Over the past decade or longer, most accounting firms have transitioned to professional programs that enable remote access. From practice management to payroll, accounting, and tax preparation, systems are available specifically for online use or can be hosted by an application service provider (ASP).With these systems in place, many firms have already made use of remote workers: either to build up their staff during busy season or to allow in-office workers more work/life flexibility. So, for the modern accounting firm, having remote workers is nothing new. However, with the rapid effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the American workforce, including stay-at-home orders for most states, many firms had to implement a universal remote work policy immediately.
After all, even though business has slowed, the need for accounting professionals has never been greater, especially since many of the federal relief options will require estimating loss of revenue. Likewise, Americans—individuals and businesses—are still in need of professional tax services; though the filing deadline has been pushed back, stimulus checks are based on tax information held by the IRS.
Firms that have more experience with remote accounting services are more likely to make this transition more smoothly than those who have been reluctant. But given that much of the work product of an accounting or tax firm is digital, most firms should be able to successfully move their firms into this new, all-remote paradigm. While the current situation will be temporary (but indefinite at the moment), when we emerge from the coronavirus threat, accounting firms will have stronger workflows and will be more adept and able to weather future business disruptions.
In my 20 years of advising and working with accounting and professional services firms, and as a ten-year remote worker myself, there are a few best practices I’ve identified. These can help remote accounting firms be more productive and work together more effectively, even when “working together” means that you are miles apart.
- Keep Up the Communication
- Use a Project Management System
- Keep Up the Motivation
- Be Flexible, but Have a Policy
When moving to an all-remote work environment, firm managers will quickly find that it feels very different to manage a remote worker compared to when they were in the same office.
Everyday Communication with Staff
While you may not have everyday conferences, it’s still important that team members continue to feel they are a part of the team and the firm at large. One of the biggest changes for those new to managing remote workers (or being one themselves) is the loss of conversation when asking for status updates, seeking assistance, or even just while passing in the hall or gathering around the watercooler.
Each remote worker will have different needs when it comes to social interaction and their level of autonomy. Good managers recognize that and adjust accordingly to allow workers to thrive.
While there won’t be any random in-person discussions for a while, it’s still important for managers to keep in touch, as needed, to check on work status, to give kudos, or to offer guidance. These can all be done via email, phone, or preferably, a workplace chat app. In these stressful times, it may also be welcome to check on each staff member’s well-being.
As a manager with remote accounting workers, it is critical to keep communication channels open: not disappear or seem unreachable. At the same time, give them space by not overwhelming them with never-ending communication that will disrupt their workflow. One good way to start each day is with a “good morning” message (but not CC’ing everyone within a group), followed by a status request and reminders of approaching deadlines. Even better, these functions can be more successfully overseen with a project management system.
Video and Phone Conferencing
If your teams already had regularly scheduled weekly meetings (that used to be conducted in a conference room, for example), try to keep those routines as it lends a sense of normalcy. Whether you use video conferencing or phone-based conferencing, try to maintain a regular frequency.
Video conferences can be a good way to see familiar faces. Plus, video allows participants to raise their hands or exhibit other social cues to interject when necessary, whereas phone-only conferencing can result in overlapping talking. According to Psychology Today, “55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.”
Video is also a good method of one-way communication for firm-wide town halls, enabling senior management to update the firm on overall goals, issues, policies, and firm health. They can often include text-based questions from firm staff.
If using a free group video conferencing app(such as Zoom, Google Meet, etc.), keep in mind there have been reports of those meetings getting joined by uninvited guests who are there just to cause mischief and disruption. Although discussions of client work during the session may include sensitive financial information, there is little need to discuss personally identifying information (SSNs, TINs, EINs, etc.), so make sure you don’t.
Here are some tips to avoid your video conference from getting “Zoom bombed:”
Email vs. Workplace Chat Apps
If your firm routinely uses email to communicate, that’s fine to continue, but you should look into chat systems (such as Slack, Basecamp, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and others) that reduce inbox activity.
Slack is easier to pick up for non-technical users. It provides group chat messaging and add-on features with the ability to create specific groups (great for client teams within a firm) or larger groups, as well as direct messaging.
Many companies also encourage a non-work banter channel/thread on their Slack or other workplace messaging app. This can be useful in maintaining a sense of community within the firm by allowing employees to stay connected with each other on non-work topics. Remote accounting firms that adopt this option should have a defined policy regarding language and improper topics.
Interacting with your clients will also greatly depend on the nature of their business and their use of technology. Since most communication with clients in the last ten years has probably been digital or by phone, the firm shouldn’t see as much disruption on this front—at least for those clients who are able to stay in operation during this time. The firm may also be able to advise clients on these strategies for managing their own remote workers.
Successful firms have been implementing project management systems for several years, giving them a strong platform that is ready for remote accounting services. Systems such as BQE Core give firms a centralized hub for managing many aspects of workflow, including:
- tracking status and deadlines for individual projects
- time and expense management
- resource allocation
- budget management
- managing documents
- online payment
- staff productivity
For managers, the system allows customizable dashboards and tools that can drill down to specific project, expense, and employee details. This helps you monitor productivity and keep employees on top of KPIs. At the same time, staff members can easily see when their deadlines or milestones are approaching, get clear insight about project leadership, and can keep their managers up-to-date. More advanced systems, including BQE Core, also include built-in chat functionality. For peak productivity and accountability, the project management system needs to be used consistently.
Firms should also set monthly and quarterly goals and be realistic about the potential for the all-remote work environment to last longer than initially expected. The firm should share these goals with staff in terms of how it relates to work teams and individuals. It’s also important that staff have individual objectives, which should be in the project management system. At the very least, team managers can share an objective/goal/deadline document via Google Docs.
New remote accounting services workers can often find it difficult to focus because of outside issues or family interactions during the day. Having a routine can help staff members feel they are staying connected to the firm, and to their responsibilities. Managers should offer some flexibility (as they likely face the same issues), but also need to ensure that deadlines are met.
At the manager level, or firm-wide, it can be easy and inexpensive to implement employee recognition programs, starting with publicly commending staff via messaging, group emails, conference calls, or town halls. Firms may also offer minor financial incentives: gift cards from online retailers, food delivery apps, or businesses still in operation. To support your struggling small business clients, if they offer gift cards, those could also be given to firm staff as incentives. These should not replace existing bonuses or other incentive programs already in place.
Shifting to a remote workforce can be disruptive in the short term, but it can be achieved with successful planning and establishing good policies. Those policies will, necessarily, shift along the way, but structure can help reinforce the sense of firm community.
If the firm or a group manager wants to formalize their work-from-home guidance, provide staff members with the following information:
- When regular meetings are scheduled, and via what technology: beginning of the week, end of week, daily, etc.
- The structure of meetings: keep them short and focused on information relevant only to everyone involved in the live meeting. Individual tasking should be addressed individually.
- When and how should individuals check in with their supervisor (via messaging, phone, or chat) and at what specific times (beginning of day, end of day, after specific projects)?
- What are the work hours? Are they flexible to accommodate parents with children and other issues?
- How does management plan to recognize or reward staff?
- What is the best way for staff to contact their manager for one-on-one discussions or personal issues?
- What is the PTO and sick leave policy during this time?
- Develop a plan for when workers may return to the office: gradually, in waves, etc.
Working through this time of dramatic change in the firm and in every team member’s personal lives depends on communicating the goals and expectations of the firm, even as they change, as well as providing the resources and technology tools, especially project management functions, to track and complete tasks that maintain firm productivity. Managers need to be flexible to help their staff cope with the change, and be aware of the different work styles and needs of each of their workers.
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