The View from up Here…
The Future of Work
Covid 19 has been a game changer for the tax profession, it has speeded up the adoption of agile working by accountancy firms, revolutionised the use of online systems for meetings as well as client work and led professional bodies including the Association of Tax Technicians and the Chartered Institute of Taxation to hold all their examinations on line. It has opened up the employment market allowing tax specialists to work remotely and as such live further away from their office. At the same time it has highlighted inequalities amongst the sexes over who provides child care when nurseries and schools are shut.
With the UK government trying to return things to a new normal and announcing August 19th 2021 as the new ‘Freedom Day’ and July 19th as an end to many mandatory Covid restrictions, I have been pondering which of the changes that Covid 19 has prompted are here to stay.
Home Working Vs the Office
I personally think that at least some measure of home working is here to stay. We’ve had the ‘Pandora’s Box’ moment and there is no shutting the monsters and the hope back in. Some firms have already decided to cut the size of their office space (one Top 20 firm is cutting theirs by half) and offer staff a hugely flexible working pattern. Others are asking staff to in future be in the office from anything from 1 day a week to 60% of the working week. A break from commuting has made many employees realise that they don’t want to go back to daily traffic jams, crowded tubes and train journeys and employers not offering at least part remote working are already seeing staff leaving to join competitors.
As a self-confessed extrovert who has always loved meeting clients and candidates in person and who would happily go to ‘the opening of an envelope’ if it included a canape and glass of wine, I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed working from home. As long as I can still see people on Zoom and Teams and talk to people by phone, I’ve found I’m happy to swop the commute. It has allowed me to sleep in later, spend quality time with my dog (and the family!) and get more of a work life balance.
Conversely, I can see however that online working can create its own problems; firms are trying to work out how to maintain an appropriate culture, if people aren’t in an office all together. This is particularly important when training new staff – a huge part of accountancy firm and law firm training comes in a part by ‘osmosis’ from sitting near more senior colleagues and being able to ask them questions. Firms have got around this out of necessity by putting in systems such as ‘buddies’ and individual mentors or organising daily and weekly on-line update calls with trainees. It does mean that 2020’s crop of school leavers and graduates are having a very different experience of a training contract. I do feel they are missing out on the social side of joining a firm and developing life long friendships with other trainees which are made in late night sessions meeting deadlines, studying together or travelling to training courses together. This is where in person team building events will become important such as social events for trainees. I’ve been impressed by the range of quizzes and socials accountancy firms have managed online but I do think there is a place for in person events. I also very aware that I’m in the comfortable position of living in a house with its own office and a large garden and plenty of space, whereas many trainees are in inner city flats, house shares or living with parents and going to the office can be something of an escape. So how people feel about home working is also irrevocably tied in with their own home life.
Many firms worry about how to monitor their workforce – though most of my professional services clients have been pleasantly surprised by how diligent their teams have been. Proving the old adage that if you treat people as grown ups they tend to react accordingly.
Improvements in Dealing with Mental Health at Work
I read a horrifying statistic last week, that it has been have found that 34% of people who have had Covid19 have within 6 months has a mental health or neurological issue. In fact the medical profession is now considering Covid to be a brain disease rather than a respiratory one*. With this in mind I think it is lucky that the UK tax profession has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of how it deals with mental health. The Big 4 and Top 20 firms have led the way by creating a culture of openness and encouraging early intervention to remove the stigma attached to mental ill health. They have done this in part by allowing senior staff including partners to blog about their own experiences and struggles. This has flown in the face of the traditional ‘work hard, play hard and show no weakness’ culture.
Changes in Office/Work Culture
When writing this it seems impossible for some things to return to how they were pre-March 2019. In particular the old rituals of holding client meetings; from the bowls of sweets in reception to the greeting of clients with a handshake, sharing a crowded lift as you bought them up to your office floor, taking their coat and bag and hanging them up for them, leading them through an office and sitting across from them or next to them and passing them cups of tea or coffee. Suddenly each of these steps feels like it needs its own risk assessment and a hand sanitising regime. I think it will be a very long time before I’m happy to share a lift with someone without wearing a face mask.
Whilst some clients are already asking for face to face meetings, most seem to appreciate the time saving involved in moving an event to Teams or Zoom.
It often takes dramatic events to change work practices, I’ve been reading Monica Dickens’ autobiographical work ‘One Pair of Feet’ which highlights how woman’s role in the work place was changed by World War II. In many ways a global pandemic like Covid acts as a catalyst for change as professions adapt to enable them to continue.
Georgiana Head is a Director at Georgiana Head Recruitment specialising in recruiting tax professionals. She trained in tax and is an ATT Council Member. In her spare time she is a school governor. firstname.lastname@example.org