The work-from-anywhere revolution received a jolt in March, when office workers were sent home because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. More companies were embracing flexible work practices before the pandemic, but now that movement has been accelerated. Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, shares insight into the future of remote work, why a company’s approach to flexible work can define its culture, and more.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
- Why the MACPA decided years ago to go with more flexible work practices.
- The things Hood likes and dislikes about working from home.
- How the pandemic is making organizations rethink their needs for office space.
- An explanation for why “remote culture will highlight the weaknesses in your real culture.”
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Joined on the podcast by Tom Hood, the CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute. Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Tom Hood: Neil, it’s always great to be here, and good to see you.
Amato: Yeah, great to see you via Zoom as we’re recording this, but also hearing your voice is good, too. We’re going to talk today about remote work and kind of how the time that we’re in right now — and also to note, we are recording this April 22. Remote work with normal weather, normal health, no pollen, no plumber you need to let in the house, how often do you normally work from home?
Hood: Actually, I probably work, in the pre-COVID days, I’d say probably average a day a week I would stay home to do my quiet, heavy-duty writing or getting presentations together, that kind of thing.
Amato: So one day a week. That seems fairly normal. That’s about what I did. But now since I believe March 7, I’ve been fulltime work from home, and I guess you probably have since about that same time.
Hood: Yeah, we went ahead of the state closing. We shut our office down when we heard about everything moving March 13 voluntarily and told all of our people to go home and work from home, and yeah, ever since then we’ve been there. We were about a week ahead of the state closing.
Amato: So what about the other people on your team? I believe you have 30 or so full-time employees at the MACPA. Are they scattered about Maryland or even other states, I guess?
Hood: Yeah, actually that’s the beauty of remote work environments, Neil, that we’ve got — Bill Sheridan — I know you know Bill. He’s our chief communications officer. He’s been in St. Louis I think for 15 years, maybe more. We probably have about four or five, at least, people who are full time out of state. We span from New Jersey to St. Louis, Missouri, to Raleigh-Durham. So they’re all over the place, and any given day, we’re always — people are out with clients, or they’re at trade shows, or they’re out on the speaking circuit. So we had a joke that with 32 FTEs, we’re lucky if there’s eight in the office on any given day, pre-COVID. Now there’s nobody in the office on any given day.
Amato: Right. So the reasons, the life choices that people have made, just where they want to be located, those are some of the reasons that work from home makes sense for your group. What do you think are some of the other reasons that it makes sense? Because you’ve adopted that work-from-home plan probably longer than most organizations.
Hood: Yeah, we migrated our office and all of our systems to the cloud five years ago, with an intention that we could create a very innovative, anticipatory culture, and to do that you have to be flexible, so that you can A, attract the best talent. And B, flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere, not just home, is probably one of the most powerful benefits we can offer anyone. So that’s how it fit us so well. We also have a group of back-to-work moms, and back-to-work moms need a lot of flexibility, right, for their children, for the summer schedules, if they’re still in school. So again, that’s where we get a tremendous degree of talent and loyalty because the work fits their life. We don’t make their life fit the work.
Amato: So for your life, what do you like about working from home when it’s that one-day-a-week model?
Hood: I like it because I don’t have to get in traffic. I probably save an hour, hour and a half a day if I’m not sitting in a car in traffic. I think it’s more creative. You’re getting a different break, and I kind of like where I live, so I get to enjoy the area from that standpoint. I get to look out my window and see the Inner Harbor of Baltimore and those kinds of things. So that’s what I like. It helps my creative side and it gives me that zone of privacy. So that’s how it works for me, and I hear that’s probably true for most of our team members, right? And then they can turn it on and turn it off. So if I had to take care of things, like I’ve got an aging mom that I sometimes have to run around and do something for, I can do that in the middle of the day. It doesn’t disrupt everything, and then I jump back on. I can stay on, and sometimes you work even more from home than you probably should, because it’s right there. So that’s another thing we’re showing this environment. We have to tell people, “Watch the time you’re on, because it’s so easy to keep working.”
Amato: It very much is. We had another podcast that addressed that, and one of the tips that came out of it was the need to set a calendar reminder to say, “Go outside and take a walk.”
Hood: Yeah, yeah.
Amato: So in this current environment, and obviously we all hope things can change and we can get back into our offices, but what are some of the realities, the kind of negatives to work from home that you just kind of have to manage and deal with right now?
Hood: There’s no question that I miss being with people, like being with our team or being with my family, right, the ones that aren’t with me. I’m with my wife now, but I can’t go see my son who’s just a couple miles away because we can’t do that yet. So I think it’s the physical connection, although I will say that the video connection — I’m talking to more people, like we’re doing right now where I get to see you, which is incredible. I’m talking to more people now than I ever did before because I’m saving so much time. So that’s the positive side. The negative side is it’s exhausting. I’m looking at my schedule and it’s pretty much back-to-back-to-back calls. That’s part of me being a bad scheduler, but literally when you’re on Zoom calls all day long, it’s exhausting. So I think there’s an exhaustion element to it. I think that’s one of the drawbacks. I think there’s some things you can’t do as well remotely like this. There are some deeper conversations you might need with people, or planning purposes, strategy, or trying to help manage expectations and performance, right, those kinds of issues. They’re tougher virtually.
Amato: What did the COVID-19 outbreak force you to change related to your rhythm of work from home?
Hood: So the interesting part was pretty much the first 10 days, if you will, that we were voluntarily home before everything really crashed — in our case, when the state shut down and everything became really, really intense — it was easier in the sense that it was easy to set your routine. I think, like you said, I was taking a walk at lunch, going out to get lunch somewhere, whatever, coming back, that kind of thing. And then when COVID hit, the intensity, in our case, of the regulatory and legislative stuff to be responsive to our members turned — it made my world and a couple members’, probably a big chunk of our organization — upside down trying to keep up with it, and obviously we are working with the AICPA. We had to work with our governor and the legislature. We had to work with Congress, the Treasury, bankers. It was just all the stakeholders and all that work — literally, I’ve probably been running about 14-hour days every day. It’s funny; my Apple Watch reminded me this week, “Last month, your exercise rate was way up from what it is now.” [Laughs] And so it’s like a blinding flash of “Yeah, that’s true. That’s called COVID.”
Amato: What do you think this situation that we’re all dealing with might do to the long-term notion of remote work?
Hood: So I’ve talked about not just this, but all the major trends that we were tracking, Neil, I believe COVID-19 will just accelerate those. So Digital CPA conference this past December — it’s a don’t-miss conference, by the way. I’ve been there every year. It’s incredible. The group, you know, 300 pretty progressive CPAs, I would say on the early adopter side, they had this futurist talk and they were trying to pick six problems to break out in tables on, and wouldn’t’ you know, 90 percent of the room picks remote work to brainstorm options on, which I’m sitting there going, “Wait a minute. We should be a lot further along than that in our profession.” Right? I mean, they’re just not starting to say, “What’s the implication of this?”
So I was walking around the tables helping kind of coordinate it and facilitate, and it was amazing how many had really not embraced it. They think they embrace it. They would say, “Well, we’re doing some flex, and they can wear jeans on Fridays,” and that’s not real remote work culture. It’s about the flexibility and it’s not really offering remote work like it’s a gift. It’s about managing the work, not the people, in a way that gives them a lot of flexibility so they can be more productive. So it’s interesting.
We had a managing partner call just today, and we were asking about loss of productivity because of this push into remote work. And about three quarters had everything from a significant decline in productivity to moderate — 10%, 15% kind of things. But there was about a quarter of them said it increased their productivity because they were being flexible, right? These people could take care of life and work, ’because life doesn’t really work around work, does it? It doesn’t always come before 8:00 and after 5:00. That’s the difference. I think flexible work versus remote work is where we have to get to. This is accelerating that, and it’s going to separate the people that figure it out or are already doing it from the ones who are still hoping we’re going to go back to the old days soon.
Amato: The MACPA obviously has an office. We’ve talked about it. You know, I looked on Google Maps. I now know a little bit about where you live. I know how long it takes because you said, but it’s close to the highways. You can be in Annapolis, in the capital, in an hour. You could probably be at a baseball game right time a day, 25 minutes, free parking, grocery stores, lunch spots. It’s probably great, but do you still need it?
Hood: We’re already thinking about it right now. I think there’s two spots. Right now we have mostly office space. We gave up our classroom because it wasn’t getting utilized enough. I think what we’re learning now is we’re probably going to create a small classroom where we could do team meetings, facilitations with our members, those kinds of things, and literally a much smaller work-print. So when we first went flex space, it’s a whole open-office configuration.
When we did that, the space planner said, “You probably want one workstation per person.” It’s funny ’because it was a husband/wife team, the wife being the one that really would look at this remote thing from all over the world. I said, “All right, Cheryl, what is the real number that you think company best practices is doing?” And she said, “Yeah, that’s about 60%. They’ve got 60% of the spaces they need and people rotate when they’re in and out in those spaces.” So Neil, the way I’m thinking about it now, is I think we probably could cut our footprint in half, have a classroom, and have a small spot that might handle — so in our case, I would say it’s probably less than half — handle like 10 work stations, including my office. And then let people flex and just be a little bit intentional about how they can schedule so that we only use 10 spots. Now, in the going back after COVID, we’re going to have to be socially distant, which for us isn’t a problem because nobody’s there half the time. But now we would say “You need to be 6 feet apart.” We don’t have anything that are cubes right on top of each other. We pretty much have 6 feet already, and so I think we can — I hope the landlord’s not listening to this. I think in our next renewal, we’re going to cut back that space pretty dramatically and actually increase space that we can use in a classroom situation that we don’t have now. So it’s going to be a net reduction in rent and a net gain in functionality to help run meetings with our members.
Amato: Very interesting development in all this. How would you say the MACPA has used technology to maintain culture? I think you’ve done it before the outbreak, but maybe how it’s been improved upon or what you’re doing now specifically.
Hood: On a team call probably about midway through this, one of our team members on our sales team says, “You know what, Tom? I just have to say thank you.” I’m like, “Why?” She says, “I kind of thought you were crazy when you pushed all into the cloud and you started making all those changes, and now I’m so grateful that you did it because we couldn’t do what we’re doing if we hadn’t done that.” So what was that? Well, open office, cloud – we had to develop our own association management system because there wasn’t one on the cloud back then. We did the Google suite. So collaboration tools, Neil, you know, all the Google Docs. I was on a doc earlier, and there’s three people from my team on it moving things around while we’re working on it, and that’s incredible, right? So the productivity piece of that.
We use Slack as our channel, so that’s our kind of communications channel, and then we’re using Zoom and all those things both with members, with people with authors, editors, people that are doing podcasts. So, once you start to learn how to work this way, it’s so much better, and so I would argue that all the tools have just gotten sharper for us.
Now, how are we using technology to also do some fun things? In our Slack channel, we created one for COVID, and now every day we try to say, “Hey, go take a walk and take a picture of your neighborhood.” We had one where I think people were getting pictures of their dogs one week, and every Friday we do a happy hour and everybody gets their favorite drink, we all toast each other, share good news, and do those kinds of things. So we’ve begun to — and I still think we need to do more, but our culture — by the way, we measure it. We always do anonymous polls. “How are you feeling? What’s going on?” and we hear things like, “We’re glad you guys are being open and honest. We feel like we’re part of something. We see what we’re doing for members.”
So you have to increase your communication during this period, and we’re trying to do that in every way possible: video, Zoom, Slack, e-mail, all those kinds of things. We encourage them to jump on calls when we have members on there, so our managing partner call today. We asked a lot of the staff to join so they could hear what the members are actually saying and what’s keeping them up. I actually think we’ve been able to do more engagement with members and with our staff, quite frankly, than we were doing in the pre-COVID days. It’s also around an urgent thing that we’re all working on. That helps, right? We have a call to action. We’ve got to deal with this thing.
Amato: In closing, you have given some great bits of advice that people can mimic, but what else might you add on this topic that other organizations can apply to their situation?
Hood: So we did a culture project with our leadership academy graduates. We took like 10 years’ worth of them and ran in a room and said, “What’s the right culture for the future?” And one of our members, Barrett Young, said, “A remote culture will highlight the weaknesses in your real culture.” So if you have trouble in a remote culture, you need to be paying attention to your culture. So I think there’s never been anything truer because I am listening to folks, CFOs, and managing partners who are struggling with their culture right now, and of course it’s in a very intense environment, but they don’t know the tools to kind of reinvigorate that culture in a remote way. And what Barrett’s point was, if you create a really strong remote culture — flex, I call it — then you’ll have a killer culture after that.
We’ve done metrics on what that looks like, but it gives them things like transparency, focusing on purpose and values, regular communications, being able to get honest answers from people that’s often anonymous. We use polling to get anonymous feedback. What are we not dealing with? So you have to give them a way to basically express their feelings, good and bad, and react and respond to those, because that’s a lot that’s going on, and in this environment, they’re more intense because of the environment that we’re in, right? I call it the fear virus. So we have to think about the culture differently, and it’s even more important right than it ever has been. That would be my closing thought from that perspective.
Amato: Tom, thank you very much.
Hood: This was fun. Thank you.