Allowing firm members to work remotely can increase morale, improve productivity and boost employee retention, especially among Millennial staff focused on quality-of-life concerns. When it comes to recruiting, firms that offered remote work opportunities received eight times as many candidates for job openings as those that did not, according to a study by recruiter AccountingFly. It’s surprising, then, that the Convergence Coaching “Anytime, Anywhere Work Survey” found that less than half of responding firms had a formal remote work policy and process to allow it. How can you maximize the success of remote work in your firm?
Define your policies. Firm owners have varying perceptions of what remote work means, which can hinder adoption. Start by recognizing that it is not really new, since many firms have auditors working in client offices, consultants meeting with clients offsite, tax staff reviewing returns or responding to emails before their morning commute, and client services responding to client emergencies late at night (or on the weekend). Develop policies based on existing remote work practices, then formalize them in writing and have those in charge of human resources review and update them regularly. As part of this process, establish that work done remotely should be measured based on successful, timely completion in addition to the traditional profitability and realization metrics. Core hours—a fixed period when all staff should be at work and available—can help. By choosing 10 to 3, for example, you allow remote workers to get kids off to school or avoid peak commuting time, but they are still accessible for most of the day. Remote staff should also be expected to adhere to all firm policies, including security and confidentiality procedures and rules related to potential insurance issues.
Check tech infrastructure. A remote work program is only as good as the technology that supports it. One key step is to digitize all client data so that workpapers, accounting applications and collaboration tools (email, messaging, workflow) can be securely accessed at the same performance levels available to those working in your offices. This means using robust remote access applications such as VPNs (virtual private networks), Citrix, Microsoft Remote Desktop and, increasingly, cloud-based applications and vendors that natively build in remote functionality, so all applications work similarly at the same speed whether within or outside the office. If the firm allows the use of personal computers, tablets and smartphones to access firm applications and client data, update your policies and security accordingly, including requiring passwords and multi-factor authentication as well as making it possible to remotely erase the firm’s data if a device is lost or stolen.
Configuring the remote work environment for optimal production is also important. While most auditors are comfortable working remotely in ever-changing and constrained client environments, tax people working from home need screen capability that’s similar to what they have in the office. All remote workers also need a separate, private space free of distractions where documents can be kept confidential.
Upgrade communication tools. Digital communication is critical, and collaboration tools such as Skype, Slack and Teams can integrate messaging, screen sharing, audio and video communications and promote person-to-person interactions regardless of location. These tools require workstations with a video camera and either a microphone and speakers or a headset. They will promote a seamless transition between working internally and remotely.
Digital project management and workflow tools give everyone access to project status, due dates and prioritization whether they are in the office or field. While many smaller firms use components of their practice management/time and billing applications for these capabilities, the majority can be expanded to incorporate the digital status of all projects and make it available via remote tools. According to the latest CPAFMA (CPAFMA.org) application survey, larger firms also tended to use dedicated workflow tools such as XCM, CCH Workstream, Thomson FirmFlow, and Doc-it, in addition to practice management applications, and they can all be accessed and updated remotely.
Remote work has long been standard practice for the assurance team, so it is surprising that a significant number of firms have not provided this opportunity to all firm members. Failing to offer remote work can put firms at a competitive disadvantage. If your firm doesn’t allow it and lacks related policies, now is the time to get started! The PCPS Flexibility Toolkit can help!
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA, LSS BB, is the Director of Firm Technology Strategy for Right Networks and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies, incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of the 2019 Edition of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which is available for download to members of the AICPA PCPS section.