T wo years after the coronavirus pandemic forced accounting firms and other businesses to quickly ramp up remote work for the safety of their employees, a new, uncharted territory has emerged: the hybrid work environment.
Problem is, there's no written guide for organizations to follow when it comes to establishing a hybrid work setting, so many of them are just winging it. Some employees may work half the time from home, with a couple of days in the office. Other businesses prefer to stay mostly remote, with employees commuting in only for special events, and with their supervisors' approval. Many firms, however, are leaving the decision of where and when to work up to their employees.
The hybrid model, no matter how it is defined, sounds great for CPAs, who juggle intense work responsibilities with personal and family commitments. But this new way of working is also creating hurdles for organizations, including public accounting firms.
Accounting firm leaders collectively say they are facing numerous challenges: establishing formal and fair policies that suit everyone, especially with talent at such a premium; maintaining a consistent company culture when people are spread out; in some cases monitoring productivity, particularly with younger or newer employees; facing resistance from some leaders, who want everyone back at headquarters; onboarding new recruits into a half-empty office; and perhaps, most importantly, ensuring everyone in the firm is visible and noticed, no matter their location, and that cliques don't surface among office workers.
"The big win for employers is likely to be permanent remote employees, where they lose their office and the employer shrinks its real estate footprint," said Peter Cappelli, Ph.D., author of The Future of the Office and a professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "But the careers of such workers suffer compared to their peers in the office."
Women, who may be more likely to work from home, especially if they have young children, could lose visibility if organizations are not watchful of potential shifts in office dynamics, including cliques and favoritism. If not managed properly, promotions, along with praise, could be showered more frequently on employees who choose to work in a firm's physical office, where organizational leaders may notice them more than employees who work remotely.
"I'm concerned as we transition back to the office that women's opportunities to be mentored in that natural way will be diminished," said Jonyce Bullock, CPA, CGMA, the CEO of Squire & Company in Orem and Salt Lake City, Utah. A lot of mentoring happens over lunch, for instance, but those opportunities could be lost if women work remotely, she added.
HYBRID WAYS OF WORKING
Squire gradually welcomed employees back into the office as workers have expressed a desire to do so and as vaccines became available. Like many firms, Squire doesn't yet have a formal hybrid plan, and most employees come into the office as they please, or if they need to be there for one reason or another. Women have expressed a stronger desire to continue to work remotely, in comparison to Squire's male employees who prefer more time in the office, but "almost everybody is coming in once in a while," Bullock said.
At mid-Atlantic public accounting firm Gross, Mendelsohn & Associates, most employees have also embraced a hybrid workplace, though it's not an official policy.
"We want people to have the option to be visible, as some people want to connect a little bit more," said Baltimore-based Lisa Johnson, CPA, a principal at the firm. Some of the newer staff, she added, acclimate better when they spend some time in the office.
Only about 10 employees now come into the office once or twice a week at Caron & Bletzer PLLC, said John Bletzer, CPA, the partner in charge of the Employee Benefit Assurance Practice and Quality Control. The firm employs about 25 CPAs and is based in Kingston, N.H. The rest, Bletzer said, choose to work from home. "It's just different," he said. "You've got to monitor your employees differently and engage them differently."
EisnerAmper, with more than 2,200 global employees, is "allowing people to continue to make their own choices [about where to work] until at least April 30, 2022," said Philadelphia-based Lori Reiner, CPA, EisnerAmper's chief people officer. "The positive [of hybrid working] is flexibility, especially when raising a young family."
Public accounting firm Cherry Bekaert, which employs more than 1,200, is fully remote or hybrid and is discussing whether or not to adopt a hybrid model, said Dixie McCurley, a principal in the firm's Digital Advisory Practice in Atlanta. Working remotely "has leveled the playing field a lot" and has benefited women in the firm who need more flexibility, she said.
McCurley and others say that to retain top employees, organizations need to embrace a remote or hybrid model since workers are now requesting it. This fact has necessitated dialogue at many public accounting firms.
"This is a talent market, and partners that are resistant to change will possibly lose some of their top talent that have been working for them for decades as many other firms are hiring remote or hybrid talent for the same positions," McCurley suggested.
MAKING THE HYBRID MODEL WORK
Firms are taking a range of measures to make the hybrid model work, from hosting entertaining online activities to installing more technology.
Activities to stay connected
Squire offers its employees a variety of fun activities each month to soften the inevitable isolation of remote work and to help keep employees connected. In November, for example, the firm's departments participated in a competitive canned food drive, each doing their best to collect as much canned food as possible for charity. The food drive "created a banter back and forth" on Microsoft Teams, and 691 items were donated, surpassing the firm's goal of 500, Bullock said. Squire also gives employees $3 at the beginning of each month, which they can use to thank someone else on staff, both verbally and by giving them $1. To do this, Squire uses an appreciation software platform called Motivosity, and this ongoing appreciation helps workers communicate in an upbeat way, she said.
Gross, Mendelsohn has tried to keep workers engaged and connected with virtual group activities like online bingo and sharing stories about pets, along with in-person community service events for those who need the in-person connection, Johnson said. "The activities allowed employees to connect on a personal level, especially between departments that do not regularly interact with each other," she said.
Caron & Bletzer holds virtual firmwide meetings every week but also offers employees the chance to play online games like Jeopardy!, Bletzer noted.
All five firms put programs in place to encourage career development mentoring and/or training. Some have women's initiatives that focus on any potential disparities affecting female employees in a hybrid working environment.
Squire's ongoing women's initiative created a sponsorship program and gives attendees a chance to discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion. In December, the firm also held an in-person partner-manager retreat.
Gross, Mendelsohn's women's initiative, RISE (Resources that Inspire Success and Empowerment), helps match sponsors (who are partners) with protégées striving to grow within the organization. During the pandemic, the firm held virtual town halls and offered training on unconscious bias. However, Johnson said, "We need to do more mentoring now than we were doing before."
At Caron & Bletzer, onboarding training is now done remotely. The firm has also begun reexamining its mentoring program and is considering having regularly scheduled conversations to address the goals of the firm and the goals of each employee through more one-on-one communication, Bletzer noted.
EisnerAmper provides a performance and career coach (PCC) to each client-service professional, which helps boost the careers of both male and female employees.
"The role of the PCC is to coach and guide your career progression," Reiner said. "Usually that relationship is one cultivated over several years." Her firm is watching to ensure that everyone is visible and that all employees have an open door to opportunities, she added.
Monitoring and promoting performance
EisnerAmper created a "managing a hybrid team playbook" and has increased its investment in training. The firm is teaching its managers how to lead in a hybrid environment by addressing key management practices, encouraging outcome-based measurements for client engagements, and focusing on performance for employees working remotely, and in the office, Reiner said.
In January 2020, Caron & Bletzer decided to build its own workflow software and then adapted the software to fit its needs as an almost fully remote accounting firm, Bletzer said. The firm also got rid of its internal phone system and now uses Microsoft Teams. The software helps the firm's leaders track workflow productivity and allowed Caron & Bletzer to downsize its real estate. "Instead of putting money into brick and mortar, we're putting money into software," Bletzer said.
Cherry Bekaert also adopted technology to help track things like the number of client relationship connections and daily employee activities. The firm also assigns a "buddy" (mentor) to each new hire to help new employees get acclimated and feel included, and it offers leadership training to its managers on how to be innovative, manage productivity, and make everyone feel included.
But largely, Cherry Bekaert is listening to its staff to determine the workplace of the future. "Everyone I talked to doesn't want to go back into the office except for special events," McCurley said.
Most public accounting firms have conducted employee surveys to gauge how staff feel about work going forward. And for now, most firms are entrusting their professional staff to operate in locations that generate productivity while offering flexibility.
But employee surveys are not enough. Top leaders must also work out "hybrid" kinks to reduce inequities throughout the organization, Cappelli said, asking such pointed questions as, "Who gets to work remotely? What, if anything, do we do for employees who don't get to work from home? How much control should employees have over when and how much they can work from home? Do we require everyone to be in the office on certain days?" In other words, policies must be established to ensure consistency and to avoid divisions within the company.
Firms should also "spend more time monitoring productivity" each month and year because some employees do not do well in a remote setting, Bletzer suggested. Firms should increase their scheduled internal meetings because communicating remotely "is not as natural as when you are together in person," he said.
Many firm representatives say the onus also falls on CPAs and other employees to be proactive about their own career development.
"We are hearing that employees are not talking about their career plans as often as they were before they were remote," Bullock said.
"You have to be intentional and make sure people know who you are," Reiner said. "Regardless of your gender, you do have to take control of your career and make opportunities happen — and it's harder to do that solely in front of your computer."
Despite the hurdles ahead, Bullock advises other CPA firms to embrace hybrid as a positive development, which "will increase the stickiness and retention of employees and will give people the opportunity to find the most efficient way to work," she said. "Stop trying to fight against why hybrid shouldn't work, and step back and say, 'What is going to work?' and build on that. Hybrid is here to stay."
The state of remote working
Median of top-performing CPA firms that have staff working remotely. CPA firms as a whole have a median of 30%.
Source: 2021 National Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) Survey.
Portion of financial services companies that expect to allow 60% of staff to work remotely at least one day per week after the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 29% of financial services companies allowed 60% of staff to work remotely at least one day per week.
Source: PwC US Remote Work Survey, June 25, 2020.
Portion of financial services employers who think staff should be in the office three or more days a week. Only 20% of financial services employees say the same.
Source: PwC US Remote Work Survey, June 25, 2020.
Portion of financial services employers who say preserving company culture is their top concern when it comes to remote work.
Source: Deloitte Return to Workplaces Survey, April 2021.
1 in 3
Portion of remote workers who say they would seek new employment if they were required to return to the office.
Source: Robert Half survey of more than 1,000 workers in the United States, 2021.
Portion of financial services executives who say implementing technology for hybrid work would present only a "minor" challenge or no challenge at all.
Source: PwC US Pulse Survey, Aug. 19, 2021.
About the author
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.
"Changing Ways of Working Call for Changing Employment and Tax Policy," JofA, Nov. 12, 2021
"Top Firm Challenges in Unprecedented Times," Oct. 12, 2021 (free to PCPS members)
"Finding the Best Talent Using Remote Interviews," JofA, July 1, 2021
"Tips to Conquer the Next New Normal," June 29, 2021 (free to PCPS members)
"How to Develop and Excel in a Hybrid Workspace," FM magazine, June 17, 2021
"Companies Rethink The Office, but They're Not Ready to Say Goodbye," JofA, Nov. 4, 2020