CPA INSIDER

Are permanent offices passé?

Coworking and hoteling are two options for your firm to consider.
By Samiha Khanna

Coworking — the practice of renting space in a shared office — has continued to grow in popularity over the past decade. Though coworking is usually associated with startups and self-employed people, established businesses — including accounting firms — are now also making use of coworking spaces. Some benefits of coworking, according to CPAs who've tried it, include flexibility, deeper connections to the communities they serve, opportunities for referrals from non-CPA users of the shared space, and the ability to offer workspaces that appeal to a new generation of workers.

KPMG is one major firm that has experimented with coworking. It has an Innovation Lab at a Manhattan-based office owned by WeWork. WeWork has quickly gained national name recognition as a membership-based coworking enterprise with shared offices in 68 cities worldwide and counting. KPMG established a partnership with WeWork's SoHo location in 2014 to house its innovation team and venture capital practice.

"We believe there is a strong need to provide the right type of work environments in order to recruit and retain the workforce of the future, and CPAs will have a large role to play," said David Pessah, director of the Innovation Labs at KPMG.

Pessah was himself one of the young recruits KPMG was hoping to attract. He was working for a three-person startup at a WeWork office in SoHo that also housed about 50 KPMG employees. As Pessah recently told The Wall Street Journal, he got into an elevator with a KPMG managing director, made a connection, and landed a new job with the Big Four firm.

Part of KPMG's intention in using the coworking space "was to embed the firm into the innovation and startup ecosystem," Pessah said. "Coworking environments, such as the Innovation Lab, are part of KPMG's broader strategy to create collaborative and entrepreneurial environments for our employees."

Coworking can also help firms save on office space and can offer them an opportunity to explore a market or geographic area without having to commit long term, said Matthew VanDerbeck, CPA, an auditor and partner with Pattison, Koskey, Howe & Bucci, CPAs PC.

With a coworking space, firms "don't have to rent a large space that they're going to have to grow into — you have the space available and you can add or subtract office space as your staff changes," VanDerbeck said. "It gives you easy control over the cost and there's flexibility. You can choose how long you want to be there."

Two years ago, VanDerbeck was commuting 30 minutes to his office in Valatie, N.Y. — many times only to get right back in the car to visit clients. He was looking for an office closer to home and to many of his clients in New York's Hudson Valley, and found BEAHIVE, a coworking space in downtown Albany.

A membership allowed VanDerbeck to pay only for the days he needed an office rather than paying for space that would sit empty while he visited clients several times a week.

"To open an office of any size, the rent can be prohibitive, especially if you don't have a good client base already," VanDerbeck said. "I can pop in here and pay a fee, and I'm able to rent a space for seven or eight days a month."

The BEAHIVE is home to more than 20 other professionals who work in finance, real estate, and other industries. The membership directory even boasts a violin restorer and a hypnotist. When he joined, VanDerbeck rented just a desk in the open space, then moved to a locking office that offered privacy for meeting with and calling clients. He was able to address security concerns by setting up his own private phone line and router.

Most coworking firms are designed to be collaborative spaces where creative professionals and entrepreneurs can build connections across their respective disciplines. Although VanDerbeck and his staff aren't working in an open space with the other BEAHIVE members, he feels more embedded in the community he serves.

"I'm able to make people aware of the fact that I'm here," he said. "I have an address, and people can look and see I'm in the space. I'm getting more proposals. I have access to events with other businesses. I've picked up additional work just by being in the building."

Prior to joining PKHB, VanDerbeck worked at a New York office for a large firm where employees followed a similar model to coworking known as "hoteling." Staff had no assigned desks or offices: They simply checked into a desk or office when needed, bringing their belongings and securing any sensitive materials for the day in locked cabinets.

Many firms still offer "hoteling" for employees who are often out traveling during the workday, including CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP), a national firm that has two hoteling-based offices in Washington, D.C., that house more than 250 employees in what is largely an open space. The offices offer individual workstations as well as collaborative spaces for small or large teams, and closed rooms for private meetings, said Drew Smith, CPA, managing principal for the Washington region.

"The environment lends itself to team building and collaboration, as it breaks down traditional office barriers," he said. "It promotes our culture of helping each other and helping our clients."

The team uses software so employees can check out workstations and offices for specified periods. All employees are asked to remove their belongings at the end of their stay, which was inconvenient at first, but "our professionals got used to that quickly," he said.

For firms considering adopting a hoteling or coworking work style, Smith recommended seeking a space with good acoustics, even in an open setting, and using paperless document management to allow employees more mobility.

Cory Rutledge, managing principal of industry, senior living, at CLA, is part of a health care-focused group at the firm's Minneapolis office that also uses a "hoteling" model. From his experience, whether coworking is right for you depends on your team's individual needs.

"Our tax professionals tend to be more paper-based and tend to be in the office more often, so providing permanent space to our tax professionals was the right move for our team," Rutledge said.

Real estate and business forecasts suggest that coworking spaces will continue to grow in popularity for several years. Although in-depth research on this relatively new working model is limited, those who have been studying coworking, such as Peter A. Bacevice, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Michigan's business school, said the setup does often help independent professionals with networking opportunities and access to other forms of support like services from other professionals such as web developers and lawyers.

For CPA firms looking to reduce their office footprint, coworking and hoteling can be attractive options. As Bacevice pointed out, it's fairly easy for organizations to experiment with coworking. "Most coworking spaces offer opportunities to try it out without commitment," he said. "Even then, coworking memberships are flexible (much more so than signing a long-term office lease)." As an opportunity to test a more collaborative, community-oriented environment at relatively low cost and low risk, coworking may be worth considering.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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