In 2020, tax and accounting professionals found themselves amid a major disruption in their daily firm life. Now, after navigating through turmoil and confusion, we find ourselves still adjusting to becoming a fully functional remote CPA. As we move forward through the COVID-19 pandemic, will the virtual CPA be here to stay?
In this next chapter of Small Talk with Heather Walker, Paul Miller, Founder and Owner of Business by Design, and I discuss the pivot to digital work life for tax and accounting firms and the best virtual practices we can expect to remain as we continue back into a sense of normalcy.
The COVID-19 pandemic and shifting to a virtual office
Paul Miller saw the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work environment early as he saw the virus play out in other parts of the world. He began planting seeds within his team about some of the tools needed to make a large virtual shift. Weeks later, the US followed.
“When you look at the pandemic environment, one of the biggest decisions was technology,” says Paul. “We needed a duplication of a workspace: a similar setup at home to what you have in your office. You can’t leave with only a laptop when you’re accustomed to working on 3 monitors. It just doesn’t work.”
While prior to the pandemic, Paul did have staff members working remotely on a sporadic basis, it was never full-time. It became a big shift to ensure everyone had the proper technology pieces in place, and with those pieces, figure out how to continue to manage successful client relationships.
“For a number of years, if we had 4 or 5 touch points with a client in a year, maybe 2 of them were in person,” notes Paul. “The other ones were on a remote basis, but basically it was a very simple application or screen share. Now, you need to start migrating this. You need to be on video and offer better integrated technology.
“You also need to think about your video presence. You can’t be slumped over and distracted. We had to go back to the basics and turn the mirror on people to say, this is what you sound like and what the client sees. We would run exercises: have people record a meeting and watch themselves back. They hate seeing that, but it’s the truth.”
Because of the scarcity of human capital, Paul had been preparing for a remote work policy pre-pandemic. Thus, from a technology standpoint, remote work was an easy adjustment. His biggest challenge, and one which most CPA firms in a virtual environment face, is the comradery and culture change. Firm leaders are now being forced to define their next version of firm culture. How do we continue to build a workforce that is united, engaged, and motivated?
Adding the right tools for casual, personal conversations helped alleviate bogged-down emails. However, this remains an ongoing challenge as firms continue to work together digitally.
“One of my bigger concerns of remote work is how to get people to feel involved as a unit when they strictly work on a remote basis,” says Paul. “I think culture is going to continue to be something that has to be addressed.”
Managing the client relationship digitally
Even with states opening and offices going back to in-person, the pattern of the client relationship going forward may be forever changed to incorporate a digital environment. Paul’s office, while open, continues to meet with clients remotely.
“What I realized about client relationships is there is a time when you want to talk to a client via phone or text, then there is a time when you want to show them something or teach them,” notes Paul. “I think the tools you use have to be conductive for all of those times. Zoom is good for, what I call, ‘one-dimensional Zoom calls.’ But we had whiteboards in our office. Clients would come in, and we would draw stuff out. We had to figure out how to still coach clients on advisory relationships in one big piece.
“One of the recent things we’ve done is invest in smart boards that we can connect to and draw. We have 2 different media rooms that cameras can switch from the person to the board. We’re providing a better visual interface. You’ve got to be able to do all the things you would in person in a virtual setting and be flexible with it.”
With learning new technology, it’s common to experience hiccups. However, with clear messaging and direction from your firm, along with practice, you’ll find yourself easing into a flow of virtual normalcy. You may also find efficiencies, such as time-savings in client meetings, that you wouldn’t experience in-person.
“I think having the opportunity to meet with clients in person is fine,” adds Paul. “But, quite frankly, especially if there are multiple clients like spouses or partners at different locations, virtual is way easier. Logistically, I think it makes a lot more sense now, and clients are at ease knowing there is still a connection available.”
Rethinking the user experience
From the start of the pandemic to now, your firm probably experienced a lot of trial-and-error while building the virtual environment. One thing Paul is continuing to evolve is the user experience.
“You have to rethink your client appointments,” says Paul. “We’ve created what I call ‘broadcast rooms’, where staff can plug in their laptop and have a private conversation with a client. The idea of being flexible to quickly adapt, it shouldn’t be this big deal. It should be very fluid.”
Being able to show or teach a client something on a remote basis will be the major differentiator in the successful CPA firm.
“Typically, a virtual tax appointment, according to my math, is about 40% less in time. When clients would come in, they would wait in a lobby, grab a coffee, chit chat, etc. All that is now stripped away, and what I see is a lot more efficient. But you need to be prepared. Before you start the meeting, you must be clear what is on your screen. Everything is visual, and you’re under a lot more pressure to quickly perform. You can’t quickly shift gears, so preparing that user experience is going to be different.”
With Paul’s staff members, they found practicing with the technology makes perfect.
“Teach staff ways to work within the technology,” adds Paul. “It will become more user-friendly and not super confusing. Furthermore, by going virtual you’re now keeping the appointment direct and to the point, whereas in person, there is a lot more of the small chit-chat happening.”
How does the office look as we move forward?
Duplication of typical in-office practices is clearly key to making a virtual environment work for your firm. However, firms continue to struggle to duplicate some processes like measuring productivity and presenting professional value.
“We’ve always said the work drives everything else,” says Paul. “And from a staff standpoint, having flexibility to be remote is going to continue to be key. But I heard something interesting recently: people that are on location have unfettered access to their superiors. When you’re on a remote basis you’re more distant. Where’s your value proposition?
“That was an interesting perspective because I think we’re in this pendulum of everything remote versus everything in-office. Many people work very well remote, but how does staff do this while also building their value proposition to the firm?”
The answer must continue to be explored as virtual accountants, however with the shortage of human capital, a hybrid or open-minded approach may be necessary regardless of pandemic.
“The pandemic may have put a spotlight on it, but firms, especially smaller firms, are now starting to assess what resources they have and are becoming more open to conversations of possibility hiring staff that aren’t physically located within their office. Again, how do we build our culture to keep someone included, build their value proposition, and build the team?”
If you’re a smaller firm, you may find it easy to hire administrative staff on a remote basis, because their value proposition can be a lot easier to duplicate in a different fashion. Certain tasks are more duplicable on a remote basis than others.
“Then there’s the client management piece,” says Paul. “Now we have to raise the bar from the standpoint of the technical knowledge people have. That is going to continue to evolve and change the thinking within firms. I don’t see firms being all virtual or all in-person. I see more of a combination of things that make it work and come together.”