Back to Work: How Today's Top Firms Are Handling a Return to the Office
August 05 2020 • 6 min read
Today’s audit firms face an unprecedented challenge. How to balance clients’ needs, worker safety, and personal liability in the face of coronavirus? As the country begins to reopen, amid a surge in coronavirus cases, that decision seems more impossible than ever. In talking to our clients, we’ve heard some of the pros and cons of getting back to work and returning to the office. And we’d like to take this opportunity to share our thoughts and foster dialogue as part of the audit community.
It feels hard because it is
To reopen or not to reopen? It’s the question on everybody’s mind. And while nobody has the “right” answer, one thing we’ve heard consistently: our clients are eager to make a decision either way. Which makes sense! As corporate leaders, they’re used to making difficult decisions and accepting the outcomes, whatever they may be.
But no matter how you cut it, reopening during a pandemic is complicated. After all, it goes way beyond unlocking the door and turning the lights back on. Not only do you have to consider constantly changing federal, state, and local regulations. You also have to account for the health and well-being of your employees—both physical and psychological.
What’s on the line?
Two things have come up in nearly every conversation: concerns about potential litigation if someone in the office gets sick and the sheer cost of cleaning.
First, the issue of litigation. If you return to the office and an employee gets sick, can you be held legally accountable? The short answer: no. While healthcare providers have to adhere to federal health and safety regulations, other businesses are not obligated to do so. And, as USA Today reports, “sick employees who seek damages, typically through worker’s compensation, must prove that they contracted the virus at work – an especially thorny challenge.” Still, the more safeguards you put in place, the stronger your case will be should an employee file a lawsuit.
Which brings us to the cost and benefits of cleaning. Some of our clients are being quoted $5 per square foot for coronavirus-related cleaning services. If you’re a big firm in a large, shared office building, that could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars rather quickly. We recommend weighing these potential costs against the benefits of returning to the office before making a decision either way.
On the other hand, some firms we’ve spoken to operate in a space that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic at all. If you’re still going about business as usual, you may have a competitive edge against firms who have had their workspace (and workflow) disrupted. Alternately, if you’ve been forced to operate remotely, you’ll want to keep in mind that some of your competitors might not be equally disrupted. Whatever your situation, seeing the big picture can help you make an informed decision about whether or not to return to the office.
A few more things to consider
The ongoing pandemic has been trying for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional. So much so that two-thirds of accounting firms surveyed by Accounting Today’s parent company, Arizent, noted a drop in staff productivity. For some, this drop was due to limited remote capabilities. In other words, teams were suddenly working from home, many of them without the proper tools.
Is your space well-equipped for social distancing?
Please don’t call us out for being obvious. But it’s easier to practice social distancing in some spaces than others. If you’ve got an airy, open space with good circulation and plenty of space between desks you’ll be better equipped for reopening than if you have a small space where everybody has to dance around each other.
You’ll also need to think outside the walls of your own office. How is your building set up? Will your employees have to walk through a lobby or use an elevator where social distancing isn’t possible? Will they have to ride a crowded subway to get to the office? Each of these exposure points ups the risk that someone in your office will contract and potentially spread COVID-19.
Can your team work just as effectively from home?
There's no need to get "back to work" if you've been working this whole time. Take an honest moment to reflect on this idea. Are there actual, tangible benefits to returning to the office? Or are you just eager to return to “business as usual?” If you’re still able to meet your clients’ needs through a tech-powered remote team, why stop? You may want to continue working virtually until cases are on a downward trend.
Of course, if you’re writing the rent checks for your office space, this may be a bitter pill to swallow. But we can guarantee that it’ll cost you less in the long run than losing your employees’ trust or dealing with an in-office outbreak.
Are your employees ready for the transition?
Reopening the office won’t help if your staff doesn’t feel comfortable or safe in that work environment. According to a recent article by the Journal of Accountancy, many firms found that their employees won’t feel comfortable returning to the office, even after stay-at-home orders have lifted. As a result, they’re offering flex hours, rotating in-office shifts, or asking employees to return to the office on a person-by-person basis.
Is reopening your office the best way to meet your clients’ needs?
Perhaps the most critical question you can ask at this time. What will having your team back in the office add to the client experience? Accounting is, at its heart, a people business. While you can talk about business during an online meeting, it may be challenging to build a personal relationship from a distance.
There are alternatives to meeting face-to-face when it comes to relationship building. According to the Journal of Accountancy, some firms include their clients in virtual happy hours. Others recommend increasing the frequency of video meetings to maintain that personal connection. Of course, just like your employees, no two clients will have the same response to COVID-19 and visiting your office. To make the most informed decision, we recommend asking them directly how they’d prefer to interact with you and your team.
If you feel it’s time to reopen, don’t forget to:
Have a reopening plan
Consider your business hours, how many people you’ll allow in the office at any given time, where and how you’ll meet with clients, and how you’ll enforce social distancing guidelines. Will employees be required to wear masks while working? Will the firm cover the cost of coronavirus testing?And will you require regular temperature checks or oxygen-saturation testing at the office? And how will your cleaning and sanitation protocols differ from pre-COVID?
Consider alternatives to working Monday-Friday, 9-5
Just because you reopen your office doesn’t mean you need to go back to business as usual. How else could you structure your workday to limit potential exposure and still optimize your workflow?
For Aronson LLC, the solution is staggered attendance. “[W]ith one team working in the office Monday, Wednesday, and every other Friday and the other working Tuesday, Thursday, and the alternate Fridays,” they’re able to get everybody back into the office while still practicing social distancing. Other options include flex shifts, half days, or only opening the office for client meetings.
Tap into every available resource
Though you’re tasked with deciding when and how to reopen your office, you don’t have to decide alone. There’s no shortage of guidance available if you know where to look. For example, the Maryland Association of CPAs has curated a back-to-work guide that factors in local, state, and federal sources to help firms reopen in a safe and socially responsible manner. The document, “Reopening the Profession: An Accounting and Finance Professional’s Guide to Safe Work in a COVID-19 World” is available for free here.
Remember that Makosi is always here to help you get back to work
In the end, reopening your office is a deeply personal decision that can’t be rushed. We’ve been consistently impressed with the level of care, thoughtfulness, and professionalism we’ve seen during conversations with our clients. And we’re glad to be part of the ongoing dialogue as this industry moves forward together. Whether you decide to reopen your doors, keep your team remote, or find some hybrid between the two, Makosi is here to help. Contact us to learn more about how our on-demand and virtual teams can help you manage your workflow—wherever you are.