Transitioning to a virtual firm requires more than the right technology: It requires new thinking about how your firm works.
By Jess Coburn
As the coronavirus situation intensifies, it is becoming more and more apparent that we must become increasingly flexible and innovative in how we approach our day-to-day lives. Nowhere is it more evident than in how we run our tax and accounting firms.
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The Coronavirus crisis requires a total re-evaluation of how we conduct our business. For those firms with employees – as opposed to sole practitioners – it is critical to consider going fully remote during this time. It makes sense from a health standpoint and also from a business survival perspective. It’s important for employees to remain healthy and to be able to conduct work, especially during these busy times which involve tax filing deadlines and inevitable extensions.
It’s also important to recognize that families are being impacted due to school and daycare closures, requiring employees to be at home to care for them.
All of that said, the move to a fully remote status requires a culture shift. For many CPA firms and other professional services organizations, this is a major adjustment.
Most firms take pride in their offices and regularly encourage client meetings in their conference rooms. Many firms have an “old school” perspective dictating that employees must have to “go to work” to be truly efficient, allow for collaboration, and develop a collegial work environment.
Fortunately, the technology exists to create a virtual workplace and many firms are using it, allowing employees to work from home, on the weekends, and during business trips. As the current situation plays out, we’ll be seeing a much heavier dependence on technology to accomplish these tasks. The major hurdle could very well be cultural and an acknowledgment that virtual workplaces will likely be the wave of the future, well beyond the current pandemic.
The major change will be that for some firms having a virtual workplace will evolve from being simply a convenience to becoming standard, accepted, and mandatory practices.
Let’s take a look at several of the issues accounting firms will face as they create or increase their virtual presence:
- Recognize that this is the best strategy to maintain the health of your employees and clients. Those firms that aren’t making this move will likely lose clients and employees.
- As discussed, the technology allowing this already exists. Office 365 is perhaps the most efficient and comprehensive system. In short, it is a cloud-based integrated experience that empowers your employees with the tools they need to collaborate efficiently, communicate on the go, and access files with ease. Its business apps allow you to manage bookkeeping, customer scheduling, and referrals in a secure environment.
- The key element, though, is to utilize the communications tools such as video conferencing, conference calls, etc. Many firms have these capabilities. But now the critical issue is to use them all the time. For example:
- Have a short 5-10 minute quickie meeting at the start of each day to address anything the team needs from others on the team to minimize delays and interruptions. Have weekly conference/video calls to review files, challenges, workloads. The most important issue is to continually use technology to enhance corporate culture. Look at this as creating a virtual “water cooler” to focus not only on work but also on camaraderie, social interaction, etc. When possible, it’s always preferable to use video communications.
- Use these same communications tools with clients.
- Utilize Office 365’s ability to monitor employee calls, emails, hours, and progress on files. This may initially seem “Big Brotherish,” but it’s no different than checking on these issues in-person at the office
- Make sure all security protocols are in place and that files are password protected. It’s also best to set up your employees with company laptops as opposed to allowing them to use personal computers which are more likely to be compromised. If they have to use personal devices, bring them under management and help to secure and clean them before they can connect to the corporate network.
- Consider providing tutorials to clients on how to best set up virtual workplaces
It will also be important for management to educate staff on best practices for working at home. It requires discipline, boundaries, and routine. Here are a few tips we have implemented since going virtual several years ago:
- Establish a schedule:
- Wake up
- Make coffee
- Get dressed for work
- Go to the office which will be a few steps away as opposed to a few miles
- If possible, establish a dedicated workplace in your home. This signals to your spouse and children that you’re “at work” and try not to disturb
- Recognize that it’s easy to “burn out” when working at home. It’s important to set boundaries by turning off the computer and walking out of your home office at the end of the day
- Maintain the separation between weekend and weekday rituals. Saturdays are different from weekdays in that you may not shower or “get dressed” for work. And you may not get to your home office by 9 a.m. on the weekend, or at all
Once this new workplace culture is adopted, you’ll find that there are many advantages:
- A decrease in “sick days” related to children since employees can still get a full day’s work in even if with trips to the doctor
- Workdays traditionally start earlier and end earlier, providing employees more time with family
- CPA firms are no longer restricted to a local talent pool. With a virtual workplace, firms can recruit and hire talent in other parts of the country. This transition is also a recruiting tool since future generations will expect this
- An unexpected benefit is an elimination of “porch pirates” since you’ll be at home.
The major challenge in managing a CPA firm is maintaining communication with the workforce, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face. Also, this transition can’t be done overnight. There will be a time for adjustment so consider small steps as big victories.
This crisis will eventually end, but you may find a silver lining in that the shift to a virtual office could be permanent resulting in a more efficient workforce, elimination of expensive rents, and the ability to recruit your workforce of the future.