4 reopening mistakes employers must avoid

By Jennifer Wilson

I love the public accounting profession and want the absolute best for the people within it. I have been so proud of the quick pivot firms made to remote work and the practitioners’ ingenuity and productivity as they sought to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the vaccine process continues, I’m excited by the possibility of a real reopening in our workplaces.

This reopening offers us a tremendous opportunity to take the best of the new ways of operating from this pandemic and blend them with traditional methods. But I’ve been listening to a lot of firm leaders talking about their post-pandemic wishes in recent weeks, and I’m afraid that some are getting ready to make a series of reopening mistakes that could cost them dearly.

Before we explore those possible pitfalls though, let’s start with some important stats:

A February 2021 Society for Human Resource Management vaccination survey found that:

  • 52% of employed American workers surveyed said they would choose to work from home permanently if given the option.
  • 28% don’t plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even if it costs them their jobs.

A Flexjobs survey of 4,000 U.S. workers found that:

  • A whopping 65% said that post-pandemic, they want to become full-time remote employees.
  • An additional 31% of those surveyed would prefer a hybrid work arrangement with a blend of in-person and remote work.

In our own Anytime, Anywhere Work Survey, 81% of firms expected an increase or significant increase in people working remotely going forward, and 30% predicted they’d shrink their office footprint in the future to accommodate this new way of working.

So, I’m going to put these predictions out there:

  • It will be a long while before the majority of our people feel truly comfortable working in close quarters with other teammates or clients.
  • Remote and flexible work is here to stay in some form, and the more flexible and progressive the firm, the more competitive it will be for talent and clients.
  • The desire for flexibility in how we work is not just a talent issue. Clients and referral sources will expect a blend of options for how you engage with them going forward, too.

With these trends and predictions in mind, let’s explore four potential reopening mistakes and alternative strategies to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Using the wrong words or phrases

As it relates to reopening, let’s avoid these phrases to avoid upsetting your people:

  • Going back [or returning] to work — your people think, “We have been working, and we’ve been working a lot!”
  • Going back to anything — most future leaders don’t want to go “back” to the good old days or backward in any way. Try to avoid the word back. Instead, talk about what’s next. Or “going forward” or “evolving to.”
  • Avoid absolutes like “All people must return to in-person work,” or “Eventually everyone will come back to the office,” or phrases like “Our clients won’t want to be served remotely after the pandemic,” or “We can’t build relationships unless we’re in-person.” These ideas dishearten those who want a hybrid, blended, or fully remote position, and they will hear you as unable to accommodate their needs, which could lead to their departure.

Even the word reopening could be strange. You never closed for work, right? Instead, consider saying, “We’re opening up new options for work.” Think carefully about the way you phrase your ideas and plans. Use a diverse focus group to test your plans and messages. Give them carte blanche to share their true feelings about both your intentions and your communications. Take their advice and revise your plans and messages.

Mistake 2: Assuming your people feel safe

Some firm leaders think that the vaccination will solve their talent’s health and safety concerns. But as much as a quarter or more of the population may not vaccinate. The legalities around requiring the vaccine, or even inquiring about the vaccine, are unclear and evolving. There are also one-size-fits-one issues such as commute logistics, the desire of many to avoid mass transit, and personal and family health issues that mean some of your people simply won’t feel safe returning to the office.

To figure out how many and why, survey your people. Ask them how they feel about returning to the office and whether they want to work from home, the office, or a blend of both. If they want a blend, what number of days in each location would suit them best post-reopening? Consider asking them to answer the questions for right now, for six months from now, and for a year from now to see if they project an easing of their concerns.

Find out their main health and wellness concerns related to returning to the office. If your firm has made a number of investments in new wellness procedures or equipment, share those with your team members and ask how those things make them feel.

Whatever you do, please be compassionate. The pandemic has been hard. Our people have been under a lot of duress. Making them feel “less than” because they don’t feel safe will surely risk their stability with your firm.

Mistake 3: Not capitalizing on opportunities for change

One of the best things to come from the pandemic was ingenuity, and there are breakthroughs in business processes, technology, and market reach that we should never give up. Things like:

  • Paperless invoice processes that save money on supplies, speed the process of getting the bills to clients, and shorten the bill-to-cash cycle.
  • Remote internship onboarding and management for multi-office firms. During the pandemic, interns have been managed centrally, so they’ve gotten a much more consistent, positive experience and steadier workflow than interns experienced when individual offices managed them inconsistently.
  • Using video calling for quick huddles, internal meetings, and meetings with prospects, referral sources, and clients, connecting people in different places quickly and saving commute time required to get to the same physical location.
  • Employing more digital marketing and remote lead qualifying techniques, saving from the more time-consuming, in-person, big room activities that still have their place but aren’t the most efficient for meeting your ideal targets.
  • Auditing our clients’ data, already loaded on our portal, without the hassle and cost of travel for the entire team.
  • Hiring people in other geographies for key positions that you haven’t been able to source locally. Boundaryless recruiting is allowing firms to solve long-standing capacity challenges and provide wonderful career opportunities to talent who were otherwise trapped in their own geographic bubble.

Mistake 4: Marginalizing remote or hybrid staff

You’d be surprised at how often leaders make blanket statements like, “Those who choose to work from home after the pandemic can do so, but their career growth will be limited.” And they say it in front (virtually) of their remote staff, who are then much more likely to jump ship to an employer that understands there are many examples of remote talent leading teams, projects, clients, service lines, and even a whole firm. And being a remote employee doesn’t mean that you never visit clients or the office or attend other in-person meetings.

Many CPA and advisory firms are launching full-scale borderless reach for talent recruiting and client acquisition. You’re competing with these firms for the talent in your office and for your remote and hybrid people, too.

Form a committee to discuss ways to create a truly inclusive environment that provides parity and consistency in the way you recruit, onboard, develop, and communicate with our at-home, hybrid, and in-office team members. Don’t make one better than the other. Make them all successful!

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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