4 steps to becoming a virtual firm
While the concept of virtual firms and remote teams has been around for a number of years, many accounting firms have struggled to make the change in their business model for a number of reasons. Over the last few months, a number of accounting firms have had to make the transition to working virtually and remotely due to COVID-19. These firms have had to adapt on the fly to working in a new way with their clients and their teams.
With firms being fully virtual for the first time, there are four considerations they need to keep in mind in order to run a virtual firm successfully for the long term. These considerations come from my experience running Lance CPA Group, a virtual and remote firm I’ve run for the past five years.
1. Your people
For many firms, having your staff work remotely on a full-time basis is new to how you operate and how your teams work. This change for your employees, among all of the changes we are experiencing, may seem daunting. They may not have the right setup at home or may be juggling trying to work while also trying to guide their children through remote learning. As their employer, there are a couple of things you will want to consider in leading your team through this.
The first is keeping your team connected. This means having proactive one-on-ones with them more often than normal. These meetings should center around how they are doing and make sure they have the support they need as they work through this challenging time. They should also have a medium where they can easily communicate with the rest of the team, whether through a chat function or having regular times of connectedness; having this outlet allows you to maintain your camaraderie and culture with each other. It is also important that when your team is communicating with each other, they have a way to do it virtually face to face via video calls. These video calls bring a human element to conversation and are important to help your team not feel like they are out on an island, separated from the rest of the company.
The other element to keep in mind here is continuing the acts of community that you have in the office in a virtual format. Whether that is donuts on Friday mornings, having lunch together, or having a happy hour, you can replicate those same events virtually. Give each employee a gift card to buy lunch and have a group lunch together on a video call. Keeping up these rhythms in a virtual model is important to keep the sense of community and culture alive with each other.
In having a physical presence, you have built certain expectations in how you serve clients. Whether it’s clients coming into your office to drop documents off for a tax return, or meeting with clients to advise them on their business, the way you work with your clients will need to change when you are working with them virtually. This means changing both your procedures on how you serve your clients and the software you use to serve them.
If you have been reluctant to move to cloud-based accounting software, now is the perfect time to give this a try, as this software will allow you to more easily engage with your clients. Part of implementing this change in software is finding a way for clients to get you documents securely through a secure client portal. If you don’t have that in place, that is the place to start.
You also need to change how you communicate with your clients. That might be doing your calls with them over video or implementing a system like Slack to keep in touch with them. However, one of the most important aspects of this change to working virtually is keeping a human touch to how you serve them. Your clients are also dealing with major upheaval to their businesses and being able to relate to them on a human level is very important. So, making sure video is at least part of your strategy is a good idea.
Working virtually and remotely will change your processes and how you do your work. The way you did it in the office will be different when your employees are working from home and your clients can only be served virtually. Most of these changes in processes will happen on the fly. As you make these changes to your processes, document them. If you decide that working virtually and remotely is something that you want to do long past the impacts of COVID-19, make sure you are documenting the changes to your processes and discussing how those changes are taking place.
This is also a time of experimentation with your processes. Take time to try something new and differentiated with how you work and engage with your clients. There were many firms who never thought they could work virtually, but had to because COVID-19 forced the change. Think through whether there is a better way to work with your team and your clients and make the changes now to those processes so you can work more effectively in the future.
You can’t serve your clients and your team if your firm is not doing what it takes to ensure its survival into the future. One of the most important ways your firm can do this is by ensuring it has the cash flow needed to pay employees and keep the virtual lights on. This means making sure you are getting paid electronically for your services on a regular basis versus issuing invoices, hoping your clients pay timely, and then tracking down checks from clients. Getting paid electronically allows you to have the cash flow in a predictable manner. This ensures that you can pay your staff and not have to lay them off.
It's also important to make sure everyone in your firm is proactively helping your clients through this. If your firm takes a reactive or passive approach, your clients won’t find your services valuable and when they need to make cuts in expenses, yours will be the first to go. The goal for your firm right now is to ensure business continuity. Making sure your firm is in a good position will allow you to serve your clients, ensure your employees still have a job, and ensure your business will get through this.
These four considerations to making the transition to virtual are important in thinking through impacts to your people, your clients, your processes, and your firm — and these four different experiences are impacted significantly when your firm is working virtually. Making thoughtful considerations on each of these areas will ensure your firm can weather this time and make the business model changes so that your firm can thrive in the future.