Career development in a virtual world

Amid upheaval on numerous fronts, organizations shouldn’t neglect the development of their employees.
By Sarah Nagem

Career development in a virtual world
Image by HAKINMHAN/iStock

As employers continue to juggle new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say one important aspect of work is often being ignored: career development.

While there is widespread agreement that helping employees learn new skills and craft a career path is crucial, professional development has often taken a back seat to immediate needs such as learning how to effectively engage with clients in the absence of face-to-face interactions.

"Where in the spectrum of things and priorities do companies find where career development fits in?" said Joe Tarasco, the CEO and senior consultant of Accountants Advisory Group, which has offices in New York, Florida, and California.

However, Tarasco said, it's more important than ever for companies to focus on professional development during the pandemic, when many workers are already feeling stressed and burned out. "It's not just something you can skip," he said.

Implementing and maintaining a career development program helps workers feel appreciated and in turn helps companies retain their best talent. Employees who report they are prospering in terms of their health, wealth, and career prospects were almost four times more likely "to work for an organization that provides up-to-date information on career paths," according to the Global Talent Trends 2020 report by Mercer, an international business consulting firm.

But some finance leaders say their companies are falling short. Only 6% of respondents said they have a "very mature" development program in place, according to Reimagining Finance for the New Normal, a recent report from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and Oracle. Twenty-one percent said they didn't have a program at all.

Here are some tips for handling career development remotely.

Create a game plan

Companies should create a career development plan for the next two years, knowing it will have to be tweaked, Tarasco said.

The plan should involve organization leaders, staff members, and human resource professionals, and it should be geared toward the company's specific needs and culture, he said. "The key is really finding the right program for your firm."

In-house training should be a big part of any organization's career development plan, Tarasco said, and "it's important for leadership to be the driving force behind these communications."

Communicate

At Elliott CPA Group in California, team leader Erin Roche, CPA, CGMA, said her firm of about 10 people lost track of career development for a while when pandemic-related lockdowns were put in place.

"When we first went fully remote, everybody was kind of in a panic, so we did close to nothing for a hot second there," she said. "And then I realized how far off we were in the communications."

To catch up, Roche met weekly via Zoom for 10 to 15 minutes with each staff member from May to July. (She has since reduced the frequency of those meetings.) In the office, Roche said, workers regularly stopped her or her business partner in the hallway to chat. But those casual interactions with the boss — which can be crucial for lower-level workers — weren't happening in a remote setting.

"I was finding that staff were holding back from asking their questions," she said. "The impression I got from a lot of team members was they didn't want to be a bother. They didn't want to annoy us or harass us or somehow make an inconvenience of themselves, so they were holding back on information they needed to move forward."

Identify gaps

Once her not-for-profit settled into a new kind of normal, Amy West, CPA, CGMA, looked more closely at the group's organizational chart and realized that some staffers were the only people who knew how to do certain tasks.

West is executive vice president and CFO of AHRC NYC, a not-for-profit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"Through that I kind of figured we need to have cross training of critical functions," she said. "In that sense, it's a real opportunity for professional development."

West said she has taken the time to assess her staff over the past several months and communicate more with them virtually. She wants career development to remain a top priority. "It shows that the organization is investing in the staff," she said. "It is a form of appreciation; it is a form of confidence in staff."

Use mentors

Pre-pandemic, Roche's firm assigned new employees a "team buddy," a co-worker at the same level who can show them the ropes. Even though the firm has switched to remote work, the system is still in place. So is the mentor program in which new staffers are paired with someone at the next level in the organization. Zoom calls have replaced monthly lunches that "provide a little bit more of a relaxed environment to ask questions about career paths and how things are going," Roche said.

According to Roche, this is one of the big questions: "Is there something we need to do to make this experience more successful for you?"

Roche said she and her business partner train the mentors, coaching them on how to give feedback. The mentors are responsible for creating a goal-driven formal review three times a year for the employee assigned to them.

Prioritize professional development

Especially during difficult times such as the pandemic, when many workers feel it's harder than ever to unplug, it's important to focus on wellness, West said. "And part of self-wellness is making sure you stay on top of your professional development."

Managers should help employees prioritize professional development and carve out time to learn new things and focus on their career, West said.

"It may sound a little cliché," she said, "but this is a marathon."

Wellness and satisfaction can ultimately lead to better work. Roche said a focus on lifelong learning is key. "It's both from an individual satisfaction standpoint and this is how we best serve our clients," she said.

Make it fun

It's tough to keep people engaged in a Zoom meeting for more than an hour, West said. So it's important to keep things lighthearted at times — even during important training sessions. Those who work for AHRC NYC must take part in compliance training mandated by the state of New York, West said. The training is typically held in person, but this year it was a Zoom session in which people could answer questions on their cellphones in a quiz format. Whoever got the most points was the winner.

"It just kind of made it fun," West said.

Roche said she begins virtual team meetings by asking icebreaker questions she found online: What's your go-to movie theater snack? Have you ever met a celebrity?

"It gets the energy up a little bit," she said.

Use technology

Plenty of webinars are available to help employees hone their skills and learn new practices. They can be a simple and practical way to implement career development during remote work.

"You really could spend your entire day on webinars," West said, cautioning that it's important to choose wisely. Staff members let her know when they want to participate in a training session.

Roche said she too has noticed "overwhelmingly more offerings" of webinars, and she suggests specific options to her staff.

Roche's firm uses Slack to communicate, and she said she and her partner also post links to helpful articles, such as those that provide new insights on navigating the Paycheck Protection Program.

Address the demand for talent

West said that employers that have abandoned career development efforts will regret it later.

"I think at some point we are going to find that we are post-pandemic, and I think that staff are going to step back and evaluate whether they're happy at our agency — certainly the talented staff will do that," West said. "I do think the demand for talent is going to open up."

Tarasco also cautioned that firms will be eager to steal top talent. He is aware of a firm where several staff members are leaving, partly because of a lack of focus on personal and professional development.

"All they want us to do is work, work, work, work, and now we're a factory," Tarasco said of the employees' frustrations. "A remote-work factory."


About the author

Sarah Nagem is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


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