“What one piece of advice would you give other firms planning to offer any form of anytime, anywhere work program?”
That’s the final question we asked in our spring survey on the adoption of flexible work initiatives within public accounting firms. And, in this fourth blog in a six part series, we’ll explore the wisdom and best practices of 99 distinct firms who generously shared from their experiences implementing anytime, anywhere work in their firms. To catch up on the story so far, access our three prior blogs in this series including the Survey Results, the Benefits of Anytime, Anywhere Work and Measuring Something Other Than Time.
So, let’s explore the advice our respondents have for you as you journey deeper into the world of flex and virtual:
Know your firm and get feedback
Six respondents noted the importance of knowing/defining the needs and drivers within your organization, culture and people.
“We have tried it in the past with a few folks and generally feel we get taken advantage of. We are
not good at…managing people.”
“Get input from younger workers because this program is critical to getting their buy-in.”
“Research and plan what is right for the firm and its personnel.”
“Listen to employee expectations of the program and manage accordingly.”
Get buy-in from leadership
Six survey participants focused on the importance of gaining buy-in from the management team before proceeding with an anytime, anywhere work program.
“Make sure the management team understands the commitment they will be making by accepting
“Upper management needs to trust staff to do work at home.”
“HR needs to have staff complete paperwork that is approved by all partners that the individual
“Do a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed program (including benchmarking within the industry)
to support it since it may be a change to a long standing policy.”
“Find ways to shift the culture [if it] says "face time" is the key to advancing."
In the survey’s comments, many noted the importance of defining which employees should be eligible for anytime, anywhere work programs. Six respondents stated that inexperienced staff members are not eligible for work from home programs because they must be in the office to receive the appropriate guidance and feedback. One firm shared, “a year of experience is required to work from home. It helps us see if the staff is capable of working independently.”
Eight respondents shared that not every staff member is suited for anytime, anywhere work programs. Some of the respondents noted their success with “self-starters,” “proven professionals,” and “dependable and efficient workers.”
“Requires personal discipline and organizational skills”
“We talk about employees’ long term career goals and how the Flex/Life program will fit in as part
of our annual career plan.”
“Before we start any Flex/Life plan, we discuss the needs of the employee, firm and client. If any
are out of alignment, we may have issues.”
“It doesn't work for everyone or for every position. Think it through carefully before offering the
opportunity or saying yes to someone asking if he/she can do it.”
“Your plan should clearly define who is eligible.”
“Our policy is very clear that a remote or alternative work situation is earned based on superior
results with current responsibilities.”
Communicate, communicate, and then communicate more!
Nearly a fifth of the survey’s respondents chose communication as their “one piece” of advice. Most noted how important communication once you’re already live with anytime, anywhere work programs. One respondent even recommended that firms develop a communication protocol for everyone involved in each program and those managing and/or communicating with them.
“Create consistent communication systems.”
“Be careful not to reduce personal, direct communication below an appropriate level.”
“Raise communication expectation levels.”
“Ensure managers put in place a regular form of communication to enhance trust and facilitate
culture of regular/proactive communication.”
“Constantly communicate project status.”
“Once approval [for the program or for a person to participate] is given, notify all firm members
affected by the decision.”
“Has taught all that if they do not know how to communicate well, they will not succeed at
managing this privilege.”
“Communicate with those left in the office when remote workers will be working out of the office.”
“We use video conferencing / Skype / Facetime to achieve more face-to-face contact.”
“Staff members have to be educated to continue to communicate even when you are out of office.”
Be ready to (REALLY) manage
Sixteen participants advised firms to think ahead about how to manage an Anytime, Anywhere program.
“Make sure managers know how to manage people - whether remote or right in house!”
“There are ways to deal with the obstacles.”
“Make sure your expectations are clear as far as productivity and job expectations.”
“[It is] harder to supervise staff or collaborate when not physically present.”
“Be sure remote staff are still considered for projects even though they aren’t in the office.”
“You need to provide training to managers who will be managing your employees and client work
to make sure their communication is effective and level of frustration does not get out of hand.”
“Adjust as needed.”
There will be issues
Ten participants noted that there will be issues and advised firms to think through the steps when issues are faced.
“Be quick to respond to issues.”
“Develop plans and methods to address abuse of [any] policy.”
“Hold them [those on a flex or virtual program] accountable for their careers.”
“Have in your agreement if it just doesn't work, deal's off.”
“It is all about trust. Once you lose trust in that person to do the work, then you can't get it back."
“Should also define what happens if flex isn't working for the firm or the individual.”
“People need to know this is a privilege and not a right. Mis-manage it and it may be taken
“Anytime, anywhere programs are good but don't work for every project.”
Four firms mentioned the impact of these programs on culture.
“Find ways to keep remote staff tied to other firm members.”
“Think of remote staff when doing any events, staff meetings, etc.”
“Keeping employee tied into our culture has its challenges.”
“While we have moved in this direction by tiny steps, we have not created the infrastructure to
support this program, including a partner group (or culture) that tends to view professional
staff working on site as more valuable. This could be because some partners are not planners,
so their client crises has a tendency to arrive late Friday afternoons.”
Other ideas and considerations
“Promote it as a "pilot program" subject to tweaking after it is tried and the bugs are worked out.”
“We require anyone who wants to work from home on a regular basis to put this request in
writing and outline the benefits.”
“I have had good success hiring people who want to spend more time with young children.”
“Make sure employees are not overworking since we can connect 24/7.”
“Work doesn't have to be between 8-5 to be considered productive.”
“Take into consideration on how any part-time schedules for exempt employees should be
handled in accordance with the FLSA.”
“Some staff members want to just make more money and don't want the balance. We have had to
address that [too].”
“Separate [your] employee evaluation from employee work arrangements.”
“Remote work is NOT a substitute for giving the CLIENT all the face time they need.”
“Factor into remote worker duties the firm’s needs for staff development and business
development, and be sure to support their non-billable time working in these areas.”
As you can see, the feedback is varied and the practice of anytime, anywhere work in firms is in the “Wild, Wild West” formative stages. We truly believe that flexible, virtual work is a key to recruiting, engaging and retaining young CPAs today – and serving young CPA clients tomorrow. Piloting changes and offering multiple ways of working will distinguish your firm now – and will become a must-have in the very near future.
In our next blog on this topic, we’ll move away from analyzing the survey data (now that we’ve shared it all!) and instead probe into an area from the survey that concerned us. Stay tuned for ideas for creating a written policy document (only 47% of our respondents have a written policy in place) to help govern your firm’s anytime, anywhere work programs.
And, if you have your own suggestions and ideas for making your firm’s ATAWW programs successful, please share them here. Our blog readers (and we) will appreciate them!
We have always had "anytime" work at our firm. I do not foresee "anywhere" accounting. The staff seems to hold each other accountable for getting their own workload finished. So the "anytime" is not an issue. Over the past 12 years we had problem with one staff member who took advantage of this. The first step was to limit him from the "flex" time. That did not work. Apparently is was not an is of the flex time. In this case the former staff member just did not want to work.
Normally I have more to comment when you blog. Usually I get one takeaway from your article. This article if full of good info. You probably could have made 3 posts out of it. But I am glad you did not.