The rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has led organizations to adopt a flexible, work-from-home approach to maintain business continuity. Internal audit departments around the world continue to perform audit work, even as practitioners work from home.
The crisis has accelerated the profession's movement toward remote techniques, which previously had been a subject of considerable debate. Specifically, can auditors perform their jobs effectively without interacting in person with audit clients?
Now internal auditors are putting past assumptions about remote work to the test. Even while working from home, auditors must comply with audit standards as well as maintain creativity and healthy skepticism. To do so, they need to address new challenges and leverage technology tools. Here are six suggestions to audit from home effectively.
1. Set up a Home Office
Internal auditors should consider a few factors in setting up a home office. The location should be private to minimize background noise and to maintain confidentiality of work. If a dedicated room is not available, auditors should consider measures such as curtains, partitions, or room dividers. Their workspace also should have ample light.
Auditors should invest in comfortable furniture and relevant technology aids. While a dining table and chair might work as a makeshift desk, a dedicated desk and ergonomic chair can prevent posture problems. Connecting a computer to a second monitor can give auditors a bigger or additional screen. Other helpful technologies include a wireless mouse and noise-canceling headphones.
Besides technology, auditors can pin notes or tasks to a vision board to track projects they need to accomplish each week. As an add-on, research finds that keeping a plant or flowers in the workspace can enhance productivity.
2. Act Professionally
Working in an office, internal auditors have fixed routines in terms of lunch, coffee breaks, and the start and end of the day, but that may not be the case when they are working at home. Acting and dressing as if they are going to work can help auditors avoid falling into the trap of complacency.
Setting a work schedule will help auditors balance their professional and personal commitments. A good approach is to establish working hours around the times the individual is most productive and expects minimal interference.
Likewise, with schools closed, many auditors are juggling work and personal commitments. Auditors with families should talk to their children about changes and set boundaries, including when they should not be disturbed. They should request help from family members who may be able to oversee children's activities during the workday and set up day schedules for them. Returning the favor for their partners would be helpful.
Scheduling frequent short breaks can help auditors stay refreshed and focused on work. To avoid burnout, they should enforce a hard limit at the end of their workday.
3. Leverage Cloud Technologies
Cloud-based technologies and services are helping businesses and governments continue to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike traditional technology applications, many cloud services do not require any setup or downloads.
Videoconferencing has proven indispensable during this time, allowing auditors to talk to co-workers and clients by clicking on an invite link. Such calls enable auditors to hold live interviews and observe visual cues just as they would during an in-person visit or walk-through. Most videoconferencing services enable auditors to share documents with other participants in a call.
Cloud-based collaborative tools such as whiteboards can help with brainstorming, organizing, and assigning tasks among an audit team. Shared drives allow individuals to simultaneously work on documents, while also providing easy access and version control, thereby reducing email traffic.
4. Ensure Confidentiality
Internal auditors often are privy to an organization's most confidential information, and protecting it is vital to maintaining audit's trusted role. Most organizations' work environments have sufficient safeguards to prevent information leakage, but the boundary lines can blur easily when working remotely.
Family and friends can pose conflicts of interest. Examples include a roommate who works for a competitor or a spouse who works for the business unit that the auditor currently is reviewing. To address confidentiality issues, auditors should discuss potential conflicts with spouses, partners, and roommates.
Auditors should assess the risk of inadvertent information leaks that may occur because someone overheard a call or discovered documents that were not kept securely. If possible, they should take sensitive calls behind a closed door and inform their partner of the times when such calls are scheduled. In addition, auditors should designate space in a desk drawer or file cabinet to store sensitive documents and clearly label documents to avoid information leaks.
Auditors should discuss with their managers any potential conflicts of interest or confidentiality concerns that cannot be mitigated and determine alternate plans.
5. Plan and Communicate
In the face of social distancing, and without face-to-face interactions with colleagues and audit clients, effective communication becomes more important. Auditors need to plan ahead of fieldwork, stakeholder walk-throughs, team meetings, and other engagements. They should create a to-do list and update it each morning to keep track of what they want to achieve throughout the day. Communicating such plans to the auditor's manager can allay any concerns about his or her efficiency while working at home.
It takes more time and effort to access information from co-workers when they are not located in the same place. Communicating expectations to co-workers can help auditors obtain information easily and more reliably.
Establishing regular virtual check-ins — for example, twice a week — can ensure the manager and audit staff have a platform to consult with the team and raise concerns or questions. Initially, such check-ins can help co-workers learn from each other in adjusting to the work-at-home environment. Moreover, using videoconferencing can help staff members feel less isolated and boost morale.
6. Acknowledge Clients' Challenges
Like auditors, audit clients are trying their best to maintain business continuity and are facing similar challenges. Acknowledging these challenges can add a personal touch to the audit and help calm the nerves of business units while responding to auditors' requests.
Business units also might be changing some of their operations during this time, so auditors should adopt new ways of receiving expected documentation. For example, clients may be using e-signature services to document management review in the absence of signatures on office stationery. Additionally, auditors may need to examine inventory using live videoconferencing and retain the video record as evidence.
While transitioning to auditing remotely may seem overwhelming, carefully considering solutions to work-at-home challenges can make the change easier. In time, as auditors adapt to this way of working, remote auditing may become a more accepted practice. For example, many organizations are finding that virtual work is leading to cost savings. If remote work becomes the new normal, being prepared can help auditors adapt and thrive.
For more information on remote auditing, read The IIA's Global Knowledge Brief, Remote Auditing for COVID-19 and Beyond (PDF).