3 Keys for Returning to the Accounting Office
It has been a challenging year for accounting firms, as COVID-19 forced an otherwise high-touch industry into remote work to keep employees and clients safe.
Many weathered the storm by leveraging digital technology and cloud platforms. Now, as pandemic restrictions loosen, firms are beginning to consider a return to the office and what form that will take. Many major companies in the wider financial industry are pushing to have employees back in the office by summer’s end in a bid to rebuild face-to-face relationships.
But the return to work cannot be taken lightly. An effective strategy for this re-shift must consider three factors: what’s best for clients, staff members and the firm itself. Let’s look at each.
Clients — Not Yet Business as Usual
Accounting relies heavily on personal interaction, which some clients have not had in traditional ways for 15 months or more. While the impulse might be to jump back into face-to-face meetings, this might not be right for every client.
Firms must develop a strategy to determine and accommodate each client’s comfort level with in-person meetings. Ease client concerns about visiting your office by clearly communicating your office health and safety practices. Let them know how many people are attending and how you maintain social distancing. Also inform them of any pre-screening measures that are in place.
Be flexible, understanding and sensitive to their concerns. If they are uncomfortable inside, think about moving a lunch meeting to a nearby park or patio.
Consider whether the return to the office changes what you have put in place over recent months around client check-ins. While the initial stress and uncertainties created by the pandemic may have lessened, staying connected with clients and providing reassurance that you are there for them remains crucial. Whether check-ins are in-person or virtual, create and maintain a regular cadence — weekly, biweekly or monthly — that meet each client’s needs.
Even if in-person meetings become more frequent, employees should continue to hone their skills with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetings or your clients’ preferred videoconferencing platforms. After all, some degree of virtual interactions are sure to be included in the mix for the foreseeable future.
If your clients prefer in-person meetings, ensure you are up to speed on current government safety guidelines. Also, make clients aware that the extended availability windows you were able to offer in a 100-percent remote environment may not exist with office commutes resuming. Suddenly, 8 a.m. meetings may be off the table because staff are once again in transit at that time.
When your staff members make trips to client offices, find out the measures in place at the client’s place of business and thoroughly communicate your firm’s safety expectations. Social distancing, PPE and elevator protocols are just some of the points to be clear on before venturing out. Ensure staff are fully educated on workplace safety both in and out of the office.
Staff — Making It Work For Employees
Clients aren’t the only ones with post-pandemic concerns. Before your staff members return to their desks, a plan must be in place to address their needs and worries.
There are countless return-to-work scenarios this plan could take, and businesses today are adopting every kind, from staff working 100 percent remotely to full-time in the office, and everything in between.
Social distancing will remain important even as the pandemic subsides. If the timing is right concerning your lease, you might consider investing in more physical space by moving to a more cost-effective neighbourhood. Alternatively, you could free up space through reducing the firm’s server footprint by moving to cloud or hybrid cloud solutions (such as Caseware Cloud).
Delegate who will be responsible for developing a return-to-work plan that prioritizes health, safety and productivity. That said, it doesn’t need to be developed in isolation, and collaboration can also help ensure team members feel included. Consider assembling a task force to design a workforce strategy.
Governments, occupational health agencies and business associations have developed resources to help navigate these complex topics. See this guide from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and this guidance from the Canadian government.
The Firm — Hitting Goals in a Post-pandemic World
In addition to keeping clients and staff happy and healthy, the firm itself must remain healthy, too — and that means maintaining productive and meeting financial targets.
Any return-to-work plan must consider the impact on the firm’s financial situation. All adaptations made to adjust to the return to work have a price tag and ultimately affect the bottom line. Putting up plexiglas barriers between cubicles and providing PPE, for instance, constitute new expenditures.
Savvy firms will consider ways to offset such costs. These could take the form of significant, firm-altering decisions like moving out of the office and utilizing an office hotelling model to reduce real estate costs. Or it could entail more minor moves, such as cutting client lunches or social events.
The remainder of 2021 is not likely to see a return to “normal” and, according to a recent KPMG study, nearly half of all CEOs at the world’s most influential companies don’t expect it until sometime in 2022. About one-quarter of top business leaders from that survey also say the pandemic has permanently changed their business models, so normal may never be the same.
As it has for the past year and a half, flexibility will be the key to success over the months ahead. Accounting firms must anticipate and prepare their return to work to accommodate the comfort levels of both clients and staff. At the same time, they must maintain the firm’s productivity and be prepared to adjust quickly to whatever this next new reality holds.
Caseware Can Help
Caseware Cloud makes it easy for accounting firms of all sizes to collaborate more effectively, centralize client engagement, manage and share files securely and more — whether working remotely or in the office.
Learn more about how Caseware Cloud can help your firm add flexibility to your operation and prepare for today’s new workplace realities.