Better Every Day: Virtual — the new work platform

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Remember the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s? The goal was to evolve from manual (typically paper-based) information exchange to an interactive digital experience. But right out of the gate, that’s not what happened. What we got were stylized image maps that offered limited interaction, if any. It was the equivalent of taking print materials and placing them online — letterhead on screen. It wasn’t so much an innovative adaptation as a simple port — the porting of print media from one medium to another.

In its early days, the internet didn’t really offer us anything revolutionary. Rather, it provided an alternative, one-dimensional means for accessing information online. Arguably, the same phenomenon is happening today in the accounting profession in relation to how we work. A worldwide pandemic forced us to swiftly move from a physical office to virtual workspaces but, somehow, we maintained the same on-site approach to work — merely applying the familiar (traditional onsite procedures) to the unfamiliar (remote offices).

Plopping a laptop down in a different location and adopting a few new technologies isn’t a major change. It’s porting onsite practices to a remote environment. For example, if you’ve continued to hold the same number of meetings per week with the same staff, but now just host those same meetings via video conference, then other than location, nothing has really changed.

We have an enormous opportunity to alter the way we work … well beyond just offering virtual workspaces. The time has come to shift our thinking about what the average workday looks (and feels) like … to lift the restrictions of routine practices and shed the feelings of doubt that can come with an “unstructured” work environment. Enlightened firm leaders will harness the opportunity for change and build a work culture of independence, synchronized work, and trust. They will embrace virtual as the work platform of choice.

Platforms for work: In-person vs. virtual

This will take a major shift in mindset, but it’s important to think about the way we work as a platform. There is the traditional in-person/onsite work platform and the virtual work platform, each offering its own pros and cons.

For years, we’ve operated within the onsite platform. The time-honored pros? Onsite meetings fuel synergy among team members. You can meet with clients face to face. Cons? You have little to no quiet time to plan and strategize. Staff can feel a lack of freedom in terms of effectively blending their personal and professional lives. And a time-clock mentality can rule.

The virtual work platform has certainly afforded us more freedom (a definite pro). No more commute. No more rushed morning routine. No more angst over the great divide between life and work. The virtual platform offers a lot of value, but it takes more than a connected device to really do it well.

Right now, most firms are simply simulating onsite office work in a remote space. Much like the mid-1990s internet, we are merely applying the familiar to the unfamiliar. Same in-office approach; different setting. But no judgement — this is what happens when change is unplanned and abrupt.

The pandemic forced us out of the four walls of the firm to the four walls of remote home offices. And while many have adopted virtual workspaces, we can’t continue to adhere to the same in-office approach. Rest assured that over time, you’ll find that it simply won’t work.

Give the people what they want

We have an enormous opportunity to transition away from the familiar in-person work platform to a true virtual platform. An opportunity to make change that supports the new normal and respects how staff and clients really want to work. It’s our chance to subvert the old way of working — a set number of meetings per week, micro-managed processes and sequenced work — and transition to a platform of autonomy, trust and concurrent work cycles.

Employees have gotten a taste of what it feels like to work virtually, to successfully merge work and personal life … and they want more. Let’s also not forget our clients, many of whom prefer the ease of working with us online. The convenience of and demand for the virtual work platform approach will only continue to grow in popularity, and firm leaders that adapt now set themselves up for longer-term success.

Firms, clients and communities in general are more pliable than ever. Change is both warranted and expected. The current health crisis pushed the accounting profession toward a more modern way of working, and now we have to take it across the finish line.

So, where do you start? How do you begin to adapt to the virtual work platform and not just port the old to the new? It begins with a change in mindset.

  • Ditch the guilt. The loss of routine and structure can be uncomfortable. It can also bring up feelings of guilt — as if by mislaying your strict routine, you diminish productivity or focus. It’s most certainly an adjustment, but once you lean into it, you’ll find your virtual stride and the guilt will fade.
  • Trust your staff to get things done. In most cases, staff prove to be more productive when working remotely. If you’ve hired the right people in the first place, you shouldn’t have to worry about how employees spend their days. Don’t assume staff will do less just because they are out of your sight line. Give your people a chance to prove that the virtual platform works. With autonomy and trust come a healthy and positive culture.
  • Serve your clients the way they want to be served. If you take the time to ask, the majority of your clients will likely report that they prefer to work with your firm virtually. It’s convenient. It’s secure. It’s the way modern clients choose to be supported.

Final thoughts

Change is hard for everyone, but especially for a profession that has operated within an onsite work platform for so long. Moving to virtual workspaces was the first big step. The next is to move away from the traditional mindset about the way we work to one that supports a true virtual approach. This includes trusting staff to get work done, promoting autonomy, and understanding that most clients prefer online collaboration over in-person meetings.

Virtual is the new work platform. Let’s roll with it.
Subscribe to Darren’s Better Every Day podcast on iTunes or listen from the Rootworks website at rootworks.com/podcast for a deeper dive on the topics discussed in this article and more.

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Technology Practice management Client strategies Work from home