Potential pitfalls for a return to in-person work

Hosted by Neil Amato

How an organization frames the discussion around bringing staff back together in the office matters. Jennifer Wilson, partner and co-founder of Convergence Coaching LLC, expands on her recent Journal of Accountancy article about reopening mistakes for organizations. Wilson is a speaker at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021 on the topic of managing a blended workforce (view the full ENGAGE agenda here).

Also, hear a reminder about playing to your strengths from another ENGAGE 2021 speaker, executive coach Rhonda Peterson.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • “Back to work” — why Wilson says it’s a phrase to avoid as organizations craft post-pandemic plans.
  • How focus groups that go across generations and locations can help in preparing for a return to in-office work.
  • What Wilson expects related to office work in the second half of the year.
  • How an organization’s approach to flexible work can affect its ability to recruit talent.
  • What an AICPA letter to Congress says about regulating paid tax preparers.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Hello from Journal of Accountancy podcast world headquarters in a multipurpose room in my house, this is senior editor Neil Amato. Today I’m joined on the podcast by Jennifer Wilson, partner and co-founder at Convergence Coaching LLC, an ENGAGE 2021 speaker, and a regular JofA contributing writer.

Jennifer, in your recent article on journalofaccountancy.com, “4 Reopening Mistakes Employers Must Avoid,” you talked about one pitfall that’s related to wording. Tell me some more about that.

Jennifer Wilson: I’m glad to be here talking about this because I think it’s really important. Neil, first of all, most accounting firm and organizational leaders in finance didn’t go to school for communications. Instead, they went to school for more technical matters, and the idea of firm-wide communications is always a challenge, I think, or organization-wide. So, words matter. We try to not criticize the words they’re using, but instead suggest things they might consider.

I think one of the mistakes we’re seeing firms make in reopening is not realizing how sensitive their employees, their talent, are to the things they’re saying and mandating. So, we’re discouraging mandates, first of all, and the tone of the communications. So, avoiding things like “You must return to the office a minimum of three days a week,” or “We will all return to work after Labor Day.” Big, blanket mandates like that don’t work, because there are going to be certain circumstances where people simply can’t do that or won’t do that. But also, word choices matter. Firm leaders should avoid “going back to work” — that phrase is a no-no, because people have been working very hard for 15 months and may take offense to the idea that they haven’t been working and that somehow when they return to the office, that’s the beginning of work. They also really don’t want to hear the word “back” at all — “back to the office,” “back to work,” “back together.”

Most next-gen talent and clients don’t want to hear that we want to go back to some nostalgic place in the past that we as leaders think was great when they might not think it was that awesome. What they want to know is that we’re progressing forward, that we’re reinventing, reinvigorating, and taking the best of what we learned in this pandemic and that we’re going to take it forward. We’re opening up new options for work as one of the phrases that we recommend leaders use when they’re talking about having more people back at the office.

Amato: This is kind of related to communication. What is your advice for an organization that develops this new work plan but then finds out that, for a decent chunk of its workforce, they’re not ready to be back in the office, even on the schedule that that leadership team came up with?

Wilson: Well, right. This is not uncommon. I think the first thing is to recognize that, if I could get out in front of it, before you created your new work plan, I would encourage you to get focus groups together, cross-functional focus groups, cross-generational, cross-geography, cross-discipline or service or area, and get the feedback ahead. But if you’ve already created the new work plan and maybe even made some announcements around it, pronouncements, perhaps, and even mandated some things, I would recommend, if they start to hear feedback and start to get some flak essentially from their messaging, they should seriously consider walking it back. And saying, “Hey, we’re getting some feedback and maybe we were premature, and maybe we didn’t consider enough of the different circumstances. And we’d like to do some surveying and some focus-grouping and then get some feedback and make revisions to the plan and get back with you.” And to really take the heat off a plan that clearly is disrupting or upsetting their team.

People have a lot of choices right now in where they work, at least people with the CPA license, or consulting or advisory skills. They have almost unlimited options. There are a lot of organizations that are completely committed to a hybrid or blended workforce, or a considerable borderless workforce where they will have people all around the country working for them from their homes.

They realized in the pandemic that is an absolute can-do strategy, and they’re going after it. So we can’t afford to have that disruption in the business where we’ve accidentally announced something that isn’t going well and then allow our people to start looking outward for those borderless opportunities or to those organizations that aren’t going to force them back. Unfortunately, I think some firm leaders need to make modifications and sort of walk back mistaken pronouncements at this point.

Amato: You’re scheduled to speak on successful management of a remote or blended workforce at ENGAGE, late July, and it’s possible — well, it’s not possible. It’s definite that this issue will kind of continue to evolve as this year goes on and we know more then than we do now. And now is early May. What are some things you expect to happen in the second half of 2021 related to workplace flexibility?

Wilson: Well, first, Neil, I just want to tell you that I predict and hope and pray that enough people become vaccinated and create immunity so that we aren’t as fearful of getting the virus and having as much illness and death as we’ve had in this pandemic. So, I believe that as the spring and summer progress, we will see the numbers continue to go down, and that will give us all confidence in starting to gather again. But I think that we will continue to see the need for masks and the need for some distancing when we’re unsure who’s vaccinated and who’s not, as long as there’s continued illness. What that means is firm leaders have to be compassionate and understanding of their people’s different feelings about the virus. And as we get into the second half, I hope we’re going to see more of a blended or hybrid approach, where we’re allowing people to decide where they’re working. We call it anywhere work, and we’ve been talking about it at Convergence Coaching for 21 years.

We’ve been a completely flexible, remote business our whole history, with unlimited PTO and all of our assets in the cloud before it was called the cloud. We know that remote work works, and a blended work style works, and I think most of the country is going to find that that is what provides maximum flexibility for them being OK with people working at home, at the office, at a client’s office, that we aren’t going to care as much. I think that progressive organizations are going to start taking that stance, recruiting people borderlessly and really capitalizing on that to build capacity in their organizations. And the firms that try to mandate it and force people back to the office in the second half [of 2021] and into 2022, I think are going to see significant turnover, because I think those people will want some flexibility.

And all the surveys that have been done out there, from the Society of Human Resources Management to FlexJobs, there are so many different surveys. They all point to people wanting that flexibility. They want the ability to decide, week by week and day by day, where they’re going to get their work done, and we’re going to have to provide it.

Amato: We will link to your article, which mentions some of that survey data. We’ll also link to the ENGAGE 2021 agenda. Jennifer, thank you very much for being on the show today.

Wilson: Thanks, Neil. I appreciate the opportunity.

Amato: Rhonda Peterson is another speaker at ENGAGE 2021, and she recently had a conversation with my colleague Drew Adamek for a podcast episode on managing personal energy: what that is, why it matters, and how it can factor in our career development. One theme of the discussion was about the things that energize us and the things that drain us. Peterson is an executive coach and trainer, and she shared about how she’s an effective writer but that the act of writing leaves her drained mentally. Here’s more from her on playing to our strengths.

Rhonda Peterson: All of us are really good at some things and not very good at others. So, hopefully, for those who are in the CPA field, they’re really good at different parts of the financial world. Whether that be doing tax, whether that be doing audit, whether that be doing forensic accounting, whatever segment of the accounting world you’re in, there’s a space where you really shine in that. And finding that space and being able to work in that space can take your career to a whole new level. Because you know where you provide the biggest service and where you can make the biggest contribution, and that reward is so worth it to figure out where that space is.

Amato: Again, that was executive coach and trainer Rhonda Peterson. You can find a link to that podcast on the Journal of Accountancy web site. We’ll also post a link to it in the show notes for this episode.

In other news, a letter sent by the AICPA to Congress applauds proposed legislation that would give the IRS authority to regulate paid tax preparers who are currently not regulated. The letter mentioned key elements already in the Taxpayer Protection and Preparer Proficiency Act, a bill introduced in 2019. The AICPA letter suggested two additional elements: an expression of congressional intent that the Registered Tax Return Preparer Program be focused on unlicensed preparers and certain advertising requirements to mitigate marketplace confusion.

The JofA’s Dave Strausfeld has more on that topic on journalofaccountancy.com. You can also find the article link in the show notes for this episode.

Also, the IRS provided 2022 inflation-adjusted amounts for health savings accounts. The annual limitation on deductions for an HSA with self-only coverage will be $3,650, and the corresponding amount for family coverage will be up to $7,300. Those are both slight increases from 2021.

The US Small Business Administration said on May 12 that restaurants, bars and other related businesses have submitted 266,000 applications for funding through the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Congress allocated $28.6 billion to the fund, but the application requests total $65 billion. So, unless new legislation leads to additional funding, not every applicant will receive funds through the program.

And finally, the U.S. Department of Treasury released details on how state, local, territorial and tribal governments with acute pandemic needs can use $350 billion in emergency funds established by the American Rescue Plan Act.

For more on these stories, visit journalofaccountancy.com. Thank you for listening to the JofA podcast.