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Building a Better Auditor: In Defense of Remote Auditing

Blogs David Hill, CIA, CMII Sep 19, 2023

Recently, Mike Jacka posted an intriguing blog post that divided opinion among IIA members on LinkedIn. His post, “Get Off My Lawn,” argued vehemently against the idea that remote internal auditing is on par with in-person internal auditing. In fact, he plainly states in the piece that “Remote auditing does not work.”

Mike also states that he prides himself on his flexibility and willingness to listen and adapt to changing ideas. I certainly agree that Mike’s posts reflect this flexibility and are always hugely valuable. It is just on this occasion that I disagree with Mike, whilst also accepting that remote work isn’t black and white.

At the outset, it is worth putting my company into context because we are quite different from a normal audit team. SWAP Internal Audit Services works with about 40 businesses across the U.K., and prior to the pandemic, we generally hired staff in the areas where those businesses were located so auditors could attend the local office. We have always been very flexible, and our team could work from home occasionally, but in general, before COVID-19, they worked from a local office.

Since the pandemic and following a team consultation, we are now a fully remote team. Again, for context, that does not mean we can’t or won’t go to an office if required. Also, we still have regular team meetings, try to meet physically every quarter, and have an annual company retreat.

Back to Mike’s blog: The statement that “Remote auditing does not work” is simply wrong in my humble opinion. Here are some of Mike’s points and my counterpoints, based on my experience:

Loss of the ‘human element’. One of Mike’s assertions is that during his time at Farmer's Insurance when the company was experimenting with remote work, “auditors began losing touch with the human element of the work due to remote working. The clients were no longer people; they were voices on the phone.”

However, with video conferencing now an everyday tool, auditors and stakeholders can meet face-to-face virtually, share documents, and access meeting transcripts to use for evidence. You absolutely need to have great relationships, but these can be built through Zoom and the occasional physical catchup. The skill of the modern-day auditor is in using all their relationship skills in the virtual environment.

Loss of water cooler moments. Mike then says, “You whine that no one comes into the office anymore. Well, yes, they do. It may not be as many as before, but people are still in there.” He further adds, “each one of those people is an opportunity to build a relationship, learn how they work within the organization, and possibly (probably) learn a little more about the risks the organization is facing.”

First, we now have the challenge of arranging physical meetings with people who are in the office infrequently. Second, the water cooler moment has always been a bit of a myth. In today’s hybrid environment, data provides far more insights into a business than water cooler moments. And weren’t water cooler moments really individuals making assumptions, gossiping, and demonstrating their bias? By nurturing great relationships, internal auditors can meet or exceed any potential water cooler moments.

More disengagement from meetings. Here, Mike attests: “It is much easier to tune out when you are in a different location. Proof on that one? How many people actually turn on their screens during every video conference?”

This isn’t only happening in remote meetings. I can think of physical meetings I have attended with people on their laptops or phones. Disengagement is all around and always has been. This is really about having the right people at the meeting with a focused agenda and outcomes.

Reduction in information-sharing among auditors. “And let’s get to the department level,” Mike goes on to say, “How do you share information among internal auditors?”

Sharing still happens. Rather than spending time commuting, we arrange a meeting via Zoom, share stories and information, and edit documents together “live,” agreeing on a definitive version. There is no emailing multiple versions with track changes. Moreover, you can do the same with your customers. How often are auditors chasing customers for responses to audit reports and requests for information? All this can be done via a quick Zoom call. Additionally, remote work frees up time to do more research, more reading, more data crunching, and more focusing on facts rather than hearsay.

Here is my list of some remote work advantages that may outweigh what you think we have lost:

  1. Increased flexibility and work-life balance: Remote work allows auditors to manage their time more effectively, reduce commuting, and better balance work and personal responsibilities. This improves employee recruitment and retention and overall well-being.
  2. Higher productivity: Studies have shown that remote workers can be more productive because they can focus on tasks without distractions (other than the constant flow of parcels that my wife seems to order). Innovation has increased and the whole team is constantly looking for more ways to be efficient.
  3. Costs savings: There is potential costs savings for our customers in terms of the provision of office space. At SWAP, we have closed two offices, with a significant savings.
  4. Access to a larger talent pool: Instead of being restricted to candidates who could travel to the local office, we now have the whole U.K. to tap into, including talented individuals with disabilities, parental responsibilities, etc. This has increased our diversity, experience, and the skills available to us, which benefits our customers.
  5. Environmental benefits: Being remote cuts down on the travel-to-office emissions.

In short, remote work does work. We just need to be braver and accept that this isn’t a new way of working, it is the way of working, the new norm.

But Mike, keep shouting; we all love your views!

David Hill, CIA, CMII

David Hill is CEO of SWAP Internal Audit Services based in Weymouth, U.K.