It’s long past time for accounting firms to embrace remote work, according to industry experts from the CPA Consultants’ Alliance.

In “Flexible Workplaces for CPAs,” one of the CPACA’s “Issues and Answers” video series, members of the alliance explained why the shift to allowing employees to work where and when they want is both unavoidable – and a good idea.

“The race for talent is over – and the talent has won,” explained Jeff Phillips, the CEO of job site AccountingFly. “It’s time to realize that the workforce is changing. People want to work anywhere, any time that they want to, from any location. What CPAs are looking for is flexibility.”

Noting that a job posted on AccountingFly specifying it allows remote work or work from home will get eight times the applicants, Phillips added, “This is what the workforce is demanding of you. This is not the leading edge: This is what the middle of the bell curve needs to be operating under right now.”

“The driving factor and motivator for young people is having control of when and where they work,” said Tamera Loerzel, a partner at ConvergenceCoaching. “It’s not entitlement – it’s how can I have more control, minimize commutes, and how can the firm benefit because we’ll get more time and more motivated employees, and we’ll get great talent because we don’t have the geographic constraints.”

It’s not just a way to recruit top talent, but also to keep them, according to Phillips: “Offering workplace flexibility and remote workplaces increases your retention because it decreases the overwork issues that your staff is facing. You’re going to be seen as a progressive employee, which CPAs are definitely looking for.”

To be fair, the concept of remote work and alternative scheduling is not entirely new to the profession. “A lot of firms have been flexible for 30 years,” said Rita Keller, founder of Keller Consulting, noting that a firm she worked for had its first flexible staff member in 1986. “But some firms are still lagging very far behind, and it won’t carry them into the future. We just need to get our arms around it and go forward.”

Familiarity with the idea hasn’t necessarily bred a deep commitment, Loerzel noted: “In our ‘Anywhere, Anytime Work Survey’ of over 200 firms, 97 percent of firms surveyed say they offer some sort of flex,” she said. “However, when we probe into it, it is limited. We’re still not where we need to be.”

Too often, firms say they’re flexible when they’re offering constrained options for part-time work, or limited capabilities for logging in from home, as opposed to the full-fledged ability to work from anywhere, at any time. In the optimum model, Loerzel explained, firms should be able to hire and support employees in another state – or even another country.

What it takes

Often, resistance to the idea of allowing employees to control when and where they work comes from outdated ideas about management: that if you can’t see your staff, they’re not working, and that efficiency suffers when staff aren’t being supervised in person.

“You’re going to get the production you need if you give people control of their time, control and ownership of where they work, and control of when they work,” Phillips said. “You say to them, ‘Here’s the work that needs to get done; here’s the schedule.’”

Loerzel recommended setting up a list of non-negotiables, including levels of client service, work quality, accessibility and responsiveness. “Define those and put those out front, and then we have a framework for what we want to achieve,” she said.

Firms should also set up some guidelines about working remotely – who will pay for what, for instance, as well as what equipment remote workers should have, when they need to be available and what meetings they must attend, among other things. “Having some guidelines and expectations laid out will help support the success of a remote and flexible environment,” she said.

She added that it’s important to avoid “sludge” – jokes and comments and attitudes that betray the firm’s and managers’ lack of commitment to flexibility. “We can’t make derogatory comments to people who are on alternative work schedules or working remotely – when someone has a 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule and they come in at 10 and I say, ‘Did you get your beauty sleep this morning?’ That kind of commentary undermines anything we say about having flexibility in our firms,” she said.

Another key to making it work is to start small, Keller said: “People have to earn this – we can’t just let new people do this,” she said. “Let one of your more experienced people try it. And if that works, open it up. Take baby steps – try it, test it, keep going.”

Technology is obviously the key enabler of remote work, and the recent development of a host of powerful tools is what makes it possible for staff to work anywhere at any time – but only if firms are prepared to support it, both metaphorically and literally.

“We need to back up and make sure our IT department is ready to support all of this,” Loerzel warned. “I have people who are going to be calling about their home setup, or their remote setup at the client’s office. We need to make sure that our IT structure is sufficient to support this.”

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.