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Big Four Sketching a Playbook for Post-Pandemic Workspace

May 13, 2020, 8:46 AM

Concerned about the safety of their staff and clients, the largest U.S. accounting firms are in no rush to return their professionals to offices, airports, and client sites around the country.

The firms are preparing, though, for an eventual return to the workplace even as they continue to keep their armies of accountants, auditors, and consultants at home. When offices do eventually reopen, masks, temperature checks, and contact tracing apps to monitor interaction with co-workers could await them.

For now, even within states that have begun to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the firms stress that remote work will remain the norm until they are confident that it is safe to go back. As conditions evolve, it’s possible staff in some markets could return sooner than their colleagues across the country.

“We clearly want to be able to get back, but we are not feeling the rush to do that,” said Tim Ryan, chairman of PwC LLP. “If we wanted to bring everyone back at the same time the social distancing requirements would not allow for that. So we are thinking about it in a slow phased approach.”

All four firms have invested millions in new technologies that allow them to access clients’ records and transactions electronically and have provided new digital tools to analyze that information. Those investments paid off as they moved out of clients’ conference rooms and eased into kitchens and basement offices amid the nationwide coronavirus shutdowns.

But they are eager to restore some pre-Covid 19 working arrangements including the intensive, in-person service that clients have grown to expect, and the face-to-face business relationships they have cultivated. Still, a second wave could send all those employees and clients back to their virtual offices again.

“EY is fortunate in having been effective in continuing to deliver the highest quality client service in a ‘work from home’ environment,” Ernst & Young LLP said in an emailed statement. “While we, our clients and our people all look forward to a return to offices, the safety and well-being of our people will not be compromised.”

Deloitte LLP echoed those sentiments saying its goal is to continue providing “exceptional service” while protecting its workers and clients. “Consistent with those commitments, Deloitte’s work-from-home requirements remain in place, even for areas where government restrictions are being lifted,” the firm said in a statement.

Conditions for Return

EY, PwC, and KPMG LLP will coordinate office openings from their headquarters—laying a set of national ground rules to help the firm decide when individual offices may welcome staff again.

When and how EY offices will reopen will vary based on conditions in each community and the needs of the teams in those locations. Its clients’ safety requirements will also shape EY’s approach, the firm said.

EY, KPMG, and Deloitte LLP all said that science and medical experts also would inform their approach. Like the larger firms, Grant Thornton LLP, whose staff also continues to work remotely, said it is monitoring local and national health guidance as it determines when to reopen.

BDO USA LLP declined to comment.

As KPMG charts its return, staff can expect a staged re-entry to firm offices and to client site and plenty of advanced warning to prepare. A firmwide framework will guide decisions about opening specific offices including factors like community risks along with local and state guidelines, a firm spokesman said.

Questions about commuting, child care needs, and whether staff will travel to clients are among the factors the firm is weighing, the firm said.

Safety at Work

PwC employees will likely to return to find their offices reconfigured to promote social distancing, said Ryan of PwC. Staff will wear masks, some may wear additional protective gear. Temperature checks may be required.

The firm also plans to use a contact-tracing tool it’s developed to alert employees if they have been near someone who has tested positive for the virus, Ryan said.

But not all staff will return. Some will continue to work remotely, including those who are most at risk or who feel uncomfortable returning. Social distancing requirements will also limit the number of employees at an office location. And the firm expects that offices to reopen in waves.

“We clearly want to be able to get back, but we are not feeling the rush to do that,” Ryan said.

Privacy Flags

The goals of temperatures checks, questionnaires about symptoms, and even apps that track interactions between staff are valid means for limiting the spread of the virus. But companies should also be thinking about privacy concerns, said Stephanie Kaplan, a labor and employment lawyer with Blank Rome LLP.

The key is who has access to that confidential information and how the information is used, Kaplan said.

Transparency will help temper workers’ fears that their employer is tracking every move they make, said Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research for Gartner Inc.

Management should tell employees about the data they are collecting and how it will be used, Kropp said, so that they understand how the results inform its decisions.

High Stakes

Prioritizing the safety of clients and staff represents a big mindset shift for a profession where work is not normally physically dangerous, said Kristen Rampe, whose firm Rampe Consulting serves small and mid-sized CPA firms.

At the biggest firms, with the most exposure to the wider public, she said, that might mean temperature checks at the door. At a small firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Rampe is based, it might mean putting an extra desk between the accountant and client, or maybe not letting clients come to the office at all.

Those changes could feel awkward or uncomfortable, and that’s OK, Rampe said.

“As a member of the accounting profession, I don’t want to be known as the profession where everybody was cavalier,” Rampe said.

Individual firm reputations are also at stake, especially in the highly competitive realm of the Big Four, which are in a constant race for talent and business.

How companies treat their employees now will impact retention rates and affect their ability to recruit once the labor market opens up again.Those who do well by their workers could see a pay-off later, Kropp said.

“The experience that they create around that for their employees is really going to define what their employment brand is for the next several years,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amanda Iacone in Washington at aiacone@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeff Harrington at jharrington@bloombergtax.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com

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