Back to the Future: Hybrid Auditing, the Best of all Worlds?
Just three years ago, as chair of a local board, I scandalously suggested that we should conduct at least some of our meetings remotely. A number of our members were travelling two hours each way to attend a ninety-minute traditional round table session, incurring costs and dead travel time. Unsurprisingly, attendance was patchy which, in turn, impacted the diversity of active participants contributing to discussions over the year. Way back in 2019 my intrepid proposal was deemed unacceptable by virtue of the unreliability of virtual platforms, the dearth of warm networking opportunity and the perceived peril of risking trust and confidentiality in the absence of physical eyeballing.
And then the pandemic happened…
The adjustment to online boards was instant, seamless, and highly efficient. None of the fears materialised, yes, we did miss our ‘water cooler’ networking moments but the discussion still flowed, attendance was off the scale (in a positive way!) and contributions were proffered for the first time by a number of formerly silent parties.
Nobody really pretends (or ever did) that virtual is better than face to face: it’s simply different. And like many aspects of work and life, we are growing to embrace and indeed love the opportunities of the new hybrid world. And that of course applies to audit.
Audit-wise though, I believe, we have long been ahead of the game. Within our profession, it’s no simple case of before and after the pandemic. Way back five years ago, I was initially, stunned to meet the newest Big 4 trainees who did most of their auditing from home, with sporadic trips into the office and occasional visits to clients. I also knew audit practices that operated exclusively on a virtual platform; all staff members home based and no bricks and mortar to weigh down overheads. On the other hand, I do still come across organisations literally weighed down with paper, festering away in expensive city centre offices, loyally wedded to the traditional ‘white-of-eyes’ business model.
Some of these innovative working models work superbly, albeit often raising new questions and challenges for the business, its employees and clients. At the other extreme of the spectrum, the traditionalists often struggle to attract and retain staff, operate leanly, and leverage new technology. As of 2022 however, we seem to have passed through the transition-stage, and many organisations are able to offer the flexibility of a mix of home and office working. That doesn’t mean we are all happy about it though! I’m working with organisations who plead ‘how do we get staff back into the office,’ as well as individuals who have ended up with a working arrangement that they never signed up to. While it often feels like hybrid working should offer something to everyone, in practise with the massive mix of patterns, stipulations, preferences and practicalities, in can feel like it suits no one.
So how do you negotiate these new ways of working…as an employee…as a potential recruit…as a line manager or a business owner?
Well firstly, be patient. This is a new world for all of us. We are still finding our feet, both employers and employees, we’re in it together. Post-pandemic working patterns may well start off by trial and error, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to evolve. And that in turn calls for an open mind, whether from the manager who declares that virtual auditing can never work on a sustainable basis or the individual who feels they can now only work productively in the comfort and privacy of their own home, supported by their personal eco-system. There may well be strong practical drivers reinforcing these preferences: the clients who demand face-to-face relationships, the audit home-worker who now has caring responsibilities or the staff who don’t have any feasible working space at home. But the good news is, that the wide plethora of working opportunities suggest that in time, all of these preferences can be catered for. The job boards offer prospects across the whole gamut: full virtual working, pure client facing, office-based, fixed hybrid patterns as well as flexible ones. Note though, the emphasis of in time; in other words you might not always get want you want, right now. And there are, of course, other aspects of your career to take into account in terms of navigating your career pathway; however important the mode of working is to you, it is not the only consideration to take into account. Go back to one of my older articles, Your Career By Design, to remind yourself of the importance of thinking longer term about your career strategy, through evaluating your current needs in parallel with your personal values and lifetime career vision. Understanding your working pattern optimum, communicating, and negotiating around it, is highly topical right now, but the supporting business models and stakeholder expectations have not necessary evolved as rapidly as our current demand for working flexibility. Here are a few practical tips that might help you narrow that potential gap:
- In your current role, consider specifically why you want/need a particular pattern of working, and figure out your boundaries – where can you compromise, what aspect might be a deal breaker. Prepare yourself to articulate this clearly, (for example, how exactly does it support your productivity), but then move on to express the wider commercial justification, in other words how it will support the organisation.
- As a candidate for recruitment, while you should not be afraid of having an open discussion regarding what the employer might offer in terms of hybrid working (indeed they might expect it), keep an open mind regarding what the organisation can offer. It could prove highly valuable to demonstrate your adaptability in this area, how you can flex to business needs while meeting or protecting your own evolving requirements. Think specific scenarios to support this; the employer may want to be equally reassured that you possess the self-discipline and independence to work from home, while also being persuaded of the veracity of your team-working and interpersonal strengths which can be flexed to both office and virtually working.
And of course, remember patience…further evolution of working practises is a cert, keep your eye on the bigger picture and beware of the perils of short-term decision making!