CPA INSIDER

How large firms manage staff during the pandemic

Senior leaders at two large firms describe strategies they’re using to help their professionals ride out the COVID-19 crisis.
By Joseph Radigan

The emergence in early 2020 of the novel coronavirus upended how and where work gets done, including in large accounting firms that needed to quickly figure out how to move tens of thousands of employees to remote work.

Senior leaders at two Big Four accounting firms offered insights into how they are dealing with the changes to their workplaces while continuing to serve clients.

CPA Insider spoke to Kimberly Jones, CPA, people experience and markets leader for PwC, and Mike Schneider, CPA, KPMG's East Region managing partner – audit for KPMG LLP, to hear some of the steps these firms have implemented to manage their workforces remotely as they ride out the crisis. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What has been your firm's chief goal in managing staff during this time?

Schneider: The safety and well-being of all our people is our highest priority. We closed our offices and offered additional paid time off that our U.S. professionals can use if they can't work because they are sick with COVID-19 or must care for a family member ill with the virus or for a child home because school is closed.

We've been checking in with our people and clients to see how they are doing, understand their challenges, and provide information and resources that match their needs. Our people, at all levels, are sharing best practices, stories of generosity, and learning from each other.

Jones: The health and safety of our 55,000 people in the U.S. is our top priority and chief goal. We have been monitoring and following the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outside medical advisers, and our own Global Security team to plan and prepare in the face of this evolving situation. We have closed all of our offices across the country and suspended travel to protect the health of our people.

What is the most useful step the firm took to ensure that productivity targets are being met?

Schneider: We've reinforced our "Thinking Heads Up" culture, which means working together, being empathetic and candid, confronting challenges, and always learning and improving. These behaviors help our people do their best work, be their best selves, and drive productivity. 

Our teams established communication schedules with clients and clarified expectations now that they are working remotely. We're staying connected virtually and leveraging technology to host interactive meetings, workshops, and whiteboarding, or brainstorming, sessions.

We established an internal portal that provides COVID-19 information to help our professionals understand developments across the firm and marketplace while providing guidance on accounting and auditing considerations. 

Jones: Our mobility as an organization and our robust technology infrastructure have been key during these challenging times. Year-round, every PwC employee is encouraged to coordinate with their team to work where, and how, it suits their specific needs. During the extraordinary circumstances related to COVID-19, we've been able to lean heavily into this existing model of flexibility and our longstanding investment in technology in order to continue to operate in this new virtual world. However, we also understand that extended school closures and other unique challenges are present during this time, and we are encouraging our people to continue to have open conversations with their team leaders to discuss workload, deliverables, and what is reasonable for them based on their specific circumstances.

Can you identify some creative steps managers have undertaken to sustain employees' morale and sanity?

Schneider: Our teams have rallied around each other through virtual coffees, check-ins, office hours, wellness exercises, and by recognizing each other for "Thinking Heads Up."

Our leaders are developing video messages about how they transitioned to working from home full time and are encouraging our employees to share how they continue to live and demonstrate our values.

Many of our diversity networks and parent groups continue to meet virtually to share tips to balance home and work now that the lines between the two have blurred more than ever. We realize that while it's critical to practice social distancing, it's important to remain connected and invested in one another.  

Jones: In light of COVID-19, we've created an internal community to help connect PwCers to one another virtually. This forum provides a safe space for our people to build community, share inspirational stories, and exchange practical advice about how they are managing themselves and their families and serving their clients during this unprecedented time. Our people are sharing these stories on social media as well.

Can you give an example of what you've learned about managing a large workforce remotely?

Schneider: We've learned how resourceful and resilient our people are. Many of our audit teams are accustomed to working on-site with our clients every day. We are truly leaning on and learning from each other, thinking in different ways, and adapting how we operate. We're also using our Clara smart audit platform to facilitate data sharing among the engagement teams and give clients an opportunity to monitor the engagement's progress.

Communication has been essential to supporting our teams. We've encouraged people to not rely exclusively on emails or texts. There is no replacement for status calls or video chats during which individuals have the opportunity to express what they need help on that day to be successful.

Jones: We're learning that with the tools, technologies, and robust infrastructure already in place, so much more can be done remotely than we even realized. And our clients are realizing this too.

From engagement team tasks to regular client connections to new business pitches, our work is still getting done — just in this new virtual way.

Joseph Radigan is a freelance writer based in New York. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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