The COVID pandemic highlighted the fact that remote work can make individuals more productive and firms more profitable when properly implemented. This has led to many firms allowing some form of hybrid work program promoting personnel to work remotely for those projects that are conducive to being effectively performed remotely while still working in conjunction with personnel that are physically in the office. Further, remote work has proven to be a differentiator not only in work/life balance and employee retention but also in casting a broader net when looking to hire personnel. While hybrid work environments are becoming the standard within CPA firms for the foreseeable future there are still many firms that have not formalized their hybrid work programs. Below are key considerations that firms should discuss when formalizing their hybrid work program.
Centralized platform: Whether working in the office, at home, at a client or other public site, it is imperative that the work experience be consistent to promote efficiency and process standardization. This means that all applications and data must be centrally operated and accessible via a robust remote access solution. By default, this requires either building and maintaining your own “private cloud” solution or utilizing cloud-based providers that already optimize the firm’s accounting applications and work environment.
Digital standardization: To be effective in a hybrid work environment, all client data needs to be accessible to all users regardless of location, which by default, means those files must be in a standardized digital format and housed within appropriate applications. Firms must make a concerted effort to capture data digitally as it is provided to the firm, or better yet, educate clients on providing such data electronically. Whether the firm uses a document management application, an engagement binder or integrates documents into a portal or workflow tool, the key is the consistent utilization of digital tools to make it easier for personnel to create, retrieve, and work on firm engagements.
Collaboration: In addition to all files being digitally consistent, the processes to collaborate and work on them must be standardized. These means utilizing digital workflow tools to track project statuses, assign and monitor work, as well as collaboration tools such as Microsoft TEAMs and Zoom that promote effective availability and communication in a virtual environment. Setting ground rules on availability (i.e., from 10am to 3pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) and expected response time to email and phone inquiries (i.e., within 24 hours) is recommended. It is also important to respect availability where individuals are not to be interrupted.
Hybrid work management: Firm leaders will need to learn to manage remote personnel as well as personnel physically in the office. This means identifying and tracking success metrics such as meeting projected deadlines, quality completion of work, and overall client satisfaction (i.e., Net Promotor Score), in addition to the firm’s traditional realization, utilization, and profitability metrics.
Equipment standardization: Standardizing equipment that meets the broadest firm requirements is important for a hybrid work environment where personnel not only work in the office and at home, but also in the field. This points to standardizing tools providing mobility as well, which means utilizing laptops as primary workstations and adding docking stations, external keyboards, mice, and adequate monitor space so that all necessary applications can be viewed concurrently and consistently between the office and home. Today’s laptops come with video cameras and audio jacks to work self-contained, though individuals may need to add enhanced capabilities such as lighting and noise cancelling microphones and headsets to optimize the person-to-person collaboration experience.
Connectivity: As remote work requires reliable Internet connectivity, it is important to have not only a good quality line, but to also have a backup option such as digital cellular or a close-by alternative workspace in the event of an outage or natural disaster. The firm might consider only allowing firm authorized and verified equipment to connect to the firm’s information resources using tools for mobile device access management. Some firms provide monthly stipends to enhance remote workers Internet service and it is recommended they be renegotiated at least every other year as new providers, technologies, and pricing options change rapidly over this time frame.
Conducive work environment: It is important that remote workers have an adequate working area with good lighting, privacy and sound proofing to collaborate with team members. During the rush to go remote this was, in many cases, an afterthought, so minimum guidelines should be set.
Home office security: Having a secure connection from remote sites to the office is a must and the IRS requires the use of a VPN, multi-factor authentication and enhanced access controls (modern password requirements) for protecting tax data, which should be configured by the firm’s IT personnel/providers. Workstations (preferably firm owned and managed) should be set for automatic updates of antivirus/malware, Windows operating system, and any other security applications. Home Internet connections should be segmented between firm and family usage, including updating the firmware on wireless routers annually and changing the passwords. For a more comprehensive security listing, check out the Cybersecurity Checklist available exclusively to PCPS member firms.
Field security: Firm employees should treat all field sites (client offices, hotels, coffee shops, etc.) as public locations and utilize enhanced security and awareness procedures including the use of VPNs to connect to the Internet, or better yet, utilize the 4G/5G digital cellular networks for a more secure and standardized connection. If any confidential data is stored on local drives, the drive must be encrypted which includes USB drives (which should not be allowed as they can easily be compromised and introduce malware). Firms should, instead, use the cloud for all file storage/processing and educate clients to transfer files electronically.
Training/support: The transition to remote work happened quickly for many firms and required, in many cases, the use of new applications and procedures that are still evolving. To ensure the hybrid work environment is successful, it is important to integrate remote work best practices into the firm’s onboarding process and to adequately provide virtual support to remote workers including identifying parameters as to what equipment will be supported (firm owned vs. personally owned). Ongoing training for optimizing the use of the firm’s workflow, communication, security, and collaboration tools (Teams/Zoom) cannot be over-emphasized.
With the realization that the hybrid work environment is now an integral part of almost every firm’s production DNA and that many firms have not taken the time to formalize their programs, now is a good time to develop a plan for the future of the firm.