Hybrid working: a game changer for the accountancy profession?

In business, change is the only true constant. From tackling business disruption and economic instability to implementing new ways of working, virtually all business sectors are dealing with huge change, much of it driven by new technologies. Accounting is no exception.

In recent years traditional accounting firms have been slow to embrace technologies such as advanced analytics and process automation. Now, many firms are evolving their practices in line with the digital trends seen in other areas of the commercial world, enabling accountants to perform in more innovative and more productive ways, increasingly facilitated by the adoption of hybrid working.

A combination of on-premises-based and virtual working, hybrid working has already been implemented by corporates all over the world. With greater flexibility, a better work-life balance, and more time for focusing on their self-development, home-based employees were understandably reluctant to return to the office full-time. Hybrid working was the compromise, and the reason for its widespread adoption has been the talent crisis.

Recent months have seen a wave of resignations across several industry sectors in the U.S. and around the world, with those facing the highest levels of pressure and demand during the pandemic, including healthcare, technology, financial services and accounting, among the hardest hit.

It’s no surprise then to see a growing number of accounting firms adapt their working practices to meet the expectations of the talent they rely on. A recent report by QX Accounting Services revealed that over 77% of accounting professionals want to work in a hybrid manner.

Depending on who they work for, some have the option to work fully remotely. In a departure from the accounting industry’s traditional culture of long hours in the office, in September last yearPwC introduced a work-anywhere policy for its 55,000 U.S. employees, allowing them to choose an all-virtual work option in a bid to keep and attract workers. Other major accounting firms, such as KPMG and Deloitte, have also been giving employees more choices to work remotely in the wake of the pandemic.

However, the virtual or remote element of hybrid work does pose some challenges to accounting teams, while the way that accountants split their time between home office, main office and client sites will impact the way they deliver their services.

Digital solutions will play a key role in maintaining the quality of service delivered, and will ultimately determine the success of a hybrid working arrangement. Delivery of payroll services, for example, will benefit from using cloud-based technology that allows accountants to access payroll data securely from different locations.

Problems could arise with internal communications between management and staff working in different locations. Good communication is key to monitoring wellbeing, recognising achievements, and supporting professional development. Poor communication can result in frustrated and demoralised employees. The use of digital communication platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom for video meetings, and Slack for real-time chat between colleagues, can address communication gaps

Another logistical headache for accounting firms is ensuring that staff are spending time in the office with the colleagues that they need to work with collaboratively. Some hybrid models are so flexible that people could go weeks without a face-to-face meeting with essential colleagues. Accountancy firm BDO told its staff to decide for themselves when to come to the office after the pandemic. The UK’s fifth-largest accountant, which employs around 5,500 people, asked staff to work wherever was most productive, depending on the task they were doing. In most cases, this will be a mixture of working at home, in the office and at client sites. In granting that level of autonomy, thought needs to be given to maintaining the right balance and structure of the hybrid options.

The flexible nature of hybrid working could also give rise to outsourcing trends. Many accountancy firms already use a business telephone answering service to free up the accountants’ time to focus on the work at hand. With a more disparate workforce, reliable call-handling services and live chat facilities will become even more important to client relationships. As workforces become more fluid and more flexible in terms of their location, outsourcing vital lines of communication with potential and existing clients to a specialist company could be crucial to maintaining consistent levels of customer service.

Underpinning the success of accounting firms is effective talent management, and in the hybrid working scenario, its significance has increased dramatically, especially when it comes to hiring new talent. In navigating the recruitment landscape during the pandemic, the shift to virtual, remote processes presented fresh opportunities for new accounting graduate talent. In dispensing with the geographic boundaries that restricted access to untapped sources of talent, the technology that enables the hybrid model has also widened the talent pool.

Nevertheless, in a hybrid model, accounting practices must adapt their talent management strategies with the provision of high-quality virtual learning and development sessions, seminars, and workshops that enable accountants to stay updated with the changing industry trends.

The adoption of new technology to support the transition to hybrid working across the profession is also impacting how accountants see their work evolving over the coming years. Digital upskilling will be pivotal to their future success. Research from FreeAgent found that a third (33%) of respondents thought that gaining an understanding of newer technologies is the most important factor for future-proofing the role of the accountant, while 56% said that fully understanding new app integrations and mobile technology will be essential for accountants to achieve within the next five years.

Like all industry sectors, in challenging times accounting has to be flexible and able to adapt to change. Through a digitally-enabled hybrid approach to working accounting firms can provide the flexibility that accounting professionals value, and enables them to perform at their best. The challenge now for these firms is creating the right strategy to make hybrid working successful.