The pandemic thrust LSL CPAs into a Working From Home staff situation much like the rest of the world, and our firm continues to work mainly in a remote environment. Now that we’ve had some time to reflect and sort through some initial challenges, we thought it might be a good time to talk about our experiences for your benefit.
What has worked for us
What we are still trying to figure out
How you can be successful
What has worked for us
As managing partner at LSL CPAs, I was given the job of making Working From Home, WFH, work for our firm. It’s been quite the journey, but we realize now that technology had already given us more efficiency, effectiveness, and better communications than we could have imagined. COVID made things like video calls, screen sharing, document collaboration, and secure file storage commonplace. Virtual reality became a workplace imperative.
Technology significantly reduced commute/travel time (for some people, that was HOURS a day saved!) and offered the flexibility to work anywhere in the world. But we would never have realized the hidden benefit of being able to attract and retain an only-in-your-dreams workforce that we called “Winning the War on Talent.” Who knew?
Winning the “War on Talent”
We knew part of our sustained success would require getting and keeping well-qualified candidates. While our firm was lucky to maintain our client base during COVID, a few of our clients struggled to stay open during the pandemic. If they managed to pass that trial, they faced another challenge when they resumed normal business activities: retaining people for key positions.
This brave new remote world actually helped us! Due to technology’s WFH outreach, we suddenly had access to people unavailable to us BC (Before Covid). Here in Orange County, California, the high cost of living and ridiculous commutes forced some employees to leave, not to mention families who needed to relocate for lots of reasons. While we still have enviable weather to entice people here, we can now cast our recruiting nets across state and country lines. Some of the people we had lost were glad to come back, and others who were thinking about leaving didn’t! We were able to retain some wonderful people because of the remote environment.
However nice it is to work remotely, the WFH-ers and our management team and I are still trying to find a good balance between remote and office because humans need personal interactions!
What we’re still trying to figure out
Communicating Culture, and Putting the Team Back in Teamwork
Here’s the thing: Like you, we are trying to keep the sense of ‘belonging’ to an organization and being a part of a team—which might be achieved virtually but is greatly enhanced through in-person interactions.
Our Virtual Activities
We stage regular virtual Town Hall Meetings with the entire firm on Zoom, where we make announcements and check in with everyone at the firm. And our virtual Halloween Party with pumpkin carving and a costume competition was a big hit last fall.
Our In-Person Events
We have hosted Department Trainings, where we bring everyone to one location for a major instruction session. I’m trying hard to make these fun, and we’ve brainstormed various outside activities post-training. For example, one night, a big group went to a baseball game. On another evening at a karaoke gathering, we found out exactly who should stay in the shower when they sing!
At our Annual State-of-the-Firm Address, we brought everyone in for a day that discussed Firm Strategies and Goals for the year.
We are trying to figure out what future events to have. Will it be a picnic, a Holiday party? We’re still trying to figure it out. If you have any cool ideas, let us know!
Culture, training, and staff development
Part of cultivating a shared work culture is objectively knowing the firm’s programs, software, communication platforms, apps, etc. On the other hand, there’s an element of informal learning that flows more easily in an office setting. People learn a lot from others—overhearing conversations floating above cubicle walls, in the conference room at a client’s office, or in corridors and hallways as peers and superiors seek the coffee-aroma of non-virtual coffee breaks. We might hear this conversation in that break room.
“Hey, Suze… how do we use this app? We didn’t do it that way where I used to work.”
“Oh. Glad you asked. Here’s how we do it at LSL.”
And the onboarding experience for remote workers does not always get that answer for a long time—which can cause frustration and distancing.
I think people learn in a variety of ways. To that end, we offer various training programs with videos and tutorials through virtual learning platforms that our people can access from their remote environments. Plus, we’ve implemented virtual check-ins, meetings, and performance reviews to promote growth and development. Is it enough? Too little? Too much?
How You Can Be Successful
We learned a lot by trial and error, but we also talked to folks in our peer networks. I had to encourage our management team to rethink how we interacted with our workforce and find our way through the mine fields of the pandemic wars. At several points during the COVID offensive, we called on our professional associations to get guidance or just commiserate. We asked our co-workers and our vendors and suppliers. “How’s this going for you? What can we do to make this a better experience?”
How we measure performance
As accountants, we have professional organizations like the AICPA and our GAAP regulations with which we can evaluate our staff’s work quality. But the less cut-and-dried measurements need skillful handling to ensure a productive work day for our employees. The idea that “our teams were not putting in the time” in a remote environment was something all business owners feared at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, we realize that with our standard measures like KPIs, billable hours, budgeted hours, completed projects, etc. we don’t need to worry about staff’s “productiveness” as long as we are confident that they’re clear on what’s expected of them. It’s critical that our firm meets its quality marks, of course. But also, our employees know we trust them to do their best work in an environment where they work the best, wherever that is.
Other softer employee ‘performance’ measures: Are they happy? Are they getting enough training to know how to do their jobs correctly? Can they get the information they need on a timely basis, accessing the people and systems to get from point A to point B with minimal stress? Are they able to spend more time with their families? We feel our remote workers have grown and evolved as much as we have! And… is it working for us?
Remote Workers and Varying Geographic Regulations
Of course you know of a downside of remote work: Different state registrations, laws, and compliance issues. Such things as worker compensation and health benefits vary by state. The United States of America is not united regarding taxes, withholding, SDI, overtime, etc. If you have remote workers outside your main office, you must ensure their paychecks adhere to their state’s regulations. Same for workers outside the U.S. We have some folks in Canada, for instance, and our Human Resources and payroll folks must comply with their laws. Compliance for our remote workers has almost become its own full-time job!
Conclusion and Recommendations
Be Flexible and Smile
I think going, and staying, remote has been a good decision for us. Some days are better than others and we’re still weighing the benefits against the drawbacks. Accountants work long, hard hours. We sweat over balance sheets, cash flow statements, and every other part of our client’s businesses to help them make good decisions. They are hard decisions that affect hundreds (or thousands) of people’s lives, from employees to managers, vendors, stockholders, and communities that employ accountants to bring them the correct information.
We found our company was strengthened by self-introspection. We had to find ways to balance our needs with those of the workforce. We heard them tell us how much flexibility in their work hours meant to them. We had to be innovative in finding the best ways to create a sense of belonging for folks both near and far and be better versions of ourselves so our people could do and be their best. I would put this under the “silver lining” category from the Covid storm. The ground is still wet from the “hurricane,” but we are seeing renewed vigor from our staff, as they understand our commitment to giving them the work/life balance we all seem to need more of these days. Another really cool result of the pandemic is that it helped us expand our business geographically.
Here’s the thing: Right now, we recognize the work place is evolving and changing. The structure and camaraderie of office work excites some people. Others thrive on the flexibility offered by WFH, while another group just says no to office work for a myriad of reasons, including commuting hours, gas prices, noise, etc. These days, employees define work satisfaction in many different ways, so successful employers today have to offer more than compensation.
LSL CPAs is a values-based organization and we try to honor our mission and vision in everything we do. One of our top values is to have our people love what they do. The other is for them to pursue excellence in their work. We feel that the flexibility of letting our people work from home supports both of these critical values. We’re hearing people are happy to be freed up from non-essentials and “wasted time” like commuting.
Bottom line: We want to create a work environment for people to thrive and do their best work. You need to find what level of WFH works for you and your employees.
If you’re so inclined, please let us know what you’re doing and how it’s going!