Since the beginnings of the pandemic in 2020, many businesses have been forced into embracing remote working. And whether that is by either by necessity or opportunity – or even by accident – moving away from working in a traditional office set up is now an accepted fact for many.

So, are we facing a reality of accountants as digital nomads? To what extent is the new remote working a business decision, and how much is it a lifestyle choice. And does the current experience provide clues as to how accountants can build a different type of business for themselves in the years ahead?

That was the topic under discussion at a recent roundtable event hosted by Accounting Web, featuring a number of industry players grappling with the challenges of retaining control of their businesses while keeping staff safe, motivated and part of the team.

Global nomad

For Paul Beare, who started his business six years ago, the focus on helping overseas companies set up in the UK has in some ways paved the way for the current fractured nature of running a firm. “I’ve spent a lot of time travelling internationally, speaking on panels and meeting new clients, so I’m able to operate from virtually anywhere in the world,” he told the panel.

“In my previous role I used to wonder how I would run my own business and support my team; and I wanted everything in the cloud where possible. So it means I can work from anywhere provided I have a laptop and an internet connection.”

Indeed, Paul’s business has been 100% remote from the very beginning, with team members all logging in from various locations.

“The clients are all over the world, from the US through Europe to Aus/NZ, so there’s a challenge around time zones but otherwise it works well.”

For Alasdair Milroy of Break the Mould Accounting, the use of digital tools is increasingly important. Based in Guernsey, servicing his globally-mobile super-yachting clients demands a remote model. “In the last 15 years, most clients have been international and the financial services sector is heavily regulated and it’s taken Covid to push people to think about efficient remote working; and the ability to meet clients at the moment is obviously curtailed.”

Jessica Pillow’s determination to work remotely was forged by a desire to match business with lifestyle. Her international team at Pillow & May work across India and New Zealand, giving her the option of offering clients 24 hr service – something that distinguishes her from the competition. “I had been struggling with the accounting side and found a fully qualified British accountant working out of NZ who’s great – super quick. It made real sense, and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t meet face to face.”

Getting it right

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the issue of remote working and lifestyle was at the forefront of the discussion – can working remotely out of the office underpin a well-balanced lifestyle, or does it get in the way of separating work from life?

Paul Beare felt his working patterns were largely beneficial. “Remote working allows you to form a healthier work life balance, whether that’s going to the gym or shopping during the day; because our clients are overseas, they don’t necessarily expect to see you face to face all day.”

In Paul’s experience, remote working can certainly support an efficient practice.

“If the last 18 months has taught us anything it’s that you can’t predict the future, so who knows.”

And the development of cloud technologies has underpinned much of Pillow May’s progress. “We’ve always maintained a really good job management system,” Pillow said. “We use Trello and it’s great and all of the jobs have tasks outlined and everyone knows what is expected.” Managing systems like these allow for others to step in and manage jobs even when colleagues are absent – a big deal for those working remotely.

Unintended benefits

Beare pointed out the process of setting up a remote working structure can bring less obvious, but hugely beneficial outcomes. “I’ve enjoyed writing the processes almost as an employee handbook,” he said. “If you look at it from the perspective of an acquiring firm, that’s what they’re interested in: what are you processes, how do you run day – to day and so on. It’s really valuable to help question your processes and plans and so having them listed and documented is really helpful.”

Ultimately, there’s little doubt that many of the remote working practices will remain in place even once the pandemic is seen off for good. All of the panellists agreed that many of the benefits – efficiency, flexibility, motivated staff and better work life balance – will greatly enhance their practices going forward.

“It allows us to be dynamic and supportive – employees having no commute anymore and having the chance to exercise and balance their life is a fantastic opportunity,” said Paul Beare, “there should be office days and home days and that work well.”

“It’s good for our clients to see us unchained from the desk,” Pillow agreed. “That means being able to take control of the business and not controlled by it. It’s good for the clients, for the team and it’s great if you can lead by example.”

“It’s a great way to attract new entrants to the professional, offering remote and balanced working life,” Milroy concluded.