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ComplianceFinanceTax & AccountingJuly 07, 2021

How the pandemic brought ways of working into sharp relief

By: Mark Williams

The global pandemic has created an extraordinary storm of crises and course corrections for organizations and internal audit functions worldwide. This dynamic risk environment tested internal audit’s resilience and value, and it has demanded that we work differently. I’ve been in awe of the almost super-human efforts by internal auditors to change their ways of working to account for the pandemic’s impact.

For some, there was even a backstory of budget or staff cuts to help firefight elsewhere in the organization. “Doing more with less” went from being a much overused and often empty platitude to a must-do and genuinely urgent reality.

The last year also proved that it’s possible to adopt new ways of working without threatening our conformance to IPPF principles and standards, even enhancing it in many cases. The same for audit methodology, with methodology owners quickly assessing any changes required to accommodate new ways of working.

Much of this change was driven by our business stakeholders or client needs. There was a mindset shift away from doing audits to our stakeholders toward doing our audits with our stakeholders (remembering the mantra that independence does not mean working in isolation). Above all else, it became paramount to reduce the time it usually takes to provide our insights, observations, and recommendations:

We have weeks, not months, to replan for fast-emerging risks.

Behaviors that emerged in audit planning:

  •  Initial audit plan updates completed in weeks (typically done annually and taking many months).
  • Audit plan refreshed on a rolling weekly, bi-weekly, or real-time basis.
  • Senior-level collaboration with executives on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
  • Audit committee (or committee chair) communication on a weekly basis.
  • Laser-focused on:
    • Which audit matters the most (i.e., which risk and controls and in what sequence).
    • Value proposition of the audit and the value delivered by the audit work (i.e., there’s no shortage of work, so where can we best focus to deliver maximum value in the shortest period?).
    • Higher percentage of the audit plan specifically requested by business stakeholders or clients.

We must build the best possible team for each audit.

Behaviors that emerged in audit delivery:

We all know that small teams are best to deliver high-quality audits most efficiently. The deployment of “real teams” became the norm for many audits.

Real team
- Not an alliance, a collection of co-workers, or a pseudo team:

A real team:

  • Contains all the skills required to deliver the audit.
  • Has the benefit of focus; one audit at a time but overlap the finish of one audit with the start of the next.
  • Is kept stable and intact. Don’t fall victim to Brooks’ Law! Adding people to a late project only makes it later. It’s primarily the inefficiencies of stopping the late audit to bring new team member(s) up to speed and then continuing. What I often see in internal audit departments is a disproportionately large amount of resource having to be added to a late audit to counterbalance the impact of Brooks’ law and underplaying the disturbance to the donor team and the context switching for the people involved.

We must work from home, so teams will need regular collaboration to ensure effective teamwork.

Behaviors that emerged in remote audit delivery:

The biggest revelation was that we could conduct most audits remotely, but we need regular communication and collaboration to ensure effective teamwork:

  1. Weekly virtual meetings to plan out the work for the week or every two weeks to ensure that we make the best use of our valuable time.
  2. Briefly sync up each day to ensure we’re proceeding correctly and highlight blockers to team leaders. One team I worked with valued the collaboration so much that when working remotely, they held a 15-minute stand-up at the start of the day, and a 15-minute stand-down at the end of the day. Our well-being is paramount, and we still need to feel connected to our work and our colleagues.
  3. Meet the stakeholders each week to share what we’ve learned and what’s next.
  4. Team meets once a week to discuss how to work better together.

Personally, I long for a hybrid mix of office life and working from home. Ideally, office for face-to-face collaboration and remote work for focused, cerebral work. Most auditors I talk with share that view, but it varies widely on people’s circumstances. For many, working from home is the last place they can find focus. Once again, no one size fits all. The new normal will be challenging and could require a greater level of collective day-to-day organization.

One other interesting by-product of remote working is that presenteeism in the office is no longer a poor but informal measure of people’s worth. Focus on the value of the audit work, not resource utilization or hours worked.

The emergence of new ways of working

Of course, for those that understand being more agile-minded and the tools to help, what I’ve described is working in a more agile way.
It came as no surprise that auditors and audit leaders naturally default to more agile ways of working. Often, there was no mention of Agile frameworks or agile tools. We responded with many new and rapid feedback loops. We’ve been Agile.

I witnessed agile ways of working being more widely adopted in crisis, often without being realized.

Conclusion

Often the toughest challenges bring out the best in us. For now, I wonder how much of this will stick and have longevity. How much of it was seen as only appropriate for crisis management?

We all know that Internal Audit faces significant challenges:

  • Adding greater value and remaining relevant
  • Keeping up with the speed of change and risk
  • Coping with unpredictability and uncertainty

The new ways of working that we adopted because of the pandemic provide many practical solutions to these challenges.

There are still huge questions that must be resolved when the new normal emerges, but we must not forget these lessons. Our priority now is to “bottle” what we have learned and use it to improve our future work. It is time to ask yourself, “How much of my ways of working will change for good?”

Even better, could these lessons be the start of your department’s continuous improvement initiative? Small incremental improvements that add up over time can lead to a big transformation.

I would welcome your feedback on this article. Email: [email protected]

Mark Williams
Mark Williams
Business Agility Coach and Trainer

Respected and industry-recognized coach and trainer for 8 years. Over the last 3 years, he solely coached IA and Assurance functions. Founder of Agile Outside IT, business agility specialists. Agile auditor and leading for agility in IA classes.