As we near the end of lockdown restrictions, businesses across the economy are reevaluating how they’d like to work in future.
After a year in which people have been encouraged or required to work from home if they can, the relationship between workers and workplaces has transformed.
Official figures show that 47% of workers across the country have been working from home, and commentators are predicting that many will continue to do so - either in part, or entirely - long after the obligation to do so ends.
There are many considerations which employers and employees need to consider; ranging from the impact different arrangements may have on mental health to productivity and team dynamics, but how will it affect accountancy and business advice services in future?
At Duncan & Toplis, we work with more than 12,000 businesses and individuals with a wide range of services including accountancy, tax and business advice to HR, IT, legal and probate services. Some of our most senior team members share their experiences of how remote working has worked for clients.
“Before the pandemic, regardless of the fact that Duncan & Toplis was able to conduct meetings remotely, and had been doing so for International work for some time, all parties generally preferred an in-person meeting as that has always been 'the tradition”, explains Matthew Appleyard of Duncan & Toplis.
“The pandemic has required both the profession and clients to break from tradition and embrace a remote system model”, he continues.
Not long ago, face-to-face meetings and site visits were a necessity; printed paper documents needed to be examined, shared and signed, and, of course, it was a cultural expectation. But the last few years have seen advisors and clients adopting more and more systems and practices which make face-to-face, in-person working less of a requirement and more of an optional preference.
Back in 2019 when the first phase of Making Tax Digital was soon to come into force, many predicted that it would take years for businesses to adapt to cloud accountancy and remote systems, let alone embrace it. Post-pandemic, remote working has taken over.
As the Making Tax Digital deadlines approached, some clients seized on it as a chance to streamline their services so that more could be achieved in less time through remote accountancy services, but most preferred face-to-face, in person services; even if it was simply for the purpose of looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand.
This, explains Duncan & Toplis director and head of healthcare, Kay Botley, will undoubtedly play a role in determining how the balance is struck between remote and in-person services going forward:
“For our more regular services such as monthly/quarterly bookkeeping, VAT support and computer system training and support, working remotely has proved to be more efficient. There is also the environmental benefit of less travelling. Remote meetings have proved very successful and these will continue for any short ad-hoc meetings client require, making us even more accessible. For annual client meetings, the feedback has been that clients would like these to be in person again when possible. I believe face-to-face meetings do create a stronger bond to secure a long lasting relationship and I look forward to seeing my clients again in person.”
Prior to the pandemic, we, along with many other employers, also embraced remote working as a way to enable more flexible working for our team and to support a healthy working culture and work/life balance. This was very well received by a minority of team members and many more appreciated the opportunity to work remotely if they needed to.
However, as many sectors of the economy have discovered over the last year, not all jobs lend themselves to remote working. While many of our clients have quickly adapted to remote services and they appreciate many elements of it, we understand that most clients would generally prefer more in-person meetings going forward, particularly in sectors like manufacturing where workplaces are essential. And this also suits the way we can support these sectors.
“As head of manufacturing and engineering, I personally prefer to get out and about and have factory tours as this really helps with some of our work on tax projects such as R&D tax credits and capital allowances”, said tax director Kevin Edwards.
Now, we’re all looking toward the future when we’re able to move on from the pandemic, but the question is: When we are able to choose to go back to normality, will we go back to the way things were?
“One thing we’ve learned over the course of the pandemic is that there are advantages and drawbacks of each way of working and so a balance between the two is almost certainly the best way forward,” said director, Tara Bellamy.
“How that balance is positioned depends almost entirely on client choice. While remote working has not worked for some clients, others have loved the remote approach and will choose to keep this way of working.”
“Time availability of the client and the nature of the matters to be discussed play an important role in making this decision”, says head of business services Kayleigh Williams. “It will also be determined by what has happened in their businesses; if their business remains remote, chances are they will interact with their accountant in the same way. I suspect that more traditional businesses will quickly want to move back to face-to-face.”
“Several clients I have dealt with since the pandemic started have said that they would now prefer a video conference over the traditional in-person meeting” said Matthew Appleyard. “It has the benefit of avoiding the need for significant travel and it can therefore allow both parties to 'get on' with the rest of their day shortly afterwards.”
Alistair Main, director and head of assurance, agrees: “It will be completely dependent on the clients’ needs and wants. If they have struggled to work remotely, or even if they just want us to work in-person then we will do so. However, remote working will be offered to the majority of our audit clients and I’m sure many will prefer that going forward.”