CPA INSIDER

Adapting to workplace culture in a virtual world

Helping new employees feel connected from a distance involves your entire firm.
By Teri Saylor

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us we don't have to be in the same room with our co-workers to conduct business. All we need is a laptop computer, a mobile phone, and a good internet connection.

But while tools enable firms to continue providing quality work and good client service from distant locations, working remotely can challenge the organizational culture that has developed over time. These challenges may be especially acute when it comes to onboarding new employees and introducing them to workplace culture from a distance.

Lance CPA Group, a nationwide firm that is 100% remote, has cultivated its organizational culture with distant employees in mind, said managing director Joshua Lance, CPA, CGMA, who is based in Chicago. Bringing new employees into the firm's virtual environment takes creativity and involves the entire team.

When new employees join the firm, the first two weeks are critical, Lance said. "We get them on board, teach them all the systems and processes we have in place, and try to have them meet everyone in the firm," he added. It can be challenging, he acknowledged, but his firm has systems in place to make new employees feel welcome and help them fit in.

Lance and other professionals outlined ways to help break the ice with new employees and integrate them into their firm culture, even when everyone can't be together in person.

Start with the interview process. Katina Peters, CPA, CGMA, of Montana, an owner of Peters, Johnson, Staley & Co., a virtual CPA firm, realizes new employees come from different work environments. Some are experienced in working remotely, but it can be a huge adjustment for people if they've never worked that way, Peters said.

In addition to being a remote workplace, Peters, Johnson, Staley & Co. offers team members flexible schedules with 20- to 30-hour workweeks. "We have a truly flexible culture while still upholding high professional standards," she added. 

Integrating new hires into that unique culture starts with the interview. Prioritize talking about culture and the cultural expectations of the organization during the interview and make sure to encourage questions about the culture.

"This is where we begin explaining our value system, and we are transparent about how we operate," she said. "This helps us see a job candidate's drive and personality and how they might fit in with our core values before they start working with us."

Create a buddy system. At Lance CPA Group, each new hire is assigned to a buddy — an experienced team member they can go to when they have questions. That team member regularly checks in with the new employee to make sure they feel welcome in the firm and have the equipment and resources they need to do their jobs.

"When you work remotely, you can feel sort of isolated as if you were on an island," Lance said. "I think proactive communication with a designated office buddy can really help new people feel more connected."

When creating a buddy system, be sure that the guidelines make clear the buddy is the new hire's colleague, not a supervisor. A more collegial relationship allows the new hire to speak more openly, without fear of making a bad impression.

Communicate the story of your firm. Painting a vivid picture of your workplace helps connect new employees to your firm's culture. At Maxwell Locke & Ritter in Austin, Texas, new hires are required to read a book about the firm written by founder Earl Maxwell, said Sarah Taylor, director of talent and culture.

"After reading the book, you can really tell how much thought went into designing our firm and how our core values came to be," Taylor said.

For firms without a book about their history, including infographics, timelines, PowerPoint presentations, or videos about the organization's history within onboarding material can help remote workers gain a sense of belonging.

Maintain office rituals. If your firm has established rituals, such as serving doughnuts in the breakroom every Friday, continue those traditions even though your team is working remotely, and encourage new hires to participate.

Lance suggested giving everyone on your team a nominal amount of money on a reloadable gift card to buy coffee and doughnuts at a set time on Fridays for a virtual coffee break. It's easy to transfer many regular office activities onto a virtual platform and a great way to introduce new hires to your firm's culture.

"Even though you are not together in person, maintaining your workplace rituals is an important component of your office culture," Lance said.

Involve the firm leadership. One key for introducing new hires into your firm's culture is involving your leaders in the process. While most firms schedule meetings for new hires to meet managers, Kristen Rampe, CPA, founder and principal with Rampe Consulting, advocates getting the partners involved too.

"I think it's really important to get your partners in front of all your team members, especially the newest ones," she said. Even brief one-on-one meetings lasting no more than 15 minutes help new hires feel welcome. "These informal meetings mimic catching up in the office breakroom or going for coffee, except they take place in a virtual environment," she said.

Choose meeting apps that fit your culture. From Zoom to Microsoft Teams, the marketplace offers apps that enable online meetings and networking. Choose one that is the best fit for your firm's culture, Peters said. Peters, Johnson, Staley & Co. uses Slack, a platform that offers a variety of features, including chat rooms and channels that can be organized by topic. For organizations that use Apple computers, FaceTime may be a better choice, while Facebook Messenger may be better for organizations that are heavily involved with social media. Always make sure to follow standard cybersecurity protocols on any platform you choose to work with.

"We don't have a physical watercooler, but we have a watercooler channel on Slack for informal gatherings," Peters said. "We encourage people to share pictures of their family, their activities, home improvement projects and hobbies, pets, and other aspects of their lives."

During the past holiday season, team members made gingerbread houses, and everyone shared photos and videos of their creations. "Our virtual watercooler keeps team members connected and helps incorporate new hires into our firm's culture," Peters said.

Be proactive. Helping new team members fit in doesn't happen organically, Peters said. You must be proactive and encourage everyone's participation in activities.

"Emphasize the importance of attending meetings and taking part in events," she said. Even in virtual gatherings that are simply meet-and-greets, attendance should be strongly encouraged. "Some people think it's not worthwhile to participate in a meeting when there's no real business to discuss," Peters said.

But informal meetings do serve a purpose, especially for new hires or people who feel isolated working from home.

"Our meetings are important, because they may be the only interaction our team members ever have with each other," she said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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