The future of remote working: how will tech support your accountancy firm?
As many organisations consider more permanent models of virtual work, we explore what Slack, Microsoft Teams and Facebook are developing to support the new model
Within a matter of days, Covid-19 demolished traditional working patterns across the world: offices were closed, meetings gave way to video conferences and water-cooler moments became a cherished quiet moment alone by your kitchen sink.
Now, many experts suggest that hybrid working – with some workers in the office and others signing in remotely – will be the “new normal”. The technology that accountancy firms have come to rely on, for example video conferencing software and instant messenger services, will become even more embedded in future – and tech firms are already looking at how they can help keep teams engaged and productive.
It is not just the inhabitants of Silicon Valley who are using their experience of the Covid-19 pandemic to offer employees more permanent flexibility about where they work – other companies are also considering their options.
In May, for example, Mastercard announced that staff can work from home until they feel comfortable to return to the office. Meanwhile, in the same month, the chief executive of Barclays, Jes Staley, said: "There will be a long-term adjustment to our location strategy… The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past."
In light of this distributed working model, messaging platform Slack is doubling down its work on channels – spaces where groups of professionals share messages, files and tools. The idea is that channels will be essential to help teams collaborate effectively in a world where people will work in different places and to different schedules.
“A transparent channel makes it way easier to align,” says Johann Butting, vice president of EMEA at the company.
He uses the example of email to demonstrate his point. On the one hand, your inbox may be flooded with information that people think you should know, while on the other, you miss out on a lot of what is happening in the business. “Having a transparent channel – turning information from an indiscriminate push to a controlled pull – increases alignment,” he argues.
The approach can also help team members be engaged and proactive. “I would argue that the people who know best what they need to align on are, in most cases, the employees and to empower them to set up those channels and to drive that communication structure will automatically result in better alignment.”
Indeed, in June this year Slack took their commitment to transparent channels a step further by launching Slack Connect. This is a secure platform that enables communication between organisations, not just within them. The tech allows up to 20 organisations to join a single Slack channel, making communication between clients and suppliers etc even more seamless.
But with all the home working, instant messaging and shifting schedules, the lines between professional and personal can become blurred. “There are a number of trends that we see around the changing nature of work,” says Kady Dundas, product marketing leader at Microsoft Teams.
“We see that people are working, on average, an hour more a day than they were before Covid and the distribution of work across the week can also look different, with more work happening on weekends than during the week,” she says. “This points to a need to make sure that the whole person across their work and personal life is really cared for.”
With this in mind, the Microsoft Teams has developed tools such as a “do not disturb” feature that allows team members to have some quiet time to focus and get work done.
Teams is also looking at how the software can support people across their personal life too. “We are bringing in more features for your whole life,” says Dundas. “That means Teams can be my hub for getting work done with my colleagues, but in the future Teams will also be a place where I can coordinate with my friends and family.”
Some of these features are already available to preview on the mobile app, including group calls, chats and calendars, document sharing and even assigning tasks.
Facebook has taken a slightly different tack when it comes to engaging remote teams and is exploring how to bring the office to them. Using its Oculus platform, Facebook is developing technology that would allow remote workers to put on a VR headset and work in the virtual environment alongside colleagues, who appear as avatars.
But the tech giant has gone a step further and is developing “mixed reality” – a blend of VR and AR. In this instance, an employee could wear the headset and enter the virtual workspace. But, using AR, the tech also overlays tools that are in that employee’s physical environment, such as their desk or coffee. This means they can work in the virtual office and use their physical equipment without needing to remove the headset.
The “new normal” for work in a Covid-19 world is still developing, but so is the tech to support and engage teams.
If you would like more practical tips on how to engage teams remotely, check out our guide here