A year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies are more comfortable with remote work — so much so that some are changing their hiring practices to recruit workers who live hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Eliminating geographic boundaries in hiring can be a great way to find in-demand skilled workers, experts say. It can also be helpful in keeping talented workers who want to leave more expensive, crowded cities and resettle elsewhere.
With many business leaders reporting little or no productivity loss with remote work, some say the shift is inevitable. By 2025, hiring managers expect 22.9% of teams in the United States will likely work remotely, more than double the figure in 2020, according to a survey by Upwork, which connects businesses, professionals, and freelancers. The survey, conducted in October and November, included 1,000 CEOs, small business owners, and human resource professionals.
Experts say there are plenty of benefits to hiring workers who live far away. But there are also challenges. Here are some tips for companies thinking of making the switch.
Shift your mindset
Hiring workers based outside your geographical area is not as scary as it might seem, said Tom Barry, CPA, managing partner at GHJ, a Los Angeles-based accounting firm with about 180 employees.
“People imagine it to be much more complicated than the reality is,” Barry said. “You’re not, like, jumping off a cliff and never going to see them again.”
Before the pandemic, GHJ had about 10 fully remote workers on its audit and tax teams, Barry said. Now, around 30% its workers live more than 100 miles from the company headquarters, including some who are out of state.
Barry said the firm’s leaders knew some prospective workers were wary of living in Los Angeles, where the cost of living is high and the commute times can be brutal. Allowing people to live outside the region helped solve the problem.
“It allowed us to hold on to talent and/or recruit talent that was the right talent for our firm,” he said. “And so our talent pool expanded dramatically.”
Jennifer Wilson, a partner at ConvergenceCoaching LLC in Nebraska, said it’s crucial for business leaders to put faith in their remote workers.
“I have to trust that my people’s intentions are good, that they are going to be competent and they care, and that they are going to work to their highest and best use,” she said.
Use short training videos
Consider creating short training videos that employees can access any time. They’re helpful when workers are spread across time zones, experts say.
Roz Allyson, CPA, a managing partner at accounting firm Mahoney, Ulbrich, Christiansen & Russ in Minnesota, said her audit team had already created training videos before the pandemic to help new workers through the auditing process.
“That’s been working really well, too,” she said. “People have appreciated that. Our tax department said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. We should do that, too.’”
New employees at Zipwhip, a tech startup in Seattle, get a video tour of the company’s 75,000-square-foot office space, said Keena Bean, director of corporate communications. So even if they're not there to enjoy the beer on tap, they get a feel for the company.
Facing plenty of competition in the Pacific Northwest, Zipwhip has been tapping into the engineering talent pool in Calgary, about 700 miles away, Bean said.
“Tech talent is really, really in demand in Seattle, and the competition is really intense. Because we’ve got Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple — we’ve got all of them here. As a smaller midsize startup, it’s really hard sometimes to compete with those companies.”
Ensure equal access to technology
“This kind of goes without saying, but if your technology doesn’t work, you’re dead on arrival,” Barry said.
Most of his firm’s operations are cloud-based, and the company had previously upgraded its technology for employees who wanted to work flexible hours to avoid peak traffic times in Los Angeles.
Now, Barry said, it’s important for every worker to have the same tech experience.
“Whether you’re in the office or you’re working somewhere else, you have the same exact technology,” he said. “You have the same exact access to the network, using the same programs. There wasn’t a workaround, or you didn’t have diminished access to things. Everyone is equal.”
Think about salaries
What about pay? “That is the million-dollar question,” Barry said.
Pay scales for remote workers should be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to Barry and Wilson. It might make sense for a new worker living in a cheaper city to make less money than those in more expensive markets. But if that worker is billing at big-city rates, it’s probably not fair to pay them less.
Starting this summer, existing workers at Barry’s firm who move out of the Los Angeles area will be subject to salary adjustments based on an index. Wilson, however, said workers shouldn’t be penalized for moving.
“The truth is, labor is short. And the last thing we need to do is mess with people’s pay if their value hasn’t changed,” Wilson said. “And I think that that’s the most important thing to pay attention to.”
Develop a company culture
It can be daunting to think of bringing hundreds of people together across time zones and virtual spaces to create shared experiences. But experts say it can be done.
Wilson suggests scheduling “quick check-ins, huddles” — think coffee breaks to see how your people are doing and also conducting virtual happy hours broken into smaller groups on Zoom.
“When we use breakout rooms for our get-togethers, it’s more like a bar atmosphere where we’re standing around a table together, three or four of us, and we can catch up,” she said. “And then we get tossed back in the big room on Zoom and then mixed back up into small groups randomly.”
Zipwhip typically hosts a big in-person holiday bash, Bean said. But during the pandemic, the company gave money to individual teams to plan their own virtual gatherings.
“My team, we did an oyster-shucking class with this fancy chef. My management team, we did a wreath-making class,” Bean said. “Other teams did trivia.”
In creating a sense of culture, communication and transparency are key, experts say.
“You have to be comfortable sharing everything,” Barry said. “I go through detailed financial results and information, stuff that we used to not do.”
When workers don’t share a physical space, Barry said, it’s easy for them to “start making up their own realities.”
Before the pandemic, workers at Zipwhip had a catered lunch every Friday where they could listen to updates from leaders about company data and industry trends. The meeting tradition has continued, but in a virtual setting.
Erin Wilson, a senior account executive on the sales team, said she has always enjoyed the lunchtime gatherings that allow her to gain insight about what’s happening within the company.
“If I were a CEO or a leader in another company trying to figure out how do I bring people together, even if it’s for 15 minutes, just being committed to a certain time every single week to get together and kind of recharge or encourage folks [is important],” she said.
Plan ahead for (some) in-person interactions
Post-pandemic, it will be important for remote workers to visit the office once in a while, Jennifer Wilson said.
“We’re not trying to abolish in-person meetings. You can still do those, and there is a place for them,” she said. “There’s nothing better than getting a group of people together and letting them collaborate in person, eat and drink and socialize together.”
But, she added, “Remote working means that you might not do it as often.”
Barry said his firm’s long-term goal is to bring workers who live more than 100 miles away to the L.A. headquarters four times a year.
“We’ll bring everyone in at the same time,” he said, adding that it will be a chance for team building.
Allyson said her firm prides itself on being like a family, with get-togethers for workers’ kids and other social and team-building events such as chili cookoffs. That’s not likely to change, even if everybody isn’t always in the office together.
Her firm had been looking for additional office space before the pandemic. Now it’s not necessary, and she’s looking for clients beyond the Twin Cities. While there’s plenty of talent there, she said she wouldn’t be opposed to hiring people who live elsewhere. Boundaries seem less important than ever.
“We’re not limited anymore,” she said. “If we’re going to do remote audits for people down the street, we can do them for somebody in North Carolina.”
Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.
— 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.