Adopting and Empowering a Telework Ecosystem is the Future of CPA Firm Operations

The coronavirus pandemic has created a paradigm shift in the way work gets done and will get done moving forward. 

CPA firms need to adapt quickly and augment their IT capabilities, work policies, and operational approaches to not only survive the pandemic but also thrive in the post-pandemic workplace where the traditional way of doing business just won’t cut it any longer. 

Telework arrangements existed before COVID-19 as a “nice-to-have” or a quasi benefit to some employees some of the time, but never to all employees all of the time. That has fundamentally changed with nearly all companies moving to near 100% telework environments because of the pandemic.

Everything has changed for employers and the global workforce.

This rapid and unforeseen shift in how business gets done is not unique to finance or CPA firms; COVID-19’s ripple effect is being felt across all sectors at organizations of all sizes. For example, there are direct parallels between telework and telemedicine. Both have seen incremental adoption and acceptance over time yet both faced barriers to more comprehensive integration by employers, healthcare providers and the public. Those barriers have fallen away because of COVID-19, leaving businesses and organizations in a brave new world untethered from what was once the norm. 

The genie is out of the bottle, as the idiom goes. 

Like telemedicine is likely to become the new standard of care, telework is and will remain the expectation for CPA talent rather than an ask that’s part of a hiring contract negotiation. That’s just one example of how workplace reality has and is evolving.

While this might sound ominous for CPA firms that have been behind the curve adopting cloud technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other telework-empowering tools, it is actually an enormous opportunity to, put simply, do better.

Yes, there will be some trepidation, some disruption and some risk; there always is when a CPA firm’s leadership facilitates needed change. However, when the cost-benefit analysis is over, the benefits clearly far outweigh the risks when it comes to continuing to embrace telework as your CPA firm’s modus operandi.

Whether it’s being able to recruit talent from a wider geographical target area, retaining that talent longer, reducing brick-and-mortar operational expenses, improving information security, or increased productivity, the benefits are manifold and absolutely critical to succeeding in what everyone hopes will soon become a post-COVID world.

The Key to Creating a Successful Remote Work Environment at Your CPA Firm

For your CPA firm to get the most from this new telework world, a mindset shift needs to occur. This is not about providing all your administrative and accounting staff with laptops and cameras and headsets; it’s about really grasping what type of company culture is required to make a teleworking sphere thrive.

Put simply, a telework environment needs leadership that understands that technology and software alone are not the solution. AI and cloud hosting are not a panacea for maximizing productivity, improving staff happiness, and increasing client satisfaction. 

For a CPA firm ready to embrace near 100% telework, its leaders need to deftly integrate three critical areas with the adoption of better IT tools: (1) people, (2) process, and (3) a commitment to continuous improvement. 

People

“Our people are our biggest asset.”

We hear this all the time; it often comes off like eyewash. But it is also very true.

Your CPA firm needs talented administrators, accountants and managers to succeed. Your firm needs these talented people to pull in the same direction. They will only continue to produce at the levels needed if they feel valued and appreciated. Your firm needs to attract new talent and keep it. And finally, CPA firms need virtual team members to own and embrace processes put in place by your company.

When telework is done right, it can help achieve all of these things.

  • Adding workplace flexibility creates happier, more productive, healthier, and more loyal employees. Putting the obvious health benefits of protecting your staff from COVID-19 by enabling them to stay home aside, after tasting the benefits of teleworking — no more long commutes, savings on gas and other expenses, flexibility to take care of their children or elderly parents, and working their own hours within reason — a CPA firm simply cannot go back to the pre-COVID work environment. If your firm returns to working from home when- a-kid-is-sick model and other firms embrace the new telework world, your staff will not remain happy and productive. They will become disgruntled and possibly leave for greener pastures. Change your mindset: Telework is the way we work, it’s not a nice-to-have benefit. Adopting this mindset will create happier, more productive employees that remain loyal to your CPA firm.
  • Saying yes to telework will attract more talent to your firm. Attracting, recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent is easier if your telework and IT environment is leading-edge and can support the remote work flexibility top talent is seeking in its next employer. Not having the cloud, AI and other tools to showcase to prospective hires will make your CPA firm less attractive to them, and, quite bluntly, make your company seem antiquated at worst and too rigid at best. Building your tech tools and showcasing how these tools will make life better and work easier can be tremendously persuasive to talent weighing your firm over another.
  • Creating a robust, work-from-anywhere telework environment increases your talent recruiting reach. CPA firms with strong virtual work environments are not tethered to geography, which can be a tremendous advantage when it comes to winning the CPA firm talent wars: Now, a firm in Philadelphia can hire a CPA in Ohio; a Florida firm can hire accounting talent from New York City. With no need for travel to a brick-and-mortar office (or perhaps travel once a quarter for key meetings), CPA firms can recruit talent from anywhere. Those that don’t have a remote work system, or have a weaker system in place, cannot.
  • Embracing a near 100% remote workplace will increase your staff’s openness to buy in, take ownership, and be more accountable. The best example of the dangers of alienating staff from the technology and software it uses every day reveals itself via information security. A firm can have the best and most advanced tech in the industry, but if its staff opens and responds to a phishing email or is lackadaisical with its passwords, hackers and bad actors will circumvent even the best IT information security systems. The point is this: Creating a work environment that has work-life balance, financial and emotional benefits for your staff will make them more vigilant about adhering telework policies and processes that protect these benefits and your CPA firm more generally. 

Process

The second element to creating and perpetuating an effective telework system post-COVID 19 is about building process. One could argue that process should be the first element, but this is akin to the chicken and the egg conundrum. The truth is a lot of this telework change is happening simultaneously. In a perfect world, technology, software and process would be in place first, followed by getting your people trained and on board.

That’s not the reality many CPA firms are facing, however. Everything is happening at once. And fast.

To achieve a strong remote work ecosystem, the cloud hosting infrastructure and tools need to be there; the people need to be on board; and the people need processes to follow. 

  • Building and getting buy-in for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and remote work policies is critical. CPA firms need to help their staff understand that as a company they cannot control home networks or what is on personal devices so protocols and rules need to be established to protect individual staff and the company. 
    • Firms need to deploy a constant educational communication plan around personal device use during COVID-19; this means active, consistent communication about the BYOD policy, accountability and even a summary of the latest threats like COVID-19-themed phishing and email scams.
    • CPA firms need to emphasize that the BYOD policy is not punitive; rather, it’s for the protection of the staff, the company and its clients
    • Recruit department leads and other staff to help build your BYOD policy. This would help create a sense of collective ownership of the BYOD program and prevent any animosity or negative backlash. 
  • Training and ownership of remote work processes and policies is imperative. Tech and software are only as productive and safe as the people that use them. Your CPA firm needs to be inclusive as it builds out its telework program to create a sense of accountability and ownership across your virtual team. It needs to invest in a strong IT training program that constantly teaches your staff and leaders about the best and highest use of IT as well as security best practices. 

Continuous Improvement

CPA firm leadership needs to be 100% committed to continually investing in and improving its IT infrastructure, which is directly linked to strong, vibrant and productive remote workplaces. 

Investing in the cloud, AI enhanced security systems, and off-site data backups one time is simply not enough. 

The mindset of constantly integrating and adapting technology, software, people and processes can never end. That’s reality. Tech always improves and better software versions emerge; your people change and the technological and cybersecurity threat tapestry is ever evolving.

Unless this mindset is in place alongside a strong investment in time and treasure, the money spent to create the IT and remote work ecosystem you need to succeed will deteriorate and become less effective over time. 

Commit to the monetary investment. Commit to your people. And commit to continuously improving your IT infrastructure, processes and protocols, and your CPA firm will reap the rewards of sustainable growth and success.

What are the operational benefits of adopting a strong telework environment?

The true state of operational benefits created by near 100% telework systems are still emerging and evolving.

However, we can look again to telemedicine and the future of “virtual hospitals” as an exemplar of how widespread telework adoption might impact operational costs for CPA firms and other industries. 

As the number of patients seen virtually increases, the space required at hospitals to render healthcare and treat patients decreases. This means fewer beds, fewer administrative offices, and reconfigured office space designs that build out telework rooms and streamline the more efficient use of square footage for when patients do need a physical checkup.

“Virtual hospitals” will be smaller and more efficient, resulting in fewer brick-and-mortar building expenses, lower utility costs, and reduced rent, lease or building purchase expenses. 

CPA firms that embrace telework can leverage it to reduce their operational expenses significantly by having smaller, more flexible physical workspaces also. Add to that a reduced need for office supplies, paid sick leave and other cost-saving results, and the benefits from an operations standpoint become crystal clear. 

The genie is out of the bottle, but in many, many ways this is a good thing and a tremendous opportunity for CPA firms to attract and retain the best talent, increase productivity, enhance security, and save money while reaping the rewards generated by happier, healthier, and wealthier staff members delivering better service to your clients. 

The genie should have been let out a long time ago, quite frankly. Embrace the new telework world and see your CPA firm achieve a greater level of sustainable success.