Global events such as the coronavirus pandemic can cause enormous economic damage, but can also accelerate positive developments that were already long anticipated. These include, among others, global digital technologies such as the Internet, which opens up fascinating possibilities for communication and information that were hitherto inconceivable. The exchange of data via the World Wide Web not only makes qualified working from home possible, but also online conferences from almost any corner of the Earth. Thus, the solution for a problem arising with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its development into a global pandemic was actually obvious. If travel and overnight stays for auditors for the usual in-person audits on site are risky and may be subject to long compulsory quarantine periods, but the audits cannot be indefinitely postponed despite the crisis, because important certificates would otherwise become invalid, then the necessary discussions must simply be carried out remotely via the Internet. This is where the idea for remote audits came from, which was adopted by almost all audit offices and organisations and was ready for practical use within a very short time. Remote audits are absolutely equivalent to standard in-person audits, meet the requirements of the relevant accreditation bodies and are recognised internationally.
Audits on site remain the best choice to assess compliance with all standards and to measure performance, but under the current conditions they are unfortunately often not possible, because the risks for consultants and customers is much too high. The pandemic is also putting commercial enterprises under pressure in this respect. They must quickly change trusted and tried-and-tested business practices. However, it is already clear that almost everyone is managing with the remote audits just as well if not better than with in-person audits. After thorough preparation, both are equally efficient. Remote audits should not be too much of a technical problem with the arsenal of communication technologies that are available almost everywhere nowadays. Investments in software and hardware are therefore manageable, and often even unnecessary. Particularly because remote audits come in different variants. They can either be carried out as a digital complete solution solely on the computer or as a combination of digital computer assessment with a physical audit by a consultant who checks specific areas of practice on site. Remote audits are new and unfamiliar. For this reason, initially they feel different to the standard physical audits, but they are done basically in the same way. Both have the same goal and aim to make the interactions as useful as possible. They save time and costs and increase the reach, because even production sites that are physically remote can be audited. They also reduce the risks associated with in-person visits to the company. Remote audits, of course, have stricter requirements than a simple video-conference, but the participants usually quickly become familiar with the procedures.
Live streams make remote audits a real experience
Remote audits are flexible and are usually done based on complex software packages that can be tailored to individual needs and requirements of the customer and also guarantee the required level of data security. Whether it is a supplier audit, risk assessment, conformity check, crisis report, certification or inspection service – the modern technology platforms are suitable for almost any application. This flexibility makes it possible to carry out interviews and inspections remotely on the computer and to view important documents and files. For required inspections, drones can even be used for live stream. With Avatour virtual software, for example, facilities can be viewed from far away locations without any requirement to be present on site. Observers get a virtual 360° experience with a VR headset that comes very close to reality and is accessible from anywhere. The usual standards for on-site audits are also possible with remote audits. For audited companies, remote audits also have the advantage that operational experts can interact with the auditors in real time. Distance has no effect on the level and the depth of the inspections carried out with remote audits, they feel just like a ‘normal’ inspection. The word ‘inspection’ is probably not correct in this context. Many auditors emphasise that audits are not inspections in the conventional sense, in which companies are ‘examined’ and receive a certificate at the end. Even the term ‘audit’ – which derives from the Latin verb ‘audire’ for ‘listen’ – is a reminder that the auditor should listen above all, in order to be able to place themselves in their customers’ shoes and thus draw helpful conclusions.
The digital tools used for remote audits are only an aid however. The expert knowledge and understanding of the sector possessed by the auditors remain decisive for the success and benefit of these audits. The experts must possess a deep technical and industrial knowledge in order to detect existing problems and precisely analyse them. If these requirements are met, accredited remote audits can do just as much and be just as trustworthy as in-person audits. They also help the company to reach its desired level. For this reason, ‘remote assessments’ are possible in the same areas as in-person audits. The spectrum ranges from food producers, warehouses and transport companies, to aquaculture operations and feed mills, to retail. Remote audits have particularly proven themselves for compliance and conformity checks, such as ISO standards, FSSC, BRCGS, IFS, SQF as well as COVID-19 control plans and WHS management systems.
High-performance digital networks are indispensable
Careful preparation speeds up the remote audit process. At the beginning, the participating partners agree on the desired scope, content and type of the remote assessment – usually by telephone. Particularly for remote audits, the goal should be discussed in advance in the appropriate context so that the auditors know what the company is aiming for and wishes to achieve.
Then the form of the process is discussed, whether the audit should take place completely remotely via computer and live stream, which naturally keeps travel costs down, or whether experts would like to be on site during the audit to carry out necessary inspections or provide technical support. The companies can also send important documents and data to the auditors in advance in order to have them reviewed and analysed. Details like this can be discussed and agreed upon. This saves unnecessary costs later and reduces the time required for the audit. During the preparatory discussions, both sides must also agree on what technologies should be used for the remote audit. Auditors are usually familiar with all commonly used platforms, so companies can often use their own technology. What is decisive in this context is that the chosen technology must be suitable for visual documentation of the assessment, transparent and verifiable, and that it allows for confidentiality and comprehensive data security.
In the basic version, which is suitable for simple, less complex processes, the usual applications used are standard commercial communications tools such as Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, Duo, Zoom, WeChat, or Skype, which can be used on almost all tablets, laptops or smartphones. More demanding audits of larger companies, however, frequently require premium software versions with a higher level of complexity, which are offered in the form of apps by nearly all notable audit providers, often in combination with VR headsets. The apps supplied by audit providers have been specifically developed for this special purpose, provide a variety of options for specific problems, and usually also facilitate the secure streaming of audio, video and document images, which is indispensable for communication during remote audits. If required, technical experts from the audit team can be hired at the same time to provide help and support with installation and operation. It should be clarified in discussions in advance which technology is actually necessary, sufficient or best suited for the remote audit. Well advised, comprehensively informed and thoroughly prepared remote audits are almost always experienced as reliable and completely ‘normal’ after a short adjustment period, despite their unusual form.
Security and conﬁdentiality are ensured for remote audits
Once the modalities of the audit have been agreed, the meeting dates scheduled and any open questions on information security have been clarified, the concrete preparation phase begins, during which the documents, devices and processes are ‘physically’ reviewed and the electronic documents are gathered. The more thorough the preparation, the less time is required to carry out the remote audit. To be completely safe, the auditors usually test the technical platforms before the scheduled meeting to ensure that the audit runs smoothly on the day. If all of the tools, from videoconferencing to file transfers to screen sharing, are working and required documents are available in electronic form, the remote audit can begin at the agreed time. The auditors gradually acquire the data they need to verify conformity or determine efficiency of operational management systems via the encrypted and secure platform. What data is stored and for how long depends of the requirements of the relevant accreditation body. The auditors always follow the principle of only storing the information they need to comply with statutory requirements and the specifications of their own accreditation office. Such data is stored in a secure cloud environment.
Following a reasonable processing period, the company receives the results and findings of its remote audit, usually in digital form as an e-report. If conformity with standards or approval certificates are required, these are usually supplied by means of the standard process. As usual, the companies are also informed of any deficiencies or ‘non-conformities’ that have been detected during the assessment after a remote audit. In this case the auditors often, if possible and reasonable, offer expert support with operational corrective and preventive measures remotely via the previously used data network.
The question as to what amount of time a remote audit requires compared to physical in-person audits cannot be answered in a general way. It actually differs from case to case, because the length of the process is influenced by many different factors. These include not just the scope of the audit, the specific sectoral and operational situation and the relationship between office and physical work, it also depends on the time required for installation and commissioning of the digital data technology. Experience has shown that for tech-savvy customers who are used to dealing with modern communication tools, the process is often quicker than with more practically-oriented customers who only occasionally sit at a desk.
Remote audits have proven themselves and will probably stick around
Remote technologies that can be used for digital remote audits and assurance services, for example, have developed under the pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote audits are characterised by speed, flexibility and efficiency. This makes them an acceptable solution to fully meet the requirements of nationally and internationally operating companies in this difficult situation where travel is complicated and associated with health risks and personal contact is only possible with great difficulty. In the meantime, however, it has become clear that remote assessments are much more than just a temporary solution adopted out of necessity. A tool that makes it possible to react quickly and flexibly to new challenges has special advantages under the volatile conditions on the global market. Particularly since remote audits are recognised globally as having the same level as in-person inspections on site and just as high quality and safety standards. Once the technical requirements are available, they offer companies a series of attractive additional options, such as audits in remote and difficultto-reach regions or in the case of widely distributed companies with complex infrastructures. Remote technologies provide a unique opportunity to have inspections and assessments carried out by recognised specialists with the required technical expertise from anywhere in the world in real time. With the help of this modern technology they can dive deep into operational processes, identify problems and risks and present suggestions for tackling them. Remote audits thus create a winwin situation for all participants.
Although the first countries are currently relaxing certain pandemic control restrictions on economic life, and tried-andtested in-person audits will probably return soon, remote services will probably not completely disappear. For one thing, the coronavirus crisis, as is well known, has not receded everywhere in the world to the extent that would be desirable, which makes inspection trips to regions that pose a risk to health or are difficult to access still risky and hard to calculate. For another, remote audits have thoroughly proved themselves, since they require less time and staff than an in-person audit. Moreover, they offer cost advantages, although this aspect requires a differentiated perspective. Carrying out the audit requires almost the same costs, because both in-person and remote audits require identical expertise on the part of the auditors. The savings from digital ‘remote diagnostics’ therefore mostly results from dispensing with travel to and from the audit location and hotel stays for the auditors, who can often even advise other companies during this saved ‘unproductive’ travel time.
Less travel, whether by plane, road or rail, also reduces one’s carbon footprint, because it results in less CO2 in the atmosphere. This is reflected positively in the company’s climate balance sheet and is an additional reason why many experts predict increasing demand for remote audits even after the pandemic. Their prognoses are based on convincing arguments, since digital audits are as quick, efficient and flexible as they are secure and sustainable. Digital data networks make it possible to audit a greater number of companies in more locations, in different regions that are often very distant from each other, with the same reliability. Audit dates can often be simply and quickly agreed upon, which minimises the necessary interruption times at the production site. In addition, remote audits simplify contact with technical experts across the globe in a cost-efficient way. Internationally networked auditors can be consulted on special issues, which also increases the competencies of the audit teams. Thus, there is a range of convincing reasons for remote audits to continue.