Chad Davis, CPA (Canada), had been successfully working remotely for years when the coronavirus pandemic forced many accounting firms to go fully remote. He and Josh Zweig, CPA (Canada), founded LiveCA, a fully virtual accounting firm in Canada in 2013. Zweig was focused on tax and Davis on technology, so the two meshed well, especially since neither of them wanted to work from a brick-and-mortar office.
“We spent two days in the woods, camped, and emerged with a handshake and a new company,” Davis said.
Eight years later, LiveCA is thriving, employing about 80 people, and handling both Canadian and American clients. Adventurous Zweig, originally from Toronto, travels the world and works from various posts. Davis, from Nova Scotia, works full time from his large RV, which he shares with his wife, two children, and two dogs.
In January 2021, Davis was sitting in his RV office in a beautiful part of Canada. “I’m in a campground on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and came here to isolate for the winter,” he said. Meanwhile, Zweig was caught in a lockdown in Argentina.
Davis and Zweig have been at the forefront of a trend the pandemic accelerated.
Only 4% of 223 CPA firms polled in the summer of 2020 said they were fully virtual heading into the pandemic, according to research by ConvergenceCoaching, a U.S. company offering training services to the public accounting profession. About three-fifths (61%) of the firms said they had some remote talent, and 27% said they had been strictly in-office pre-coronavirus.
Once the pandemic ends, 81% of firms expected an increase or a significant increase in remote working among their employees, the survey said. Nearly one-third (30%) projected reducing their office footprint post-pandemic.
The coronavirus has changed the business landscape significantly. Many accounting firm leaders, who were once reluctant to allow employees to work from home or other locations, now realize the value of a remote workforce, especially when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. But working remotely can also create challenges, such as communicating with and managing employees, setting up necessary technology, and establishing and enforcing processes and policies for a virtual working environment.
9 ways to make remote working successful
What does it take for accountants to thrive when working virtually? Does it require changing interaction styles with clients or prospective employees?
“Networking is about building relationships, and whether this is face-to-face or online, it’s about getting people to connect with you, and we do this through our personality, our behavior, and our communication,” said Sue Tonks, a UK-based leadership coach and entrepreneur, at the online 2020 AICPA & CIMA Women’s Global Leadership Summit in November.
However, people only have three seconds to create an effective first impression when communicating with others online, Tonks said. “All people can see of you is a rectangular box,” she said about Zoom and other online platforms. “This is our stage.”
Other challenges include feeling isolated, tired, or lonely; lacking motivation; dealing with distractions, often from children or barking dogs; and cohabitating with family, all day, every day.
“The dynamic of being together 24/7 is a big shift for a lot of people and has caused a lot of struggles,” said Rohit Bhargava, founder of the Non-Obvious Company and author of seven books, including The Non-Obvious Guide to Virtual Meetings and Remote Work, published in 2020 (second edition coming in March 2021). Bhargava has shared his insights with organizations such as Microsoft, the World Bank, and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
The future of work, he predicts, will be a hybrid of remote and in-office work, and thus it’s imperative that people know what it takes to flourish in a remote environment. Bhargava, Tonks, and Davis offered the following tips for prospering in a virtual world:
Take up technology. “Embrace technology and learn how to be effective,” Bhargava said. When the pandemic started, he watched YouTube videos about lighting and setting up a professional home studio and soon after upped his video quality, which helped his business tremendously.
Also, use video and invest in a good microphone and internet package, Davis said. “There’s nothing worse than slow internet or low-quality sound,” he said.
It’s also important for organizations to set up policies that govern in-home technology setups. Davis suggests focusing first on tasks such as “password management, VPN usage, encryption, and what can and can’t be on your personal devices.” From there, move on to more firm-specific policies that address equipment ownership, internet speed requirements, and minimum-security practices. “Then move on to education and safe usage practices with every employee,” he said.
Refine your routine. Don’t start your day reading email for hours, because your day can quickly unravel. “When you wake up, center yourself, do deep breathing, and think about what your priorities for the day are going to be,” Bhargava advised. If you still want to check email first thing during your morning cup of coffee, then cap it to an hour. “Literally set yourself an alarm,” he said. Then, move on.
Be candid. Expect that noises — children, dogs, or the weed-whacking gardener — can occur when you’re working remotely, but be truthful about other things that could impact a video or phone chat. “If I had bad Wi-Fi, I will tell [clients] what I’m doing and not try to hide it, and normally it creates a more positive spin on the conversation,” Davis said.
In addition, spell out your weaknesses to customers or others, which can naturally build trust. “That realism and truth helps speed up the relationship-building portion of an online relationship,” he noted.
Be flexible and cognizant of communication styles. To build rapport, adapt your communication style to the person you are connecting to, Bhargava said. Determine which method garners the quickest response, and use that mode for that specific person. However, be cognizant that misinterpretation can occur if you send something off too quickly without much thought. “Be aware of the potential for misunderstanding in digital communications, and address them through a personal conversation instead of solely relying on email,” he advised.
Davis’s firm has dealt with “communication sensitivity” for years, and this issue is a continual work in progress. “Sometimes communication issues can be avoided with more effective incentive structures and procedures that tend to be the source of communication breakdowns,” he said. “So, we’ve taken a more ‘root-cause’ approach to communication over the years.”
Be punctual. LiveCA started using Zoom in 2015, and the cameras have always been on, Davis said. But building relationships virtually differs from doing so face to face. “Meetings start on time and end on time, and that has taught me to be a more functional communicator and to make sure we address the issues early and set expectations,” he noted.
According to Davis, being a functional communicator “means that you’re more aware of the outcome that’s required for that meeting, and if you don’t get to address something, you effectively communicate the repercussions towards the end of the call to get back on track,” he said. “This is the opposite of intuitive communication that’s more free-flowing and may not get to a resolution within that scheduled time frame.
“I’ve found working remotely emphasizes more respect for people’s time and, without the functional side of communication, it's really hard to replicate and delegate processes as you grow,” Davis added.
Sparkle. Since you only have three seconds to make an impression online, make it count. “Just smile,” said Tonks in her presentation. “It’s warm, friendly, open, approachable.” Also, make eye contact as if you were face-to-face, pay attention to what others are saying, and don’t fidget, she said.
Introduce yourself effectively. Tonks uses a technique, the “pause and effect,” which works especially well when you’re on a conference call with multiple people and want to be noted. State your first name, then pause, then state your first name again, and “then with effect and gusto and confidence, your surname,” she said. “So, my name is Sue [pause], Sue Tonks.”
In addition, she stated, be specific when telling people what you do for a living. Don’t just say you’re a mergers-and-acquisitions consultant. Instead, she advised, say, “You know when major organizations want to buy out the other organizations? I help major international companies find the right partners, and as a result, they merge seamlessly.”
Ask questions and follow up. When speaking with others online, ask questions. “Be visible. Don’t be invisible,” Tonks said. To stand out, she advised, take notes and mention people’s names on the chat. Say something like, “Oh, that was a really good point, Joe.”
Also, realize your commonalities to kick off a conversation: You all live somewhere and have traveled; you’ve all been invited to an online event by the same person or organization; you’re all headed into the weekend or a holiday break; and you all have to deal with the weather, she said. And once you meet someone who can help your business or career, follow up. Ask if you can email them or connect on LinkedIn. “If you ask permission, you will never be a pest,” she noted.
Be yourself. We’ve all been taught to act certain ways in professional environments, but the pandemic has changed the landscape, allowing people to be more individualistic in their approach to business communication and to work from almost any locale. The pandemic has had a life-altering effect on everyone, Davis said.
“The things that make you unique will attract the right customers to you,” he said, adding, “embrace your homeschooling kids who barge into your call, pet the dog that wants attention, and don’t be afraid to sneak a quick snack. The pandemic has had a life-altering effect on everyone, and we’re all human at the end of day.”
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, a JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.