According to a recent survey by the Independent International Organization for Certification (IIOC), 38 percent of total audits (across 22 certification bodies) were delivered remotely in 2020. The year before, that number stood at a meager 1.75 percent.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, auditors quickly adjusted to new norms, replacing notepads with keyboards and in-person meetings with Zoom and Teams. In fact, ISO quickly pushed out a 9001 auditing practices group guidance to help provide "provide flexibility to achieving the audit objective." In other words, a lot has changed in the last year.
Many auditors have invested in Information Communication Technology (ICT), like cloud-based audit management systems, digital imaging solutions, and remote meeting tools. Simultaneously, businesses have adopted internal technology that facilitates remote auditing — whether or not that was the goal of those investments.
But will it last? What happens when the doors open again?
Will auditors quickly put down the digital tools and rally around in-person auditing again?
‘Will remote completely overtake traditional auditing pathways?
The answer is neither. Remote auditing is here to stay. But auditing will never be a completely digital process. That will be made clear through a discussion of the pros and cons of remote auditing.
The Advantages of Remote Auditing
Reduced Travel Time and Costs
Businesses spend over $111.7 billion on business travel annually, with the average work trip topping $1,280. Remote audits require zero travel costs. Instead, auditors will be coordinating with managers and employees on remote apps like Zoom and Teams. In general, remote auditing is cheaper to conduct in terms of traveling — although some of those costs may get lost in the time burden created by remote meetings.
Health & Safety
Remote auditing is safer. Private industries suffer 2.8 million worksite injuries each year. Often, QMS auditors deal with businesses that operate high-risk machinery, chemicals, and processes. For auditors, these situations generate risk. And this risk can slow down processes, invade audit thoroughness, and impede audit scope.
One of the largest pain points associated with auditing hazardous or hard-to-reach areas is the time and energy commitment put into safety. This is eliminated in remote environments, which puts less strain on businesses and less risk on auditors. At the same time, remote also allows auditors to view facility areas that they normally couldn't view due to the hazards and safety requirements.
Remote-centric Auditing Pairs Well With Remote-enabled Companies
Ninety-eight percent of employers shifted to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 89% admit that they expect workers to stay remote at least one day of the week. In cases where employees are remote, remote auditing simply makes sense. Everyone is on the same page. Remote audits are perfect for reaching remote individuals, and we fully expect remote-enabled companies to blend in remote audits to help them reach those units.
The Disadvantages of Remote Auditing
Low-quality Communication (Comparatively)
Auditing involves a lot of meetings. Already, upper management spends 50 percent of their time in meetings. So, remote audits do have a time impact in terms of remote meetings. They also produce meetings that often see lower quality communication due to technical issues, sound quality problems, and the ever-so-prevalent awkward pauses that accompany digital communication channels. You can solve some of these woes by choosing the best-possible ICT and creating some plans before your meeting.
As an example, remote facility tours may be impacted by loud environments, spotty reception, and quality issues. You can circumvent some of these issues by creating a thorough review document and remote meeting strategy. But you have to work around technology. This theme of tech pervades remote auditing. Your audits will only be as good as your ICT, strategies, and remote processes. You can clearly and consistently communicate via remote tech, but it requires forward-thinking, planning, and some strategic investment.
Data can be manipulated. Video can be faked, and analytics can be manipulated. Is this rare? Yes. But it's possible. This risk carries to both the auditor and the business. In remote environments, data clarity is always an issue. But it can be minimized. Again, ICT plays a massive role in the quality of your audits — including how robust your data security mechanisms are. Live video feeds are much harder to manipulate than pre-recorded content, and live data streams are safer to work with compared to static data files.
Lack of Autonomy
Auditors have always performed the ever-difficult task of operating as a third-party looking into an organization. Remote auditing removes some of that freedom and fluidity. The impact of this lack of autonomy varies by auditing structure and industry. For example, a factory looking for a supplier audit to help them bolster safety capabilities may experience less value out of a remote audit. The auditor cannot physically examine systems and processes, and they will be forced to leverage mostly data and screen-driven interactions to discover value. There are also some serious concerns over technicalities that exist due to this lack of autonomy. If an audit requires an on-site follow-up, remote audits simply can't facilitate this type of audit. So, as we gently begin to march out of the black swan event that consumed 2020, remote audits will serve as a serious contender to in-person audits, but they are limited in scope and scale.
Lack of Access to the Physical Process
Auditing does not exclusively involve the review of electronic records and some activities, such as a laboratory or manufacturing line, are not appropriate for remote work. For example, when auditing a clinical laboratory, it is often important to have physical access to the lab to observe how technicians handle samples, perform the analytical methods and interact with the instruments. Additionally, maintenance log books are typical kept near the instruments which would be difficult to thoroughly examine in a remote setting.
Remote Auditing Delivers Results
With the right ICT, strategies, and processes, remote auditing can be a worthy addition to your auditing ecosystem. Depending on your situation, remote auditing can reduce risk, minimize traveling, and encourage safety. But it's not without its downsides. To win with remote, your business needs to have the perfect mix of ICT and a forward-thinking tech culture. In the future, remote will continue to be a core component of auditing. But it will never fully replace on-site visits. Savvy businesses will continue to leverage both solutions to create more robust and auditor-friendly strategies. To learn more about subjects relating to auditing, QMS, and strategy, subscribe to our blog.