Do Accounting Firms Need an Office Anymore?

by Oriana Gorrin

Accounting experts Heather Smith, Kyelie Baxter, Sarah Lawrance and Will Farnell discuss whether accounting firms need an office in modern times,

In this challenging environment filled with uncertainty, the discussion around the future of the workplace is more relevant than ever. When facing this return to the office, many things have changed. Accounting firms are also adjusting to new regulations and arrangements. Sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with reluctance. To compound this, the accounting profession has a recruiting crisis, with a shortage of qualified talent.

However, this new reality offers the perfect opportunity to reimagine how the new office could look like. Should accounting firms rethink the need for a physical office?Remote Workforce, Hybrid Model or In-office Model?

When consulting current work status and desired work status interactive polls, many consultants who are already back in the office unanimously agree to go ahead with a full-hybrid or remote work model. (1) What are the reasons behind this mindset?

Kyelie Baxter, Founder and Managing Partner at IQ Accountants, says, "this is a topical conversation piece right now". Indeed, flexibility and productivity in the future of the workforce continue to be a hot topic these days.Futuristic as this seems, a full-remote approach has been more common than expected, and it's been exacerbated by this pandemic crisis. Fostering a remote approach has been the only balanced option for some long-time accountants.

That's the case of Heather Smith, Founder of Anise Consulting, who is advocating for cloud-first practices. Having a wealth of experience of remote work at her back, Heather says, "I have a micro-office that fits in my handbag and my clients can be anywhere. I can be anywhere. I meet people in my office and I go on extended worcations".Hello, hybrid. Goodbye, monotony. For those embracing and adapting a hybrid model, timing has been crucial too.

Will Farnell, Founder at Farnell Clarke, tested the waters before the pandemic's first outbreak. Nevertheless, he has continued to successfully invest in a hybrid model within his practice.When acknowledging the main benefits of his working model, Will affirms that "flexibility is key". Most of his young team members have chosen to remain working in-office prioritising social interactions and having a more collaborative approach.

Having to adapt to navigate the new pandemic panorama quickly, many firms continue to. Will said that using messaging apps, combined with weekly online meetings, helped them better cope with workload transitions.If there's something that this pandemic has taught us is how essential it is to invest in careful planning with suitable timing and meaningful technology for the continuity of business.

That's why a future-proof accounting firm has to start by evaluating and reflecting on distributed work and its effect on teams .In this sense, Sarah Lawrance, Founder at Hot Toast, states that her team is distributed across Australia, operating from offices and homes. Sarah's hybrid workforce model was based on adaptability and versatility as well. Since her early consultancy days, it was apparent she wanted to invest in work-life balance. So naturally, her current team also gravitates around the same needs.

So, when the pandemic hit, Sarah's company model immediately knew how to conform to the new reality. Indeed, the main benefit she has harvested is balance. As she confirms, the best part of this process has been "work-life balance, as long as you're clear and put some rules in place around working time so work-life balance happens. Great work and a great team because that's what we all want out of life. And it just works for us."

The Uncertain Aspects of Working Out of the Office

However, many issues have arisen from staff working out of the office as well. In this sense, Will stated that the "team's apprentices and trainees might be lacking enrichment from the unstructured learning spaces". Will also shares that "it's vital to reflect and know what type of Firm you are" before making a bold move.Among the top considerations to overcome when going fully remote or hybrid, Heather highlights "setting up a communication framework and understanding how they will be dealing and interacting with clients."On top of that, Sarah adds that clients also play a significant role in shaping the Firms' identities and work models. As she said, "we make sure we take that extra step with them and involve ourselves in their culture". Also, promoting a collaborative approach with shared databases and interactive Wiki's has facilitated the workflow and the learning opportunities of her team.As Sarah has also stated before in a recent CPA article, the new look of workplace dress codes, "everything we do, from the adoption of technology to how we talk to our clients, to how we present ourselves, creates a particular perception. It is how we want to come across to you."What's also important in this working scenario is the significance of culture. Will clarifies that the role of culture "is absolutely fundamentally important to this," but he also adds that "firms and any business have to go beyond and create personality". For him, it's the office the space to create and maintain "this blend of brand's culture and firm's personality."

What's the Tech Stack for a Hybrid Model?

In alphabetical order, here are some of the tech stacks that are used in a Hybrid practice.

  • Calendar management: Calendly
  • Communications: Slack or Microsoft Teams
  • Cyber Security: Practice Protect
  • Email accessible anywhere: GSuite Gmail or Microsoft Outlook
  • Full health check of data: XBert
  • Online face to face meetings: Zoom
  • Receipt scanning solution: Dext, LightYear, Entryless
  • Single ledger accounting solutions: Xero, QBO
  • Tracking time: MinuteDock
  • Training and guidance videos: Loom

There are additional tools available, depending on the needs of the practice. However, this is a good solid start.

What's the Real Future of the Office?

The lessons of this pandemic have taught us to prioritise what's most important: strategic communication, more versatile work models, better work-life balance, and an improved company's culture highlighting its people. Among the main trends that will drive the new workplace reality of accounting firms we find:

  • Reevaluating the old ways, making room for the new.
  • Attracting and retaining like-minded staff by taking on the right approach and having a well-defined deliberate working strategy.
  • Investing more in non-negotiables such as relevant data protection and password software.
  • Prioritising the work-life balance and the quality over other factors.
  • Constructing, shaping, and maintaining firms identities and their culture through effective comms and active collaborative workflows.

Gone are the days filled with back-to-back meetings and watercooler conversations. But how do we maintain the momentum at the workplace? In this ever-changing reality, we'll need to continue operating under a flexible mindset. And, while we continue learning, let's welcome and enjoy the many freedoms of the reality of the new office.(1) Polls were run during the webinar.

This topic was discussed in the last one of the Accounting and Financial Hong Kong 2021 sessions, as part of the Digital Practice Channel focused on the future of the Accounting Firms. The conference was organised by Terrapin, a leading global events company promoting innovation and technology The full webinar can be listened to on the Cloud Stories podcast.

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