Q&A Blog – Remote Auditing and Consulting with Brett Harding 

As part of Assent’s mission to champion the consultancy industry, Jess from Assent Risk Management has been interviewing experts from all sectors of the consulting profession. In this interview, Jess talks with Brett Harding from the Delivery Group to discuss remote auditing and consulting.

Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I am the HR manager for London and Kent for the Delivery Group. We have sites up and down the country, we’ve got sites in Luton and Warrington and Bristol, but I mainly focus on the London and Kent areas. I’ve been at the company since 2007 so I’ve seen a lot of changes, namely us going after different certificates and using companies like Assent to get us to a level where we are passing these audits with flying colours and not having to worry about nonconformities. It’s basically a small part of what I do, obviously with HR there are a lot more people skills that are needed for that than audits, but, audits now as we try and get different certificates, take up a larger part of my role at the business.

Can you give us a brief overview of what to expect during a remote audit or consulting?

Well, I think for people who haven’t experienced it before, it’s very similar to an onsite audit. You definitely need to do more preparation work in advance purely because if you’re in an office environment, you can maybe have somebody walk off, you can go to a department, and you can grab some files that you need. Remotely, it’s a little bit more tricky. So the preparation of these audits is, I think, important to make sure that you’ve got all your ducks in line, that you have the required documents that you know you’re definitely going to be asked for. 

An auditor could throw you a curveball and ask for something different and then it’s having contact with the department head and having them obviously scan and send it over to you. So as much as possible, if you can get that stuff in advance, it just makes it a lot easier. I personally don’t see too many differences. 

Obviously, when they’re on site, they will walk around the buildings normally and you can show them different areas. We like to plan in advance and walk around and record videos. So whether we do it in chunks and we do specific areas showing CCTV cameras, fire escapes, that kind of thing, or do the [fire] extinguishers showing the dates on them. Obviously, you can’t show every set of fire extinguishers you’ve got in the whole building, but if you do kind of a scattering, it gives them a rough overview of what they’re looking for. 

Also, it’s just making the other managers that you’re probably going to need on the day aware in advance that they may be needed to jump on to a call at some point during the day. Normally auditors are really good and if you sort of get into the dialogue with them early, they normally have a time plan of where they’re going to be looking at certain items. So you can give these people plenty of fair warning for them to be available. And normally auditors don’t want more than 10 or 15 minutes of someone’s time. 

So, yeah, I don’t mind the audits. Obviously, we had to do a lot of them during lockdown and it was okay. I just found it to be a simple process. You still have the same dialogue that you have face to face, but less mobility around the building.

Can all audits be conducted remotely? What are some of the limitations that you have found?

Originally the limitation was due to the lockdown in that we couldn’t show them around the buildings because we didn’t have people in the buildings. And the people that were in maybe weren’t reliable enough to do exactly what you wanted them to do or what you wanted to show. So I don’t know of many limitations. If it’s a viable option for your company, then it’s nothing to fear. Some people actually are more afraid of the onsite audits sitting face to face with an auditor rather than doing it sort of digitally in a remote location. 

But yeah, it would definitely be those kinds of walk-around things that they need. It was harder during lockdown, so we had people in the office who were able to get us the required videos and certificates that were maybe on the wall. You’ve got notice boards, or you should have notice boards around canteens in areas that people can see. So it’s thinking ahead and saying, we’re going to need that. They’re going to want to see the certificates shown on the wall.

So that kind of mindset has to be that can hinder, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily it’s not really a limitation. It’s just, again, I’ll keep going back to it’s the planning, it’s just thinking ahead. Even if it’s your first audit, then use whoever it is you’ve got from Assent guiding you to help you plan that in advance and listen to them do what they say. Because if you don’t, then that’s where you’re going to get tripped up.

What benefits are there with remote auditing or consulting?

I don’t know that there’s necessarily benefits, I just never saw them as a difficulty, I never saw them as a hurdle. It was a way to get through the audit. Sometimes, obviously, if you’re travelling through to a location, for example, and the auditors themselves, if they’re doing it at home, the audit might be quicker, which [for] some people is great. If they want to get it over and done with quicker, then that’s perfect. There’s also sometimes if you haven’t got a rapport with the auditor, there’s that awkward thing of sitting in the room and you’ve passed them the documents and then they’re just scouring through them and you’re just sort of tapping your fingers and looking at your assistant. But if you’re doing it at home, they can go, right, I’ll go and look at these documents, we’ll log off and we’ll come back in 15 minutes. You’re then able to maybe do more of your day or just check emails, make phone calls, whatever it is.

How can organisations prepare for remote audits? 

Loads. Just a little look behind the curtain, for us as a company, when we first started, I’m not going to lie, we were terrible. We had documentation, we had things in place, but they weren’t very good. So Assent came in and Rob was amazing because he was extremely patient with I’m going to say us, because I don’t want all of the blame to be with me, but us as a company. 

He was like a kind parent that was teaching a child to ride a bike. He just kept running over the same things and not losing his temper with us and saying, you need to get this in place, you need to make sure that your documentation is up to date. And I’m going back to like 2010, 2011 time we had folders, everything was paper-based and we weren’t necessarily filling out all the documents. You’d be distracted because it wasn’t a full-time position, it was something that I was doing with the assistance of other people. 

And I’d say, ‘Right, I need you to make sure that the vehicle checks folder is done every day’. They’d go, ‘Yep, sure’. And then I’d go back, quarterly when Rob would come in and he’d go, can you get the folder? And I’d go and get it and I’d look and it wouldn’t have been done for three months. So he’s like, you need to get this done. You need to get it working. You need to make sure that it’s kind of almost drilling it into you so it becomes muscle memory so people don’t forget. 

So all of these things getting in place leading up to the audit, obviously having people like Rob come in and do kind of almost mini internal audits, it gets you to where you need to be. I used to keep the managers on their toes a little bit and saying and sort of emphasise the importance of it, but say, Rob’s got to send this information off. It was a bit of a white lie, but it’s kind of like just getting people to kind of buy into what you’re doing to help you, because otherwise, if you’re one man chasing all of this stuff, it can be really difficult. So he then gradually got us from being mainly paper based to digital. And it was a game changer, just made everything so much easier.

So when we sat in our audits, the first remote audit we did, Rob had everything there set up and ready to go. So the guy was saying, I need X-Y-Z and Rob would go [here], and it’s in the folder. And the guy’s like, oh, great, okay, and I need to see this, this and this. And then that was sent over [straightaway]. And the auditor would go, ‘wow, okay, I normally expect people to be scrambling around and finding these things and scanning, so can we come back in 2 hours?’. 

So the guy would go off and me and Rob would go, brilliant. It was almost like the penny dropped at that point on that first audit and going, okay, so we’re at that point now. We’ve worked so hard. We’ve prepared the managers, we’ve told the people that we need to speak to. We’ve kind of taken photographs and video of everything we need, and it’s all just there. And by doing that, it takes away the stress. Rob used to come in two weeks before an audit, and I swear I turned him grey, he’s got more grey hairs because of our company than he had previously because again, we just used to leave things at the last minute, and that wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good for me, it wasn’t good for the company, and it’s not good for a company like Assent as well that are they’re there to help you. And if you’re not listening to somebody that’s trying to help you, then what’s the point of using them in the first place? You shouldn’t. And it kind of goes on for the auditors as well.

 And it’s something that I know you’ve got as part of your questions later, so I won’t touch on it. But work smarter, not harder is my mantra in life. So if you can have all these things lined up, if you take two weeks out of your schedule and not every day, but just like, say for these two weeks, I’m going to do this on this day, I’m going to get the transport stuff on this day, just asking for that information. Because if you’re relying on other people, they’re not always quick and responsive with everything. They kind of take their time. Can you show me the waste disposal certificates? Yes, sure. I’ll send that over. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and then you’re two days, three days, four days later, you’re still going, Can I have it?

And it’s like, oh, yeah, I forgot. Sorry. I got to ask them for it. So it’s another two days. So by doing all that in advance, you already have it. And if you’re doing that weeks before the actual audit itself, you’re not kind of bunching it all up and it’s like kind of you’re running from the preparation straight into the audit. So have that week before to just check. Is everything okay? Is there anything else we need to do? 

If possible, speak to the auditors because you know about them in advance and ask them what their kind of timeline of events are. So again, you can maybe feed that information into your managers and make them aware of things like, okay, you’re fifth on the list, but I don’t know how long he’s going to take with the other things. So you’re definitely a day one person. You might be a day two person. And yeah, just make it easy for yourself rather than making it a stressful affair.

Any final tips for remote auditing and consulting?

Don’t be afraid. I don’t think audits are something to be scared of unless you’re not doing something you say you are. I think that that’s something that Rob instilled in us really early. That if you’ve got a policy, are you doing those things on that policy? If not, then change the policy. Because if they come in and the auditors look at it and say, well, you’re supposed to be doing this, this and this, and you’re only doing two of them, then take out the third one. If it’s changed because your business model has changed, or the process itself has changed, then update it. Keep these things updated. 

The auditors themselves, although they are there to judge you in some respects, they’re not there to dig out and find every little problem that you’ve got going on at your business. That’s not what they’re there for, they’re there to be able to give you these certificates, so you can say that you’ve got [ISO] 27001 or [ISO] 14001 or [ISO] 9001 or whatever it may be. So do the things that are required, even if it’s the bare minimum. They might come in and say, you could be doing more, here’s some advice [to help]. I think that if you take that on board and don’t take it personally.

Because I have had people come into the audits with me and the audit has started questioning something that this manager does, and they’ve taken it personally, and suddenly they’re up in arms, and they’re getting angry about it. And you have to say, no, it’s not a dig at you. He’s just suggesting a way that you could do it. 

Now, in some cases, it might not be plausible. It might not be a viable kind of option for your business. It might be a money situation. It might be something about the way you run the business or something that’s done within it that you can’t do. 

I’m a real firm believer in trying to maintain the same auditors, get a rapport with these guys, because every time they come in and they sit there at the start and go, tell me about your business. And you go, okay. And then you have to run through it all again. If you’ve got the same auditor, you come and you say, ‘Hello, Jack, how’s your family? Did you go on that cruise that you spoke about?’ Because you’re there for 8-9 hours a day, and you’re doing it two or three times a day, you start talking about your normal life, it bleeds into the conversation. So if you can just remember little things and start having normal conversations, it becomes less of a chore. And they can see the growth of the business, the growth of the departments of policies, of processes. So they like to see if they suggest something, and you make a note of it and you apply it.

You can say, ‘See, when you said about this? We applied it’ and [auditors] like that, because it shows that you’re taking on board what they’re saying as a suggestion. Some of them will be things that you have to do, whereas some of them will just be like, have you thought about doing this? 

These guys go to companies all around the country, so they’re seeing similar models in other places and they might have seen something and thought that they go that would really work here. So that’s all they’re doing. 

They’re not the enemy many people believe that they are. They’re not trying to trip you up, just treat them with respect as well. I heard horror stories about people being stuck in cold offices with no windows or aircon and not offering them drinks or being rude to them. It’s like, what’s the point of that? They’re here to help you. Why do you want to make their life misery as well? You might not like them or you might not like you have to do an audit, but it doesn’t make sense to make people angry just for the sake of being petty. So it’s never been something that I’ve done or we’ve done as a company and yeah, where you can maintain those communication lines.

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Jessica Inglis
Jessica Inglis
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