The Reality of Virtual Workers; An Interview with UK Accountants, Richard Place Dobson
Technology has given rise to many possibilities for digital business; the global market, the paperless office, and the virtual worker to name but a few. But are these simply aspirations for SMEs or are they a reality already?
Well, UK accountancy practice, Richard Place Dobson has long since embraced the paperless office and for the past three months one of their senior practice accountants, Jennifer Watson, has worked for this UK firm from her home in the south-east of Ireland. This interview looks at how virtual working actually works, both from the perspective of the employer and the employee.
The New World of Work
In 2011, Microsoft commissioned a study which interviewed 1,500 workers across 15 European countries on their attitudes towards flexible working. This study led Microsoft to develop their thinking on the workplace of the future, entitled “The New World of Work.
In practical terms, Microsoft believes that we are moving very quickly from flexible working to a New World of Work, in which redesigned offices and the latest technology facilitate even greater flexibility. This makes our working lives easier and more manageable. This New World of Work as envisaged by Microsoft is about people, places and technology and we look at how this all pans out in real life in the interview below.
First, I interviewed Philip Hayden, a Director of Richard Place Dobson.
Tell me a little bit about the practice, Philip.
We are located in Crawley, West Sussex in England. The firm has four directors and a further twenty-four employees. Our services are fairly typical for an accountancy firm in general practice. We offer services in relation to accounts, audit, tax, bookkeeping, payroll, start-ups, business plans and charities. Our clients are mainly in the areas of engineering, construction, professional services and consultants. While our services are typical, we like to think that we offer a more caring and personal service to our clients.
Is your accounts production and tax calculation software based in the cloud?
All of our software is server based, except Microsoft Outlook, which is cloud based. Standard software packages are used for corporation tax, personal tax, accounts preparation, bookkeeping, payroll, document management, and audit as well as our own time recording. We consider ourselves a paperless office, so accounts working papers are computerised as well. We can link from our own working papers right back into client PDF documents. Our working papers are standardised templates, so it streamlines the accounts preparation process and provides a really good audit trail. This means we can easily see where we derived our figures from.
How did Jennifer come to work for you from Ireland?
Jennifer is Irish and had trained and worked in Ireland before she starting working for us in 2010. She was working with us, for one year, when she came and told us that she had to move back to Ireland for personal reasons.
We didn’t want to lose her, and she didn’t particularly want to leave us, so we asked her if she would like to become a virtual worker, and work from her home in Ireland. Jennifer would have spent a lot of time in her first year here being trained in our work flow system as well as in the software that we use, and of course, she had to learn about the UK taxation system, which differs significantly from the Irish system. It’s a highly skilled job, and both the firm and our employees invest considerable time and effort into being trained to simply do the job well.
What were the practicalities of setting Jennifer up to work remotely from Ireland?
We set her up with a computer, printer and scanner to take home and we remoted this to her original machine here, (which we keep running in our communications room). She can access her machine here in the same way that she could when she was here and because all our files are computer based she can access anything on the system as before. If we need to send information to her, (documents or papers of any kind), these are scanned and sent by email.
How do you keep in touch with Jennifer?
Apart from email, we use Skype with video so that she can have a face to face conversation with anyone here to discuss any aspects of her work or about her clients. We also set up a link from our phone system so that when clients call and want to speak to Jennifer they can be put straight through to her machine in Ireland via Skype.
Jennifer is also able to be present, (via Skype), at our monthly team meetings.
Does Jennifer ever come into the office in the UK?
Jennifer will come over to do her CPD studies on average not more than once a month so will call into the office then. She worked at the office last week to deal with some special work and will be coming over again shortly to help with a special project for a client.
How do you think the virtual working arrangement is working out?
This was a new venture for us but so far seems to be working very well and is a lot better than having to recruit someone else, paying agency fees and a considerable investment of time and money for training. Small issues crop up from time to time but so far nothing we can’t deal with.
Have you had virtual workers in the past, and if so, what is different this time?
Four or five of our workers have continual remote access so they can work from home if need be during busy periods i.e. currently during the tax season or when the weather is particularly bad e.g. last year when we had lots of snow and they could not otherwise get to the office. Jennifer is the first person we have had work permanently from home – because of the remoteness.
Some of our other UK based staff can access their desktop machines remotely from home if the need arises, which has proved useful at very busy times, and when they have been marooned at home in the snow. This didn’t take much to set up and can usually be done remotely. One key person was stuck at home during a very busy period without remote access but we were able to get him up and running within an hour or so. Log in is via a secure Virtual Private Network, (VPN), link.
Has Jennifer had to change her client portfolio to facilitate this new working arrangement?
It has been necessary to make minor changes but she mainly works on the same clients.
Are your clients aware of the arrangement and if so, what has their reaction been?
We have decided not to make any announcement to our clients. Not that it needs to be a secret but there is basically no difference to the way the service is provided.
How can a virtual worker maintain a career path to attain promotion?
We haven’t got that far yet.
Can you tell us what the main advantages of virtual workers are for your firm?
In this case it saved having to recruit, but it also saves office space, which is at a premium.
Would you consider extending the virtual workforce in the future?
Yes, with the right person.
What are the disadvantages?
There don’t seem to be many. Obviously it’s easier if someone can be physically present sometimes but I am not aware of any frustrations here. You need to have the infrastructure and without a “paperless office” it would be much harder to implement.
Next, I interviewed Jennifer Watson, who is working remotely from Ireland for UK accountants, Richard Place Dobson. [Disclosure: Jennifer is my niece].
Have you got a work routine?
Yes. My working hours are the exact same as when I was in the office, I have an hour for lunch. One of the main reasons for this is so that it doesn’t affect the client or my colleagues when they want to contact me.
Do you find it difficult to separate your life from your work now that you work from home?
It was a bit strange at first, but now I have set up a room in my house purely as my office which helps keep my home life separate.
What are the main challenges that you face, now that you are not in an office with your colleagues?
I don’t really see any challenge to not being in the office. I can have face to face contact with my colleagues through Skype; my work is scanned to me, (which was usually the case when I was in the office). If I have to meet with clients, these can be scheduled for when I am back in the office each month.
What effect does remote working have on your productivity?
Other than the initial set up time which was involved, the only effect has been positive. I actually find my productivity has gone up as I don’t have any of the general office distractions.
Does the equipment or your broadband ever let you down, and how does it affect your work?
So far my equipment has not let me down. If for example I have a power cut, I will make up my hours once it comes back on, (what-ever the time).
Does the constant travel between England and Ireland pose any challenges?
I go over to the office once a month. I usually travel very early in the morning or late at night, in order that I don’t miss any working hours. The travel hours are quiet long, however my normal commute to work is quiet short, (up the stairs!), and so it balances out really.
Jennifer, I know that you were delighted to be able to continue with your current job in the UK even though you had to return to Ireland to live. Three months on, how are things going for you as a remote worker?
I love it. It was a bit strange at first being out of the office, but now that I have gotten used to it it couldn’t be better. I really appreciate what Richard Place Dobson has done for me. I enjoy working with them and I hope I can be a great asset for them. Above all, it has provided me with a job that doesn’t depend on the Irish economy!
Would you recommend to others to consider remote or virtual work?
Yes definitely. It’s a great way for firms to save on day to day office costs (e.g. building insurance or rent), while increasing productivity of the worker. Also it might help with the recruitment of staff, in that you could look outside your area and potential staff will not have to relocate.
Thanks to Philip and Jennifer for sharing their real-life experience of the virtual workforce. Virtual working seems to be worthwhile from both the perspective of employee and employer, where a role lends itself to that. One might not expect an accountancy practice, a business type which is usually seen as conservative, to use virtual working successfully. Yet, it makes perfect sense to do so, at least in this case.
What do you think? Have you experience of or an opinion on virtual working?