You work in an office? What a luxury

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In my home state of Texas, we’re starting to reopen. I’m confident we’ll get through the pandemic, but we’ll be a very different society than we were before March. Just as air travel was never the same after 9/11 and lending was never the same after the 2008 financial crisis, working in an office setting will never be the same post-pandemic. As author and investor Morgan Housel said, “Wounds heal, scars last.”

It’s safe to say this isn’t going to be a normal summer for most Americans. It’s safe to say the official return to the workplace — whichever date your state uses — won’t be normal either. Most surveys show that workers are not exactly chomping at the bit to get back to the office. If the people you count on are too nervous or distracted to do their best work in a traditional office setting, why do you even want them there? You have to figure out how to manage and motivate people wherever they are working. If you can’t do that, you’re going to find it tough to stay relevant in the post-pandemic era.

I realize production may be dropping during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean working remotely isn’t as effective as working in an office. It just means your firm (and your team) haven’t figured out how to do it really well yet.

Granted, remote working tools weren’t that great 10 years ago or even five years ago, but that’s not an excuse today. There are plenty of affordable technology solutions on the market for staying in touch with your staff, clients and strategic partners. If you can’t get up to speed on those tools (and best practices) for managing a remote workforce, you may not be able to keep your best workers or bring in the new talent that you want.

The pandemic just accelerated changes already underway

Think about it — even if the pandemic didn’t happen, we all know that the face of the workplace was changing dramatically. Technology is allowing us to work remotely more and more. If your firm wants to recruit the best people, especially the younger talent or the highly skilled people with childcare or eldercare responsibilities, then you’re going to have to give them the freedom and flexibility to do some (if not all) of their work outside the confines of the office. If you can’t offer this flexibility, they’re going to find another firm that can.

You don’t have to master all the new remote working technology at once. You just have to be better at leaning into these changes than rival firms and you will be in a great position to move forward.

What are some of the implications of your workforce being more dispersed?

1. Policy: You need a policy at the firm-wide level that governs remote work rules, best practices and expectations — for everybody.

2. Support: You need someone at your firm whose job it is to make sure all aspects of remote working are functioning correctly. It may not be a full-time position, but it’s an important role.

3. Billing structure: Thanks to the pandemic, old-fashioned hourly billing just got a tailwind. You hear a lot about project-based billing and value-based billing. But frankly, hourly is an easy way to measure people working remotely — especially those who don’t have a lot of client interaction or business development responsibility. As long as your people are working productively and getting the job done, who cares when they are working. Just have them tally their hours.

The office as a privilege

When I started my career, working at the office was mandatory, and working from home was a special perk. Now the equation is flipping. Office space is expensive and difficult to maintain. Phone systems cost more. Internet costs more. Insurance costs more. And don’t get me started on office furniture — what a racket!

Soon, the office may be a coveted work environment with superfast internet service, dedicated work space, a place to focus, free snacks and dedicated media rooms for Zoom conferences and podcasts. But you can’t expect to work there every day.

Like a college library during finals week, the office will be the special place to go to occasionally if you’re on a tight deadline, or if there are disruptions at home, or if you need to do some deep, higher-level thinking on a project.

A decade ago, working from home was a special perk; now working from the office might be a special privilege that you have to earn. It’s amazing how quickly things change.

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE, liked to say, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” for your organization if you can’t adapt. As I wrote in my article "Becoming an anti-fragile CPA," you don’t want to simply survive dramatic changes to our profession. You want the shocks and disruptions to make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. The winners will be the firms and leaders who lean into all the changes happening around us at lightning speed — not the ones stumbling around trying to get back to “how things were.” I know you can do it.

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