If internal audit leaders want to remain relevant within their organizations, they need to stand up and speak out against 100% remote working environments. We have fought hard to be seen as a trusted partner and not just another cost center. Rolling our chairs away from the table and hiding behind our computer screens puts us out of sight, out of mind. In fact, physical absence from the workplace presents several risks to internal audit, and to the organization it serves.
The most critical risk is a complete loss of organizational cohesion. Operating remotely, departments may break into silos that not only work independently of each other but also become fragmented internally. Whereas previously chief audit executives (CAEs) could walk by their team members’ desks at any time, they now must purposefully reach out to each individual separately. Moreover, group Zoom calls have turned even some of the hardest workers into unengaged, glassy-eyed drones. How well can tone at the top, inspiration, and a common sense of purpose be conveyed solely via a computer screen?
Another risk is diminished audit visibility and the collapse of relationship building. Before the proliferation of remote working, vice presidents or directors might have dropped by the CAE’s office and asked a question in the break room; or the chief financial officer might have seen the CAE in the hall and suddenly remembered to include him or her on a meeting invitation. Now they limit the number of Zoom attendees and, if they haven’t already, may start excluding internal audit from critical meetings. Instead of being part of key planning committees, auditors may not learn about important initiatives until they are announced to the entire organization.
Perhaps even more harmful to practitioners, maintaining an all-remote work environment risks invalidating the internal audit function. When budgets are analyzed, executive leadership may ask, “Where has internal audit been? We haven’t seen or heard from them; they must not have as much to do anymore.” Leadership may then look to slash the audit budget, followed by layoffs and a reduction of the audit plan to check-the-box engagements. Internal audit’s ability to add value becomes diminished, increasing its perception as a cost center.
Not only for the sake of internal audit, but also for the entire organization, audit leaders have no choice but to speak loudly and frequently against 100% remote working environments. As an alternative, the CAE could work with other senior leaders to create a hybrid in-office/work-from-home model and structure the audit function to overlap strategically with each department. This way, internal audit would remain “at the table” and better positioned to provide valuable insight and support. Then again, auditors can enjoy working in shorts and a T-shirt until a catastrophic event happens and once again executive leadership asks, “Where was internal audit?”