The benefits of auditors returning to in-person work

Social skills learnt by observation may be more important to a person’s career than what’s learnt from textbooks and universities.
Auditing clients actually expect to see their auditor in the flesh. Image: Bloomberg

Many people may be frightened about returning to work, while others have just grown comfortable working remotely. However, there are some sectors where in-person work is essential to professionalism, and auditing is top of that list.

Undeniably, there are challenges.

With talk now centering on a fifth wave, continued safety and health concerns mean workers will need to be comfortable with coming back to an office. While in-person work is essential to the annual company audit, there are many other reasons why workers are losing out by remote working or even a hybrid model. Provided it is safe to do so, workers will want to be back in the office more than they think.

Auditing– like a number of other professions – is structured around teamwork. An audit cannot be done in a piecemeal, dispersed fashion but requires a team approach. Therefore, remote working functions for a certain part of the job but without the collaboration of seeing and speaking to each other in an office, it makes life so much harder on an audit. Our experience has been that audits conducted remotely are less efficient, resulting in increased audit time and costs – costs which cannot be passed on to the client and are absorbed by the firm.

A core aspect of our profession is on-the-job training. That almost never happens in a virtual meeting, but only when a group of people sit around a boardroom table in an informal atmosphere. All too often, the person learning may not even be part of the conversation, just simply overhearing a discussion between two or more seasoned managers. Furthermore, only in an in-person environment is it possible to showcase appropriate client behaviour and to set an example. Remotely, someone sitting in isolation behind a desk at home is not feeling engaged with the team, nor seeing how more senior people interact with clients, other team members or juniors.

During recent times of lockdowns, quarantines and separation, people have gotten used to isolation and, in many instances, forgotten the value of social interaction. When a problem occurs, remote-working staff are often none the wiser as to how to resolve it and have nobody on hand to ask for advice. They are not exposed to the interaction so vital to advancing in one’s profession.

We are after all social animals and what we learn and acquire in respect of vital social skills by observing how other people behave in social conditions is often more important to a person’s career than what we learn from textbooks and universities, particularly in a client-focused business such as auditing.

A key skill for a modern manager is the ability to work in a diverse team, and diversity is completely missing when someone is cut off from society by working from home.

By diversity, we mean people of different cultural backgrounds, ages and gender – it is this maelstrom of differences that enables a person to see things in a different light or a problem from a different perspective, which is essential to problem-solving. It enhances innovation, creativity and makes a person more solution orientated.

While most of these issues relate to the personal enhancement and career development of the individual, a firm deliverable of auditing is that the client actually expects to see their auditor in the flesh. Otherwise, it is particularly trying for the finance team of a client to deal with complex, technical issues requiring confidentiality with people working remotely.

Cyber-security is one of the biggest concerns of businesses today, and when they have gone to considerable expense to secure their data against hacking, they are reluctant to have their confidential data on the home computer of an auditor, where it is easier to hack.

This adds to the stress and responsibility of client finance managers. They would invariably have to shoulder some of the burden of managing the audit team while conducting their own functions by, for instance, having to load data onto a portal where the auditors can access it.

While remote work has been advantageous to many workers and many sectors for a variety of reasons, it is not so in the auditing and accounting fields. In-person work can be helpful for personal interaction and company collaboration, which can be hindered in a virtual world.

Employees who have become comfortable with remote working may have forgotten how much they miss other people – but they will remember soon enough when they return to the office. For one, humans are social beings and the pandemic has been notable for the unprecedented levels of mental health issues reported, including increased anxiety and depression brought on by pandemic itself and people’s varying experiences with self-isolation. In parallel to this, team dynamics and organisational culture of businesses have suffered, as these can only be fostered in-person and consequently are severely weakened in an impersonal and sterile remote work situation.

With the pandemic clearly on the wane, now might be the best time for management and workers to make definitive decisions about coming back to the office. When they do so, workers may surprise themselves.

Jonathan Comley, Managing Partner at Mazars in South Africa, Gqeberha office.

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