The shortage of qualified accountants is not big news in the profession. It’s been a long-time pain point for firms across the country...and will continue to be with the unemployment rate at its lowest since the British Invasion (for those not up on their pop culture, we mean the Beatles and about 50 years ago). Exacerbating the issue, while the national unemployment rate hovers around 3.8 percent, the unemployment rate within the accounting profession is virtually zero.
What does all this mean to you?
It means that staffing isn’t going to get any easier, any time soon. It also means that firms need to be open to a new way of staffing...to move away from the traditional onsite-only employee mindset to one that includes remote workers. Expanding your vision and your staff beyond the four walls of the firm is key to solving staffing challenges because it opens the door to a much larger pool of qualified candidates.
As part of our Accountant Entrepreneur series, we are joined by Amanda Aguillard, CPA, Co-founder of Elefant Training and a leading influencer on the topic of remote staffing and Jeff Phillips, CEO of Accountingfly and an equally influential thought leader on today’s remote workforce. Together, they will walk you through how to get up and get out of the traditional staffing mindset and get growing with a remote workforce.
In Part I of this series, we make the case for building a remote staff and then dive into the first three of six best practices to help prepare you for a successful transition.
Making a Case for Remote Staffers
When you consider accounting firms’ long-standing battle with staffing shortages, making a case for a remote workforce is fairly straightforward. Consider a few insights from our subject matter experts:
Expanding access to a larger talent pool
Jeff Phillips is direct that today’s staffing issue is better described as a “staffing crisis,” and that remote workers are a big part of the solution. “With virtually zero unemployment in the accounting profession, you have to open the door to a bigger talent pool...You have to expand beyond your local borders to go statewide or even across the country.”
“With virtually zero unemployment in the accounting profession, you have to open the door to a bigger talent pool...You have to expand beyond your local borders to go statewide or even across the country.”
Jeff Phillips, Accountingfly
It’s about creating abundance by expanding recruitment lines beyond local borders. And in today’s “always-on” world, technology has blown the door wide open to remote workforce opportunities. Also consider that the new generation of professionals favor flexibility and quality of life over higher pay. All of this means that it’s easier than ever to expand your talent pool exponentially.
“Imagine opening yourself up to the entire United States. You can find an abundance of talent because there are so many more professionals to choose from. Our data shows that when we post a remote position over an onsite position, we get eight times more applicants,” Phillips said.
Killing the “Remote Work Ethic” Myth
Part of adopting a remote workforce mindset is dispelling a few outmoded perceptions—specifically the belief that those who work outside of the firm don’t work as hard.
Aguillard shined light on an all-too common and ever-lingering question among firm leaders: “Do remote workers actually work?”
Aguillard explained that the ability to get work done has nothing to do with the location and everything to do with the employee. “If you have a bad employee that spends time working on their March Madness bracket, they will do it whether they are remote or sitting in your office. When you hire the right employees and provide them with proper training, they will get the job done whether remote or on location.”
She also added that many accounting professionals tend to be far more focused and productive in a remote environment—away from distractions and the “noise” that come with common work areas.
Jeff Phillips added, “With freedom comes great responsibility, so firms have to put in the time to hire the right people for the job—those that are both qualified to fulfill the duties of the position and are also a good fit with the firm’s culture and remote work.”
Recruiting Best-of-the-best Employees Requires Best (-of-the-best) Practices
While at some point you just have to make the plunge into the unknown—like hiring remote staff—proper planning is still important. To get you started, we offer the following best practices (3 of 6 in Part I) for building a successful remote workforce.
Best Practice 1 - Fine Tune Your Tech Stack
Don’t be put off by the term “tech stack.” It’s nothing more than a way of referring to the solutions that make up your technology ecosystem. Before firms can really get started with building a remote workforce, they must have the right cloud technologies in place to support a streamlined and collaborative offsite work culture.
As you think through building and refining your tech stack, which includes both back-office and client-facing solutions, consider the essential operational areas:
File Sharing—Where are you going to securely store sensitive internal and client files so that they are accessible to all staff at all times? There are many cloud-based file sharing solutions to choose from that offer 24/7 access, automatic backups and are exceptionally easy to use. To get you started, consider and test any of the following popular solutions: Google Drive, DropBox, Box, SmartVault, and OneDrive.
Virtual Conferencing—Face-to-face time is critical with remote staff (and clients). While not in the same location, video meetings make it feel like everyone is together. This is important to maintaining a positive work culture for both onsite and remote employees. Get started by reviewing and testing any of these popular video conferencing apps: Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangouts, RingCentral, Skype for Business, GoToMeeting and Join.me.
Project Management and Workflow—This area of your technology ecosystem is critical to maintain organized and streamlined workflow processes. From real-time project monitoring and task assignment to expediting client work, project management and workflow solutions are central to any technology ecosystem. You can start by reviewing and testing any of the following cloud-based systems: XCM, Teamwork and Office Tools. Wolters Kluwer and Thomson Reuters also offer cloud-based practice management solutions.
Messaging—For decades, email was the reigning queen of internal firm communications. Today, more firms are adopting solutions that support instant messaging functionality with the ability to easily search individual conversation history. By far, Slack has become the most popular messaging app within small businesses. Slack offers a solid foundation for internal communications (like email did for years) with the convenience and “instant-nacity” of texting. Aguillard described Slack as, “...if email and texting had a baby.”
Client-facing Software—It’s critical to offer your clients the ultimate convenience that comes with cloud solutions that are feature-rich and highly intuitive. This includes leading apps like Bill.com for bill paying, Liscio for secure client communications and QuickBooks Online (QBO) for client accounting. Get started by reviewing and testing one or all of these solutions.
Best Practice 1 Challenge: Dedicate a few hours to conduct a technology ecosystem evaluation within your firm. Review all operational areas discussed above and complete an honest assessment of where your firm is in each. Once you know where you are, you can start to plan where you need to go with your technology ecosystem.
Best Practice 2 - Invest in Policies and Procedures
Having policies and procedures attached to any process in your firm is smart business. Recorded policies and procedures provide a standardized roadmap that leaders and staff can follow to ensure consistent and effective performance across departments and roles.
Recorded policies and procedures provide a standardized roadmap that leaders and staff can follow to ensure consistent and effective performance across departments and roles.
As you consider adopting a remote workforce, it’s important to consider creating formal policy and procedure around these key areas:
Onboarding—Every employee should be onboarded the same way. A thorough onboarding process includes introduction to the firm’s mission and culture, technology setup and access to solutions required to fulfil job duties, and training on individual tasks and role expectations.
Communications—Cascading information across your team, both onsite and remote, is central to your communications policy. It’s best to map out team meetings over the course of the year to keep your entire team in the loop on all aspects of the business. Maintaining open communication is a highly effective way to build a positive culture and keep everyone informed.
Phillips advocated for a standardized meeting cadence. “Some firms commit to weekly one-on-one video meetings with remote staff, monthly all-staff video conference calls, and an annual onsite retreat for all employees. In-person, face-to-face time is important to keep remote workers part of the culture.”
Operations—Every workflow process within the firm should be documented and available to staff. Procedural guides serve as a dedicated “survival guide” for employees, helping them to best perform their day-to-day duties.
“Because not everyone may be working at the same time [consider different time zones], it’s critical that remote staff have access to resources that help them perform their job. Policies and procedures need to live somewhere central so remote employees can quickly access them for guidance on how to handle anything from a client issue to a technology problem,” explained Aguillard.
Best Practice 2 Challenge: Assign a policy and procedure champion in your firm to conduct an evaluation of where your firm stands in terms of documented policy and procedure. This should include taking inventory of every workflow process that supports firm operations—from staff onboarding to tax and accounting processes. Task your champion with presenting findings to the leadership team and follow-up on all work required to develop policy and procedure on any process not represented.
Best Practice 3 - Define Your Geographical Limits
Only you can define just how remote you want your remote workforce to be. For some firms, there are no boundaries, supporting remote workers from around the globe. For others, maintaining a remote staff within their home-state borders suffices.
When defining your geographical limits, consider the following:
State employment laws—You have to decide how comfortable you are dealing with employment laws across states. If you are, expanding the candidate pool across the country is ideal. If not, staying within state lines is likely a better choice.
Consider time zones—Working with multiple time zones can be challenging for some firms, especially those that prefer staff to be available between normal office hours (9-5). It can be easy to work around time zones by scheduling all staff meetings on the same day and time each week or by assigning clients to align with remote employee time zones. The key here is to have clear remote policies in place so everyone is aware of the times they need to be available.
Philliips did offer a warning about being too restrictive with geographical limits: “I caution you that the more narrow you get, the harder it’s going to be to hire because your limiting your pool of resources.”
Best Practice 3 Challenge: In your next leadership meeting, present the idea of remote workers and start a discussion on the geographical limits you are comfortable with.
Stay Tuned for Part II...
So far, we’ve helped build a strong case for remote workers. We also offered three best practices (of six) to help you start thinking through what it takes to make this big move. We’ve covered:
Fine tuning your tech stack—Creating a technology ecosystem made up of the latest and greatest cloud-based solutions to properly support a remote workforce.
Investing in policies and procedures—Documenting all workflow processes within your firm to provide staff with comprehensive and timely guides to best perform their job duties and handle issues as they arise.
Defining geographical limits—Identifying the geographic boundaries for remote staff, considering such aspects as state-by-state employment laws, time zone translation and your desire to have remote staff onsite from time to time during the year.
Of course, this is only the tip of the remote workforce iceberg. In Part II of this series, we’ll cover the remaining three best practices and the necessity of good leadership. We look forward to seeing you in Part II.
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