Is there a silver lining to the Covid-19 cloud?

First of all, my deepest condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one to Corona Virus. There have been countless tragic stories related to the pandemic and I pray a cure or vaccine is found in the very near future. My thoughts also go out to those businesses that have been adversely affected by lockdown or the new social distancing measures as well as those that have slipped through the government support net.

Despite all of the negative connotations, some businesses are finding positives from the experience of the last few months and I will share some of these with you, starting with my own.

As a business, we believed our IT systems were robust and would allow home working but apart from the odd day here and there by a low number of users we’d never actually stress tested the IT. In the run up to lockdown we started a rota system whereby half the team worked from home so that we could iron out any niggles in readiness for the impending full lockdown. When this did happen there were still issues (mainly centred around internet connectivity) but we now know all the team can work remotely – without Covid we’d still be wondering.

Another tangible we’ve benefited from is making a further step towards being fully paperless. Our business is 10 years old and when we set up back in February 2010 we made a decision to be cloud based and to scan files (rather than filing hard copies) to facilitate remote working. We made the decision to use paper-based files until each project was completed as that what everyone was used to but remote working has encouraged us to dispense with the paper so all our accounts and tax files are now digital. We’ve probably moved from 80% paperless to 99%, the final 1% being the odd client that still uses manual records. The transition to 100% should happen when Making Tax Digital is rolled out to all tax payers in the near future (or, God forbid, we ever go into a FULL lockdown).

As a modern, fresh thinking firm, we’ve always embraced modern technology. We were the first independent accountancy firm in our region to use cloud technology, build an app and move over to cloud accounting. Moving meetings onto a video / virtual basis was proving a challenge though as some of our clients were unfamiliar with the technology or simply preferred a face to meeting. It seems every man and his uncle is now using Zoom, Teams, Facetime or Skype so moving all of our meetings onto these platforms has proved easy and welcomed by most of our clients. This has really benefited our business for several reasons:

  • No wasted travel time
  • No late arrivals due to traffic jams
  • More focussed meetings (no more making sure someone is on the correct page of the accounts!)
  • Reduced costs – no mileage allowances or train fares to pay
  • Facility to record meetings for future reference

As our team is now spread across East Yorkshire one of the concerns was how do managers keep in touch with their teams and how do we ensure trainees and new recruits are properly supervised? From an early stage we set up regular Zoom catchups, created Whats App groups where team members can ask for technical help and we moved our senior team drop in sessions on line. The lines of communication are probably stronger than they’ve ever been as previously they were less formal, irregular and would sometimes rely on a chat over the water cooler.

We’re now beginning the process of slowly returning some of the team back to the office (those without ideal set ups at home) and thoughts will undoubtedly turn to long term home working. We surveyed the team at the start of lockdown to see how they were finding things and I was surprised by the number that said they were looking forward to a return to the office and how few wished to stay as a full-time home worker. It may be that now lockdown restrictions are easing and the team are starting to see friends and family again we get a different answer next time but I know we’re not the only business questioning whether the expense of running an office ( rent or mortgage, rates, furniture, cleaning, phones, internet, security, repairs, insurance, health and safety etc etc ) , or such a large office, is necessary. Maybe this will be the biggest, long term, tangible benefit of Covid?

In terms of feedback from clients, many in the service sector are echoing the above but I’m also hearing stories along these lines:

Switching sales to on line has meant a thorough review and improvement of websites that the business owner has been putting off for some time;

Using the quiet period to recharge the batteries, improve their health and be in a better place to face the challenges ahead;

Identifying that many consumers are bored and have more spare cash than ever before so mailing customer lists to try and up or cross sell products;

Whilst the offices are empty use the opportunity to make improvements, repairs or redecorate;

Increased sales midweek due to new takeaway or delivery initiatives may be continued post Covid.

Good entrepreneurs will always make the best of a bad situation and it’s been so inspiring seeing how our clients (and other business owners across the UK) have adapted their businesses to not only survive but to actually thrive. This positive, never say die attitude will be invaluable over the coming months.

Andy Steele

Director – 360, Chartered Accountants

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