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How One Accounting Firm Successfully Went Remote


The year 2020 taught the world that things can change in the blink of an eye. This includes the accounting profession, which has seen a tremendous shift from traditional office work to working from home as a result of COVID-19. Take an inside look at how OUM, a highly successful San Francisco-based firm, managed the shift.

Jan 6th 2021
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I have heard that by the year 2030, the large tech companies will have at least half of their employees working from home, and home could be anywhere in the world! That sounds crazy from a pre-pandemic perspective, but 2020 has taught us that things can change in a heartbeat. I believe that our organizational business model has changed for the good, and progressive companies will allow their employees to work wherever they feel most creative and productive, even once offices begin to reopen. The future of work is going to be less about absolutes, and more about flexibility and agility.

Although our firm has been on a progressive journey over the years preparing for the inevitable shifts in how we operate and serve our clients, 2020 has initiated a quantum leap. From a technology standpoint, we had the goods in place, but then we had 100 plus employees all of a sudden working from home, almost overnight! We then concentrated on accelerating and enhancing our employees’ software tools related to client service, collaboration, communication, organization, added technical and softs skills education, etc.

With work-from-anywhere likely to become the norm, our next challenge is how to maintain continuity, encourage collaboration, and maintain our culture in a dispersed work environment. With all the positives of the remote work environment comes the risk that employees can begin to feel disengaged and experience a lack of connectedness to colleagues. These are big challenges that all firms will struggle with.

Here are a few things that we are focusing on for 2021:

2021 Culture/Core Value Refresh

Our culture consists of the values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that we share and use on a daily basis. Our core values are traits or qualities that are not just worthwhile: They represent our highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and core, fundamental driving forces. We believe this is a good time to take a deep dive into OUM’s culture.

If you look at most firms’ core values, they all pretty much say the same thing. Our goal is to refresh our existing core values and figure out new ways of developing rituals and methods to help us live these positive values on an ongoing basis. We have asked our younger leaders to take this project on from the ground up so that it becomes more than just a static list of phrases.

Periodic Town Hall Meetings – Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

These video meetings have become more and more important in this environment. They give us the chance to bring everyone together to communicate what is happening with the firm from the top down and to bring in our emerging leaders to present a myriad of specific topics (Learning and Development, Performance Management, Coaching, Talent Acquisition, Business Development, etc.).

Market Internally

We spend a lot of time and money on external branding, website development and marketing to drive our growth and success. In 2021, we will also turn a special focus towards using these resources and skills to “market” to our people. Raw information is everywhere; the key is to synthesis it, organize it and visualize it in a simple yet powerful way to transfer knowledge with an impact. This will encompass many subject areas, including our best practices and tools for business development, career planning, culture and values, technical excellence, community efforts, employee profiles and as much fun stuff as we can. The goal is to drive traffic to our OUM intranet to access all of this information, resources and tools.

Security Risks

The remote work environment introduces even more security risks, including unsecure networks and passwords, controlling personal vs. business use of firm resources, and phishing attacks, to name a few. As a result, we are boosting security awareness with mandatory training and using random internal test emails to keep our people on their toes! We are also continuing to improve our cloud software solutions for file and client management.

Looking ahead, we will continue to develop and update our best practices. Some key ones include:

  • Soliciting input from our people through meetings and surveys;
  • Signing in and being available on instant messaging;
  • Practicing good meeting etiquette, turning on the video and considering your surroundings;
  • Acknowledging emails when received, indicating a tentative resolution time, and following up accordingly;
  • Communicating as much as possible with team members;
  • Checking in regularly;
  • Seeking opportunities for humor and lighter conversations;
  • Creating a good work environment in your home;
  • Creating boundaries between work and life; and
  • Scheduling time for socializing.

As with any change journey, we have encountered challenges that have served as lessons learned to enhance our best practices and expand our remote work benefits. One of those challenges was tackling a limiting belief that people needed to be in the office 5 days a week in order to perform their jobs. Otherwise, how could they efficiently service our clients, build their technical knowledge and keep their chargeable hours up? This was particularly an issue in the tax department, as auditors were not supposed to be in the office. Rather, they needed to be out at the clients' offices! Another obstacle was the dual challenge of providing vacation time to staff and, at the same time, having to micro-manage the tracking of hours. Let’s face it: We’re a bunch of accountants who like to create spreadsheets.   

We spent a lot of time on these two issues, and, prior to the pandemic, we implemented a remote work policy allowing staff at various levels to work at home on designated days. It started with just managers and then worked its way down to other levels. We learned from this and then took a deep breath and decided to implement an unlimited paid-time-off (PTO) policy. This required us to re-think how we operate and create a win-win process to ensure a balance between ensuring that our clients continued to receive uninterrupted, high-quality service and giving our people more flexibility.

What have we learned from all of this? We have learned that the future of work is going to be less about absolutes and more about flexibility and agility. We also learned that setting out the best policies and practices alone would not ensure success. To remain relevant and sustainable you need to empower and trust your people. You will be amazed at the results!

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