Running an Accounting firm during lockdown
Unlike a lot of businesses, we are fortunate to be flat out working at the moment. We took the decision to get all of our staff working from home from Monday 16th March. By then it was sadly apparent that wider restrictions on travel and working in an office were going to be imposed upon us. So, we did the sensible think and told everyone to work from home.
Fortunately we were well prepared with all our team able to take a laptop and a spare screen home with them. That Monday morning was a little nerve wracking, but everyone was able to log on to our server and access all of the normal programs and files. Big sighs of relief all round!
We are now at the start of week 6, and the firm has settled into a nice working pattern. A typical day looks like this.
7:30 - 8:30 am
Most of our 11 staff are starting work a little earlier, due to the lack of a commute, and for some, the need to work a 'split shift' to fit around family commitments. I always make sure I go for a walk around the block, or a run each morning. It is important to get a bit of separation between work and home life, and I always find that even a 10 minute walk helps me get my game face on.
We use an internal chat system called Anywhere Works, which is operated by one of our clients. It is similar to Slack, or Teams, and allows us to chat individually or in groups, as well as have video calls. Everyone taps in a 'Good Morning' into the general team thread when they get logged in of a morning.
Every morning for the last 5 years the team has a morning 'huddle'. This habit is cased in concrete. It always happens, even if there are only 2 people working that day. It used to happen in the office, but is now a video call with everyone logging in from home.
The huddle has a very easy agenda:
- Every person sets themselves 2 goals each day; for example
- call a client about a specific issue
- review a VAT return
- file a tax return
- attend a training webinar
- One of the team (usually Meghan) will check through the actions from the previous day and the team member says if they have completed them or not. And then the team member tells the team their two goals for the current day. All of this is recorded on a spreadsheet.
- If anyone has any blockages, or needs help, this is the time to say it
- If there are any HMRC announcements we need to advise the team about, this is the time to say it
The whole call takes 5 minutes, and it is a great way of encouraging and recording accountability. Ideally, each team member sets twin mini-goals for the week. If they achieve them then that's a great indication on how focused and good at time management they are.
10:10 - 12:00
When we were all in the office, this was known as "Quiet time". I think they still do this in schools (pre-lockdown of course). Again there are some simple rules:
- Pick one key task for an FBOT - Focused Block of Time. For an accounting firm, this is a chunk of work that you need to get stuck into and have a tangible end point. For example, preparing a VAT return, reviewing a batch of corporation tax returns, or writing a sales proposal.
- If the phone rings, one person answers and takes a message, rather than puts the call through. This is so nobody gets disturbed. Yes, clients do have urgent problems that need attention. But, unless someones house is on fire or the taxman has entered their office unannounced, there are very few things that cannot wait a couple of hours.
- Although some chat is allowed, this is really along the lines of "anyone want a cup of tea?". Interruptions kill the flow of work, and mean you aren't really respecting someone else's time or work priorities.
- Generally everyone has more energy and focus in the morning so this is the best time to do 'deep work'
12:00 - 15:00
The team are working such variable hours that folk are taking a lunch break anytime between midday and three. Some go running, some just have a sandwich at their kitchen table, others spend time with their children. On Anywhere Works we put up a little flag against our name to say we are on lunch for 30 minutes or an hour.
15:00 - 20:00
Most people will usually log off around 5 or 6pm and say a virtual goodnight. Others will do a split shift and log back on after a break with their families or children and do an hour or so in the evening. It is important to get the separation between work and home life, but I think you do lose a bit of a sense of time when you are working at home. You don't need to look up the train times or dash out to get the bus.
Managing The Team and The Practice
As you'd expect, we have a default diary in place so that things always happen at a certain time each week. Here's a flavour:
- Monday 10:10 - 11:30. Our Directors (Chris and Neil) and Practice Manager (Maria) have a call to run through a weekly management agenda where we look at:
- Our diaries
- Work priorities where we need help from the team
- Sales quotes, prospects, price reviews
- Timesheet reports to identify jobs that are overrunning
- Debtors and Sales
- Our "Working on the Business" projects (see below)
- Monday 13:30 - 15:00. Chris & Neil will have a 1-2-1 check-in with the team most weeks, to discuss how they are doing, current client work, help with any blockages, and have a general catch up
- Friday 11:00 - 12:00 Friday Planning Meeting for the Accounts team. This used to happen in the office using two big whiteboards in the office. We now use the Trello app to record our individual actions for the week. Again, there is a strict agenda for the planning meeting.
- We start off by sharing some personal good news
- The Directors go through their diaries for the following week
- Each person shares news of client care calls that they have made, so that we are aware of what our clients are up to and any challenges they are facing. During Covid-19 this is a long section of the meeting! Most clients have received grants or loans, and we have invested a lot of time in helping people get cash into their bank accounts.
- Review Work In Progress (WIP) on current year end accounts work
- Identify any deadline jobs we need to get started on
- Review status of VAT returns, Management Accounts and Annual Returns
- Tell everyone our monthly and year to date sales figures
- Tell everyone about clients that are on stop for not paying their bills (it happens occasionally!)
- Review progress on self assessment tax returns (we have a monthly plan to ensure we don't end up doing 90% of these in January!)
- Using the Trello app, everyone has 8 -12 tasks that they need to achieve the following week. This can be accounts prep, VAT returns, admin tasks, tax returns, client calls etc. The aim here is to ensure that everyone sets their own workload goals (with help of course) and ensure that we never miss a deadline as a practice.
- If a team member gets all of their Trello Tasks completed in the week, they get a virtual 'Star'
- Once you have earned 4 stars then you win a lucky dip prize, such as an Amazon voucher, Cinema Trip, Afternoon off work, Box of Wine or Beer.
- This is a bit of fun but adds an element of competition and a nice gift here and there
- Finally we have a 'one word close' where each person says one word about how they are feeling at the end of the week. Such as
- "Wine" (as I have a call with my pals later)
- "Running" (a lot of the team have taken up running)
- "Busy" (as we all are)
- "Gardening" (which seems to be filling a lot of the weekend for those with gardens)
It's not all about Work....
Every few weeks we will have a Virtual Drink at 4pm on a Friday and have a general catch up. We had a quiz last week, and the time before that we all wore a hat just for the fun of it (which explains the photo above!)