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Navigating the risks of Coronavirus - A practical guide for accounting firms

March 13th, 2020 by Carl Reader 7 minutes, 48 seconds read

I think that it’s safe to say that the evolving situation of coronavirus, now that it has developed into a pandemic, is something at the forefront of all of our minds. Whilst we can’t control the spread of the virus, we can all take some practical steps to help ensure our businesses are well placed to continue through the disruption.

I’ll warn you now… this is very much a ‘how to’ blog! Whilst I love daydreaming and providing what others call ‘thought leadership’, the reality of the situation that we find ourselves in is that there are lots of things to do, and not much time to do them. I’ve tried to condense each area into some actionable steps that you can put into place right away, to help you weather the upcoming storm.

Take care of the basics

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to ensure that you have a policy in place to help your team know the steps that they should take insofar as isolation. In the UK, the government have advised that anyone showing symptoms of infection should self-isolate for a period of seven days (as of 12 March). Make sure that you keep an eye on any developments to ensure that you stay on the right side of government guidance, and you may wish to suggest a ‘work from home’ policy in advance of any compulsory isolation requirements that may be mandated in due course.

Ensure that you have the tools to work remotely

Your team might use some cloud packages, such as Xero or Quickbooks, but you may have some legacy server based software. If so, make sure that your team have access to your server through a VPN so that they can log in to any business critical software.

There are also some practical steps that you will need to take now to ensure that you have the right tools to ensure continuity:

  • do your team all have access to a computer so that they can work from home? Check with your team members, and if any are unable to work from home, consider purchasing laptops to allow them to work flexibly, or find an alternative way for them to continue working.
  • think about whether you are able to allow team members to take ‘lockdown leave’ as annual leave if they are not infected, or whether this will disrupt your business operations. For us at d&t, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide continuity of service to our clients if everyone decided to take annual leave at the same time, so we are considering our leave policies so that business can continue as normal.
  • think about how your teams will communicate if they are not able to be in the office. You may well already use a messaging service such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, but if not now is the best time to get the idea of instant messaging in place - it will help improve your internal communications now and in future! Rather than searching for the perfect solution right now, even using Whatsapp will ensure that you can all stay in touch as if you are in the office.
  • think about how your teams will be able to meet with each other, and with clients. Again, this is probably not the time to find the perfect solution, but you will find that clients and team members will be forgiving! If you use Microsoft Teams (part of the Microsoft Office 365 suite), there are video conferencing tools built into the messaging tool - alternatively, you can look at solutions such as Zoom or Skype.

Ensure that your team know how to work from home

This might sound obvious to you as a firm owner, but your team might not have the same ideas as you about what is expected of them as a home worker! If they have spent their entire working life in an office, arriving at 9am after a commute and leaving at the end of the day, they might find the whole process a little overwhelming:

  • set out your expectations of performance over the working from home period. Remind them of their key tasks, and make sure that they are fully comfortable with the tasks that they need to do during any lockdown period.
  • set out expectations of conduct for meetings with team members and clients. Do you want them to dress as they would in the office? Are you happy for them to have video calls in their living room, or would you rather they are sat with a certain backdrop? Please bear in mind that everyone will have their own living environment, and again remember that in these uncertain times, we need to be forgiving as most won’t have a chance to decorate a home office in time for any lockdown period.
  • think about what times you would like your team to be ‘on duty’, whilst being mindful of other commitments. In particular, if schools are shut down over the next few weeks, team members may need flexibility to work around their children - for example, they may wish to make up time in the evening where they can work uninterrupted. Rather than focusing on strict time-based inputs, think about how you can measure their contribution to the business more intelligently.
  • point your team in the direction of any supporting guidance that you can. There are some wonderful blogs and articles about practical tips to help home workers avoid isolation and feel ‘normal’ whilst working at home - a great starting point is https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200312-coronavirus-covid-19-update-work-from-home-in-a-pandemic

Create a plan for managing and leading the team remotely

It is likely that you will need to ramp up your management and leadership efforts over any homeworking period, due to the isolation that team members will feel. My strongest suggestion here is that you should look to systemise your check ins with team members, if you haven’t done already, and increase the frequency compared to how you would in the office.

Whilst you are naturally self motivated - after all, you’re running a practice - your team members may be very unsettled by the change, and might also become easily distracted by the lure of Netflix and their home comforts. If anything, you need to approach this as if you are embedding each team member into a new role, and give them the care and attention that they needed in the early days to get started in the business.

Plan your communications with your clients

It won’t just be you that is unsettled by this! Think about how you will communicate with your clients, and make sure that you let them know how your team will be contactable in the case of any remote working. If you have a VOIP phone system, you may be able to get your office calls diverted; however if not please let your clients know the best way for them to contact you and your team during any work from home period.

This is also a great time to offer any additional support that your clients may need. In particular, your clients will be concerned about their own cashflow, their ability to work, and their ability to collect debts. You may be very well placed to help them implement some simple measures to ensure that their business continues successfully.

Think about your key business risks

Any disruption can lead to a myriad of other issues, and this will be no different. My view is that it will be tougher to manage workflow, as clients may be hesitant to send records to you; and in turn there will be a knock on effect to work completed and your cashflow. If you have any financing needs, make sure that you speak to your bank sooner rather than later - the government have announced that they will support the banks in their lending to businesses, but you need to make sure that you are ahead of this before it becomes a real problem.

You will also need to think about how you will manage the capacity in your business. Are there any tasks that your team can undertake without distraction, should you find that you have more staff members than work to do? Now will be a great time to get on with looking after your number one client… your own firm! Take this opportunity to review the services that you are offering all of your clients, your pricing, and your internal systems.

Use this as a platform for the future

Guess what? A lot of what you will do to protect your business from this disruption could actually set the groundwork for a new way of working.

A few years ago, I had lunch with a partner from a venture capital firm, who had a wonderful turn of phrase - “the office of the mind is the office of the future”.

If we were to look at designing an accounting firm today, it is unlikely that the first thing we’d do is find an office, buy expensive servers, and do all of the things that we did 20 years ago. Instead, we’d start with a blank canvas and design a scalable business that isn’t limited by geography or technology. During the next few weeks and months, we might find that we have some time on our hands. Why not use that time to think about the stuff that is important, but that we never get round to?

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