A few of my clients have recently commented that as a result of the pandemic they are thinking about their office space differently. It was also one of the topics I talked about in a vodcast I produced (See it here here. ) One firm owner in one of my groups noted that his firm has not had an office for five months and counting. The landlord was not willing to negotiate a sensible new lease agreement, so the firm walked away, and everyone has worked from home since. Of course, for most accounting firms this was the reality of COVID-19 – everyone worked from home, and in many cases still do.
These things have prompted me to ponder the why an accounting firm needs an office. Perhaps it doesn’t!
Some years ago, I wrote a book on how to find and fitout your perfect office. I noted that moving to a new office provides multiple benefits because it will (or should):
- Reflect and reinforce corporate culture, values, strategy, image and positioning
- Provide efficient, professional and comfortable environment for team members and clients
- Support and encourage efficient and effective work practices
- Contribute to the organisation being a great place to work
- Facilitate and support effective use of technology
- Act as a catalyst for corporate change
- Provide an enormous energy boost for the organisation
- Contribute to attracting and retaining the best people
Perhaps these provide some clues as to why a firm might need an office.
In a recent article titled “What is an office for?” in Harvard Business Review Scott Berinato interviewed a leading researcher on the evolution of workspaces, Jennifer Magnolfi Astill. She identifies four primary modes of an office which I talk about below based on my experience of working with accounting firms:
Accountants are knowledge workers and their ability to focus on a task is important. Focus is one of the drivers of productivity. I think it is fair to say the evidence coming from the pandemic and forced work from home demonstrates that for many people there are some types of work or tasks that they are able to focus better on away from the office and are therefore more productive. This is not a surprise for me as for several years now I’ve been encouraging firm owners and managers to do some work from home and the results have been excellent. My view is that the ideal situation for many people is the opportunity to complete some times of work away from the office and some types in the office.
There is a well-established view that socialistaion in the workplace (including “accidental collisions” or unplanned interactions) have a positive impact on creativity, innovation and problem solving. A physical office leads to people who may not normally work closely together bumping into each other in the kitchen, breakout space, bathroom or other spots in the office. Steve Jobs was convinced this supported new ideas and different thinking that when he designed the Pixar office he wanted to maximise this accidental connection of people.
There is also plenty of evidence to support the importance of socialization on the engagement and happiness of your team. Being in close proximity improves communication, trust and performance. This is something that is almost impossible to reproduce through technology which is what we try to do when working in discrete locations away from the office.
WFH has seen the rise and rise of tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and so on to help us collaborate when we are not in the same physical space. Some complex things that accountants might work on will require collaboration with others. My view is that for many people this still works best when they are physically together. And I think the socialistaion aspects I referred to also feed collaboration.
We each learn in many and different ways. Some people have commented that not being physically close to less experienced team members has reduced their ability to provide spontaneous on the job training and mentoring. This is significant because this is one of the fundamental building blocks of personal and professional development inside firms.
My conclusion from my comments above is that an office provides an environment where socialisation, collaboration and learning flourish. These are good for your people and good for your firm. On the other hand, I think there is an argument that at least some work is more effectively completed away from the office, or in a special place in the office, that allows true focus to occur.
Here are some other reasons I can see for having an office:
- An office gives us a rest from the private version of ourselves and a chance to be someone different, and this can have a positive impact on who we are at home.
- It allows us to have a boundary between work and home life
I see this as a healthy thing. It allows people to say, when I am in the office I work and when I am at home I don’t. Technology has blurred this and the pandemic has forced a change and I don’t think that is a good thing.
- You can manage by walking around
One of my favourite activities in a firm I was in was walking around the office on a Friday afternoon and stopping briefly to speak with each person. I would carry a big container of assorted chocolate treats and once each person had told me about their week I offered them a pick from the box. It was incredibly powerful in so many ways and could not be reproduced in a virtual setting.
- It is a part of the firm’s positioning and brand
For some clients going to the office of their accountant is an important ritual and they take confidence from seeing a well maintained office. There is a reason the banks all built big, impressive buildings in th early days – they wanted customers to see them as big and safe and it worked. I think in a similar but different way this can work for accountants too, although I think the impact is possibly diminishing.
On another occasion I’ll talk about what the implications of all of this are for what an office might look like in a post COVID world.
What’s your view on the importance of an office? Are you rethinking your office strategy? I’d love to hear from you on this.