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How COVID accelerated Kreston Reeves’ agile transformation

The pandemic has been a catalyst for hardware renewal, cloud migration, collaboration and much more

Much like accountants themselves, accountancy firms often have an unfair reputation for being stuffy, risk-averse and a little behind the times. The finance sector generally isn’t the first to adopt emerging technologies, often preferring to play it safe and wait until products have proven themselves before cautiously dipping a toe in. Sometimes, however, you have to jump in with both feet, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many organisations to jump-start their digital transformation efforts.

For London-based accountancy firm Kreston Reeves, the onset of remote working wasn’t a radical departure from the norm. The company runs eight offices throughout the UK, and has been using Citrix’s virtual desktop and application products for the best part of a decade, delivered on top of Nutanix’s hyper-converged infrastructure. This, combined with cloud services like Microsoft 365, gave the company a strong existing foundation to build on when COVID forced staff out of their offices.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were quite relaxed about people working from home,” says Kreston Reeves IT and operations director, Chris Madden, “although on a realistic day, you may have perhaps 40 people working from home and the rest would be in an office or client meetings – so you've probably got about a 500 versus 40 split, which is probably typical for our industry. We were moving towards an agile working model, but hadn't quite got there. And then obviously, the pandemic struck, at which point everybody worked from home, whether they wanted to or not!”

Face time

While the company’s existing Citrix deployment meant that staff were already able to access all their usual applications while working remotely, collaboration was taken care of by a rapid rollout of Microsoft Teams, which Madden says has been invaluable for collaboration both inside and outside the business.

“We went into the pandemic, got everybody set up, and then immediately started pushing out Microsoft Teams, particularly video conferencing, within our Citrix environment,” he explains. “That meant that people were able to carry on face to face communication, but more importantly with our clients, because [they] have an accountant they want to get advice from, and it's a lot nicer if they can still see their accountant, even if they can't get in the same room.”

The biggest surprise, he says, is how quickly the company has adapted to home working. If the business and its employees hadn’t been forced to change their behaviours and mindsets, he speculates that it would still be talking about how to roll remote working out.

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“The only issues that we had, really, were getting everybody set up on the remote access apps to get the security codes for the two-factor authentication, and also any other apps they needed. So there was a rush to the help desk and the IT team to say 'I need all this set up immediately' from about 500 people, but in terms of the technology stack, it was there, it was working, and it did what it was supposed to do, which was quite a relief.”

From a hardware perspective, the shift to home working required additional investment in peripherals like headsets, webcams, docking stations and external screens, but it also gave Madden and his team the opportunity to replace the Dell Wyse thin-client devices used by many employees with laptops. The Citrix add-on for Microsoft Teams didn’t play nicely with the thin OS the company’s Wyse terminals ran on, he says, so rather than upgrading all of its thin-client devices, the company chose to pivot to laptops for all. This approach also gives the benefit of a single, consistent user experience for all its staff whether they’re at home or in the office.

Accelerated agility

This feeds into the firm’s plans for post-pandemic transformation; once things open back up, Kreston Reeves is going fully agile. The company implemented a desk-booking system earlier in the pandemic to help with risk management and social distancing for staff who had to be in the office, and plans to use that once lockdowns lift to support a hot-desking environment. 

“Hopefully, that will enable better collaboration,” says Madden; “you'll get to know your colleagues a lot better. By giving everybody laptops and having the desks set up the same, it means you can just plug in at any old desk that you happen to be using. And so hopefully it should mean that we’re making more productive use of the space.”

Madden anticipates that this new model will involve staff working from home for roughly half the week and says that this flexibility has been a hit with staff, as it allows them to save time and money on their commute. As part of this process, Kreston Reeves has also reevaluated its use of office space, and plans to downsize its London premises.

“I think what it's allowed us to do is look at our property footprint, what we're using offices for, and why people want to go into an office. That's feeding into our review of our office space and what we're going to need for the future; so we’re looking to move our London office, and if this was done a few years ago, we'd have probably carried on with a desk per person,” he says. “Now we're going into a location where there will be about 30% fewer desks than people.”

Another major change that COVID has enabled is the use of remote collaboration with clients. In addition to video conferencing with clients, recent regulatory changes have allowed Kreston Reeves to audit customers’ accounts remotely, rather than sending a battalion of auditors with laptops to their premises. This, Madden says, will save staff a lot of time that would previously be spent travelling up and down the country.

“I think it will bring a lot of changes, and I think it will probably mean people are more productive, probably get more out of their day. But that also means they probably get a better work-life balance, because it's not all about working ever more hours, and because you haven't got a commute, it's an extra hour of work. It's about giving that hour back and saying, well actually, we can get everything we need you to do in that time scale, and you've now saved yourself several hours of travel time a day, and that's back for you.”

Looking to the future, the company has started experimenting with AI and robotic process automation technology to improve its operational efficiency, and is planning to invest more heavily in cloud services for back-office tasks. Madden explains that although the accountancy industry is still reliant on niche on-premise software products, many supporting services can be transitioned to cloud-based equivalents to take advantage of cost and availability benefits.

“I think the sector as a whole is a cautious sector, which is one of its strengths and one of its weaknesses, depending on your point of view. I do think it's accelerated, and talking to some of my peers, there’s very much a sense that the pace of change is quicker.”

“The key thing for businesses is, how do you capture that willingness during the pandemic to move at pace and be willing to change, when you're now back in the offices? And that's going to be the biggest challenge for businesses, I think.”

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