May 28, 2020

Maintaining Your Culture in a Remote Work Environment

Even if your CPA firm made a smooth transition to a near 100% telework environment, or is in the process of doing so, there is more to managing your company during COVID-19 than distributing laptops, cameras and holding client-focused Zoom meetings. 

Having the cloud technology, processes and cybersecurity protocols to keep getting accounting work done safely is a nonnegotiable. 

But what about maintaining and protecting the culture you and your CPA firm team have worked so hard to build? 

What of the company parties, the charitable outings, the team-building events and the happy hours? Or the new employee welcome lunches? Staff birthdays? The celebration of team successes or of making it through another tax season successfully and with your team’s sanity intact?It’s easy to overlook the human element of COVID-19 when your firm is pivoting on a weekly basis to stay productive and in adherence with new regulations and altered tax deadlines. The human element, team togetherness and, most importantly, the culture that makes your CPA firm unique and special also need to be addressed in new ways due to the pandemic.

The good news: The cloud, the right hardware and innovative software that you’ve added, or are thinking about adding, not only enables virtual work but can also be used for virtual team building, protecting your culture and integrating new people into that culture.

At Cetrom, we’ve had a strong telework IT infrastructure and have been maintaining and growing our culture in this type of environment for years. Here are our tips for maintaining and growing your CPA firm’s culture during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Incorporate “Water Cooler” Time into Standing Virtual Meetings

Yes, getting client work done always needs to be the priority, but that doesn’t mean every meeting has to stick to tasks, project objectives and other client work details. 

It’s okay and, in fact, healthy and beneficial to designate a segment of standing staff meetings for virtual “water cooler” talk. This time can be used to talk about current events, the latest Netflix shows to binge watch or a variety of other topics of interest that are fun and can relieve stress.

It’s important for CPA firm leadership to remember that work isn’t the only source of staff stress. Quarantine and stay-at-home orders have created a whole new layer of stress at home for staff that have younger children and are in two-income homes, younger team members cut off from friends and family, or really just about any team member enduring the pandemic.

Any opportunity to laugh, relax and enjoy the company of others should be embraced.

Virtual “water cooler” meeting times are a great way to do this on a regular basis. That said, “water cooler” talk should be organized and kept under control; staff should take turns being the “water cooler” topic leader so that everyone has a chance to drive the conversation and participate, and meeting leaders should keep this segment under control to not impact other agenda items.

Hold Virtual Happy Hours

Every Friday, every other Friday or once a month (the important thing is to keep it consistent so people have something to look forward to) hold a virtual happy hour on Zoom or whatever virtual meeting software you use at your firm.

Encourage staff to attend, promote it via internal communications and encourage your team to bring their favorite adult beverage or non-alcoholic drink to the virtual get-together. Make sure to let the team know this is an informal event so they can wear what they want. It’s up to you whether the virtual happy hour has structure (i.e., games, trivia, etc.) or is just a free-form chance to talk about whatever.

If virtual happy hours don’t fit your culture, consider doing a virtual coffee break or a virtual snack break. What’s important is that your CPA firm creates consistent opportunities for togetherness that fit your company’s culture. 

Create Engaging Onboarding Opportunities

New hires starting with your CPA firm during the pandemic can face real challenges integrating into the team. 

The excitement of getting hired can quickly fade to concern and anxiety if a new staff member remains isolated from a team that was already close-knit prior to COVID-19. A critical part of successful onboarding is creating a process by which the new hire can develop new relationships with team members.

This can still be done virtually, much like a virtual happy hour or coffee break. Create a virtual new hire lunch where your firm pays for food delivery to staff homes and everyone gets together online at the same time to meet and greet a new team member. 

We would advise having this online meeting be a bit more structured than say a virtual happy hour or “water cooler” talk. Provide opportunities for introductions and maybe for a fun, engaging icebreaker activity. The important thing here is to show the new staff member that your firm cares and that the team is willing to take the time to welcome them to the company.

Encourage Sharing Among Team Members

Software like Slack, for example, are tremendous tools for keeping your team connected to the company and to one another. Slack allows administrators to create specific communication channels for say, client-related items, or for posting funny GIFS or sharing new music. 

These channels can provide fun opportunities for staff members to share recipes, workout tips, great music and movie suggestions, and videos. Again, leveraging technology and tools to maintain and build a strong company culture has never been more important, and tools like Slack and others can really amplify staff connectivity. 

Promote a Flex Work Schedule that’s Legit

One of the most important lessons that people who worked from home prior to COVID-19 learned is this — learn to let go of the guilt. This is true even under normal circumstances: If you hit your deadlines, do great work and are responsive to emails, texts and phone calls, it’s okay if you walk your dog at 2 p.m. or take your kid for ice cream when they get off of school.

The key is remaining productive and responsive. If you get work done, it really shouldn’t matter to your employer when it gets done or if you’ve strictly adhered to a 9 to 5 schedule.

As a CPA firm owner or executive, adopting a flex work mindset is essential to keeping your team happy and productive, particularly with the added stresses created by the pandemic. Micromanaging telework schedules will be counterproductive and will only add to the stress your team feels every day.

And it's common knowledge that stressed out, unhappy employees are less productive and more likely to leave for other employers — perhaps your competitor. 

You’ll know who is continuing to produce and who’s struggling by their outputs and your firm's performance, just like in the pre-COVID-19 environment. Being too rigid will not help. Addressing underperformance during the pandemic is another topic for another day, but it’s essential to do your best to understand what’s going on with an underperforming staff member, particularly given the unusual circumstances, before taking any action.

Less stressed, better connected staff members that are given the flexibility they need will, to a very large degree, remain productive during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s up to CPA firm leadership to pivot from a pure client work focus to an approach that creates opportunities for stress relief, camaraderie, celebration and laughter. 

There’s no doubt all of us need some levity these days. 

Building a telework IT ecosystem is not just about getting work done during a pandemic; it’s also about maintaining the community and culture that underpins its success.   

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