Staffing an Accounting Practice Remotely
This article first appeared in The Journal of Accountancy’s CPA Insider™
My team has worked exclusively remotely now for about seven years. But recently, I heard about a company that takes remote working to an even greater extreme. On an airplane, I met a woman who was flying from Florida to New Zealand, where she had just attended her company’s annual staff meeting. Everyone in her company works remotely, and this had been the one and only time they would meet face-to-face all year. And yet her company is doing very well and growing rapidly, with employees collaborating from all over the world.
As this company’s experience proves, companies can be very successful even when employees rarely meet in person. Here are a few reasons you might want to implement remote teams in your firm (and some challenges you may face if you decide to do so):
Remote working lets you select from a much larger pool of candidates so you can hire people who are highly suitable for the work you need performed.
By expanding your hiring base to include just about anyone on the planet, you can search for very specific skills and talents. For example, say you need a CPA with 10 years of trust and estate planning experience who wants to work 20 hours a month. You probably won’t find many local candidates who fit that description. However, if you are willing to let new hires work remotely, you might be able to choose from 20 or 30 candidates.
It can help you recruit and retain the right staff. Flexibility can give you a competitive advantage when staffing. What’s more, the nature of flexibility itself attracts “A” players—who will deliver amazing results. Self-starters thrive on a remote team, whereas people who try to hide from accountability quickly fail. Remote working can also help with retention: If you have excellent employees who need to relocate, allowing them to work remotely can keep them working for you.
It forces the team to focus on results. When you evaluate people who work in your office, you may inadvertently place too much weight on criteria such as effort and hours spent on the job. You may then make management decisions based on these metrics, even though they may not have the impact that you think. When people are working remotely, evaluating performance becomes much more objective. I have discovered (perhaps the hard way) that remote working has led me to carefully question what activities actually drive results. Our team carefully tracks and measures a handful of key performance indicators (KPIs), including revenue, budget, and marketing-related metrics such as the number of visits to our website and conversion percentages. We’ve changed the ones we track over time as we’ve determined which are most relevant to our goals.
It hones your management and leadership skills. Since you have less face-to-face interaction with staff, the time you do spend with them has to have impact. Our team has gained a lot of insight into what motivates people, how to align compensation with results, and the importance of developing systems that promote accountability. Through trial and error, we have learned the importance of celebrating our successes more and keeping a regular meeting schedule. Each week we have a 30-minute phone conference on Monday morning and a Friday wrap-up that usually runs 15 to 30 minutes. We also meet in person each quarter. This really helps to create accountability. When people have clear instructions and know that they will be reporting regularly about their progress, it has a powerful effect on motivation. In contrast, when we had an in-house team, our meetings were ad hoc, and our celebrations were often overshadowed by the small struggles of day-to-day working.
However, remote working is not without its challenges. Here are a few potential problems that can arise when you’re managing a remote team and ways you can handle them:
Training is more challenging. When working remotely, you lose that “training by osmosis” that comes from working side by side. Therefore, you’ll need to have more formalized training. A regular schedule of phone meetings or video conferences, as well as in-person meetings, is essential to keep up the necessary training.
The price of not paying attention is much higher. When you are working closely with people, their verbal and nonverbal cues can make it easier to know when they’re having trouble with a project or a client. On a remote team, it can take longer to know when someone is struggling, as it can take a while for a problem to affect the worker’s results. By the time a problem is identified, costly mistakes may have been made. You’ll need to ask the right questions and monitor the right indicators to spot problems before they get too serious. That’s why having a consistent meeting schedule and touching base often with remote workers is so important.
Remote working creates lonelier work environments. Most people need plenty of social interaction on a regular basis. One solution for remote workers is to rent an office in a building with other professionals and businesses. Then there will be people at the water cooler; they just won’t work for the same company.
For us, remote working has been a very good thing. There has definitely been a learning curve, and there have been some challenges. But, seven years into it, we can conclude that it has allowed us to create a skilled, loyal, and happy team. It’s also helped me be a better leader, and our company has made a lot of wonderful improvements in that time. In 2015, the tools that are available to implement a remote team are everywhere, and many are very, very good. Is it time for you to take the leap?