We're at a turning point in our recovery from the pandemic. Many organisations are starting to reduce the level of remote working and are slowly bringing more employees back into the office. But winter is approaching and Covid levels are continuing to rise. So, a real focus on health & safety procedures will be needed to guarantee a safe return to your firm’s premises.

As a partner in the firm, you may well be ready to go back to, or further encourage, in-person working.Having your team in the office a lot more regularly might be the scenario you consider best for the firm. But you also need to consider how your employees feel about this. They may well have concerns about returning to the office and the possible implications for their safety. Or, they could feel enormous benefits from more flexible working.

In this article, we’ve summarised the main considerations and outlined five specific incentives that will make office work a more palatable option for your team.

Choosing the right time to return to the office

It’s been a tough time for the accounting industry over the pandemic. Firms have had to quickly get up to speed with cloud systems, remote working and video-based client and team meetings. And the level of client work around cash flow management, funding advice and furlough applications went stratospheric, making it a busy and stressful period for most practitioners.

But the silver lining to this particular pandemic cloud is that remote working has now become a practical reality. Lockdown and enforced business closures may have created the situation, but it has had some positive outcomes. Firms found ways to innovate, and have even managed to improve their client relationships in some instances. And many practices have become more tech savvy and resilient due to this Covid experience – that’s something that not every employee is going to want to give up completely.

To decide if now is a good time for a return to the office, it’s worth having a strategy meeting with your other partners if you haven’t already. Talk through the situation in the current context and see if there’s a consensus to be found.

Questions to mull over include:

  • Is a full return to the office currently on your agenda? And, if so, is the whole partnership group in agreement that this is the right course of action?
  • Are there tangible benefits to being in the office? Would in-person working help to improve communication, collaboration and peer-to-peer learning?
  • Could you continue to run a remote practice? If you’re managing to effectively run the firm remotely, without any issues, is there a valid reason for stopping this?
  • Would hybrid working be a good compromise? Could a flexible mix of office-based, client-based and home-based working be the answer to this quandary?
  • Are your staff eager to be back at their desks? Employees may well be enjoying the greater flexibility, productivity and improved work/life balance of working from home.
  • Are clients clamouring for office meetings? Do clients want to go back to office meetings at your premises? Or is your client base still being cautious around 1-2-1 contact and office visits?

Five tips for returning to the office

There’s no right or wrong answer to the ‘Should we go back to the office?’ conundrum. The answer comes down to your firm’s particular situation, the feedback from your employees and the needs and wishes of your regular client base.

But if you're adamant that getting back to the office is of benefit, we've got five tips to help you bring your practice team back to the workplace effectively.

  1. Offer a safe environment to work in – keeping you and your staff safe has to be the number one priority. If you can offer a working environment that employees are comfortable with, this makes the whole process less difficult. Read the latest government guidance and put sensible measures in place. Keep hand sanitiser at all main entrances, at work stations and in meeting rooms or other communal areas. Ask staff to take regular lateral flow tests and take temperatures on arrival. Maintain good ventilation in the office and try to encourage good use of space and distancing.
  2. Listen to employees’ concerns – your workforce needs to be on board with a partial or full return to the office. So it’s vital to gauge their opinions right from the start. Think about forming an internal committee to talk through worries and discuss your return to work checklist. This keeps everyone in the loop and provides a forum for people to voice concerns. If your staff feel involved, the outcome will be more positive.
  3. A warm welcome for everyone – employees are trusting you to look after their health. So, giving staff the warmest possible welcome is one way to make the return more palatable. Offer perks like free barista coffee and snacks, or arrange after-work social events for the whole team. The key is to make the office a welcoming option after so many months of working from home.
  4. Gauge how other businesses are reacting – talk to other business owners and see what their plan of action is for returning to the workplace. Listening to other accounting firms, professional services providers and (importantly) your own clients will be helpful. There are no hard and fast rules, so it’s sensible to compare notes and see what the consensus is regarding a full return. This can help to define your staff guidance, your office safety procedures and the way you communicate this to staff.
  5. Embrace hybrid working – bringing staff back by offering a mix of remote and office work is one option. This kind of hybrid working is proving to be popular and offers the benefits of in-person working for some of the week. Set a standard number of hours that employees are expected to be in the office, but give them the flexibility around when and how they make up this time. Allowing employees to manage their hours and their work location makes them feel more empowered and improves their work/life balance.

Follow the best path for the firm and your staff

Each accounting firm will have its own standpoint when it comes to a return to the office. We believe the key is to be transparent, to get your employees involved in the decision-making and to do your utmost to provide a healthy, safe and well-regulated work environment.

Stable, long-term recovery will be your clients’ key goal for 2022. So, it’s up to you and your partner group to decide which workplace strategy will allow you to deliver this best. You may see remote working and being an office-less practice as the way forward. You may decide that having the whole team present in one office is the best solution. Or you may evolve towards some form of hybrid working, making the best of both worlds.

The choice is yours, and your chosen route will no doubt evolve over 2022 as the situation changes and new options and opportunities present themselves.