels awkward at first but is so key to ensuring keeping in contact feels more real.’

The keys to successful firm-wide remote working:

  • technology – ensure everyone has the right equipment, tested their connections and know how to log into the firm’s system. provide it support around the clock;
  • communication – provide daily updates, with clear, relevant information and all necessary links to external websites and other sources of information. create a forum where staff can freely ask questions;
  • teamwork – set aside time for regular virtual conversations. they do not have to be about work. make the effort to work the virtual corridor, check in on team members just to see how they are;
  • flexibility – one way of working might not work for everyone. allow for flexibility in work patterns, communication methods and use of technology; and
  • wellbeing – the most important aspect; encourage team members to take breaks, stay active and get enough sleep. And think about how they may be able to help others.

About the author

Phil Smith is contributing editor to Accountancy Daily and a specialist audit, business and accounting writer and author

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