While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues around the world, the return of something like normal remains, at a minimum, a few months away. As a result, many accountants will continue working entirely or partly from home.
It isn't easy.
"Colleagues are feeling the pressures from work and home," said Keith Berg, chief human resources officer of UHY LLP in Farmington Hills, Mich., part of accounting firm network UHY International. "COVID has created a longer busy season for our tax professionals. Those colleagues with younger children are also having to become part-time teacher" in addition to an accounting professional.
The changes are felt in firm operations.
The pandemic has "impacted the way we operate and the way we communicate with clients and staff," said Jon Gassman, CPA/PFS, chief executive of the Gassman Financial Group based in Manhattan. "The lack of physical closeness for our team has clearly taken a toll. If I could physically high-five people, I would, but we live in a new world and adapt accordingly."
Here's what you can do to help staffers:
Check in. Simply be in contact. "We have a daily Zoom call as a form of check-in," Gassman said.
The agenda for the roughly 25-minute scheduled call is simple: What's working? What's going on? What are your wins? What are you proud of?
"The point is to share a positive focus, which can, and usually does, cause a mental shift from negative to positive," he explained.
Don't be afraid to do this one-on-one without a formal schedule as well.
Offer flexibility. Don't make everyone work the traditional hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. "Introduce flexible work schedules for your employees, which can allow them the freedom to rest when they need to and to handle other pressing personal matters," said Carol Tompkins, business development consultant at UK-based AccountsPortal, an online accounting software company.
This more flexible approach had an unexpected upside at Mark Feldstein and Associates, a Canadian accounting firm, by freeing up some technical resources.
"We threw office hours out the window," said Sara Feldstein, CPA (Canada), partner at Mark Feldstein and Associates. "This allowed our VPN to work faster and allowed everyone to work at the hours best suited for their personal lives."
Encourage breaks. With so many people working from home, it's easy for employees to blend their work and personal lives and not take a break, said Marc J. Strohl, CPA, founder of New York City-based Protax Consulting Services.
"COVID has certainly made it much tougher for staff to recharge, unwind, travel, and take their minds off of work, but it is important to insist that staff take the time off," he said. "Otherwise, it begins to affect their attitude and morale and that can lead to a horrible work environment in general."
Even though the firm offers unlimited paid time off covering holidays, vacation, and sick days, employees still need to be reminded to use it, Strohl said. "Without travel due to COVID, staff requests for PTO have been way down, so the challenge is to convince them that spending time with family at home is a viable and important cause," he said.
That's why Feldstein took a more dramatic step. "We had a weekend where we locked everyone out of the system so that no one could work," she said. The staff received a few days of notice that the break was imminent.
Provide necessary tools. Feldstein's firm also has set its employees up for remote success. Leaders made sure everyone had whatever they needed, such as a better chair or bigger screen, to be able to do their job properly without back or neck strain, she said.
Send rewards. For years, Gassman has sent gift cards for birthdays. Now, he's mailing rewards more frequently to mark work milestones and accomplished goals. This is "a form of recognition and another way to say thank you," Gassman said.
UHY recently launched CelebrateU, a recognition and rewards tool that lets employees recognize peers for "just about anything," said Berg. The system automatically congratulates employees on one-month, six-month, and one-year anniversaries, and colleagues can send electronic cards to colleagues for birthdays and other special occasions.
If you're planning a daylong meeting, think about sending a lunch or snack delivery or credit for the employee to choose something on their own. Gassman's team is used to sitting in the office kitchen and eating together, so he sent each employee steaks, side dishes, and desserts from Omaha Steaks to enjoy at home. "The team needed a pick-me-up," he explained.
Have fun. Finally, add some spice to the monotony. UHY has a monthly virtual "happy hour" with interactive virtual events such as a bartending class, gardening lessons, and competitive games. For employees at the office, the company occasionally pays for food trucks to serve lunch.
By seeking out ways to support staff, firms can help their staff get through what's been a difficult and challenging period of time.
"We strive to do whatever it takes to ensure that they know we support them," Berg said.
— Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.