Accounting firms, like many businesses, are reopening their doors as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes thanks to wide availability of vaccines in the U.S., but they’re trying to avoid alienating staff.
Firms have been welcoming back employees who have been working from home for over a year, but giving them options to keep working remotely, if they choose, to avoid losing talented staff and partners to the competition.
While a year ago, companies were laying off millions of employees due to the economic fallout from the pandemic, the situation has reversed and businesses in many industries are having trouble finding qualified workers. Even before the pandemic, the accounting profession had long faced a talent shortage. As the economy has rebounded this year, partners and staff at accounting firms are in the driver’s seat even more now, and many of them are reluctant to leave the remote lifestyles they have grown accustomed to over the past year.
A group of accounting firm leaders and partners discussed the current situation Thursday during a webinar co-hosted by the Accountants Club of America and the New York State Society of CPAs. “We’re at a point where the pandemic is not as much of a pandemic, and we’re beginning to open our offices more now,” said Accountants Club of America president Peter Frank, a partner at Schulman Lobel in New York.
The firm also has smaller offices in Princeton, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, and has been using Zoom to connect as a community, hosting events like an online scavenger hunt and wine tasting. “We actually got to see each other in these places where we never do,” said Frank. “That was a real bonus. I came over to Schulman Lovell in January 2020, and within two months we had the lockdown, and I had barely met anybody yet. In some ways, it gave me an opportunity to at least virtually get to meet people, see their faces and work with them. Now our offices are starting to open up again to varying degrees. Who should return and when? How do we calm the fears some may have about commuting? Certainly for our New York City offices, people are wary about coming into New York City. That’s what happens when you get all your news from the New York Post and the Daily News: You think the city is collapsing.”
Many accountants found they preferred to work from home instead of commuting. “They didn’t feel the loss of time from commuting, so some people saved three hours a day, or even more, where they could take up a hobby, get a pet, work with their significant others,” said Harriet Greenberg, co-managing partner at Friedman in New York. “There were a lot of people who enjoyed the personal benefits of not having to be in an office. They worked within their schedule of their family situations. They were able to do household chores, like throwing in a load of laundry. It sounds so insignificant, but when you had to do it all weekend, it became really nice that you could just do it within your workday. The flexibility of working from home was very attractive. I think that some people will never come back to the office.”
Friedman surveyed its employees to get a sense of what their plans were and found 10% said they never want to return to an office. “The vast majority said they want to work in some hybrid situation,” said Greenberg. “There are many, many people who found positive experiences with work from home.”
Another New York-based firm, EisnerAmper, has also seen benefits from remote work. Productivity has remained high throughout the pandemic, according to CEO Charles Weinstein. The firm has also been able to recruit employees from a wider geographic area who can now telecommute.
“I think that one of the benefits is we’ve now got people working in lots of different states across the country,” he said. “We may be in 10 or 12 states with offices, but we’ve probably got people in 20 to 25 different states. The ability to expand where we can hire talent has been fantastic.”
Like Friedman, EisnerAmper surveyed its employees to find out their attitudes toward returning to the office. “We have told people that, after Labor Day, we expect you to be back in the office on a flexible basis, and we’re running focus groups and surveys to try and give people actual guidelines for that,” said Weinstein. “We’ll come out with our guidelines in early July so people have a good 60 days to plan for the transition back to the office. We received 1,400 survey responses, maybe more, and 3.8% of our people said they want to come back five days a week, 4.6% said four days a week, 30% said one day a week, 26% said three days a week, and 35% said two days a week. So it seems like nobody wants to come in every day. I doubt we’ll see many people ever again on a Friday. Not going to happen, and possibly not on a Monday as well. That’s OK. We’ve figured out how to do it.”
When EisnerAmper employees were asked about the driving factors behind their choices, the top four answers were commuting time, followed by having to comply with office protocols, being more productive from home, and commuting safety, which Weinstein believes is probably more of a concern for New York City and perhaps San Francisco office employees. “But COVID safety was not even in the top five,” he added. “It feels like so many people have been vaccinated now, they’re getting past that. We asked our people what makes it compelling to come to the office? Teams are allowed to meet in person, my friends are back in the office, going out to team lunches and socializing with my colleagues were the top four answers by a long, long shot. People want to be together. I do think we have to give people a little push, but we’ll get there.”
Enticing employees back
EisnerAmper has 850 people assigned to its New York City office. Until the past few weeks, only about 20 to 25 people have been coming in. “We’ve relaxed all the mask restrictions,” said Weinstein. “Whatever the protocols have been, they’ve been much easier, and people can be more comfortable in the office. We started hosting some cocktail hours in the office. We had about 75 people in the office yesterday out of 850 people. We have to find ways to get people back.”
Like EisnerAmper, another New York firm, Janover, has also been conducting focus groups. “We’re not as far along,” said Janover managing partner Mark Goodman. “We’ve just started with the process, but our real goal is we want to pull people into the office, not push people into the office. Charly [Weinstein] mentioned Fridays and Mondays. I’ll tell you that Saturdays in busy season are going to go the way of the buggy whip. You’re not going to see that anymore. That’s something that when we tell other generations, they’re not going to understand it. But the point of the focus groups is we want to create an environment in the office where people are going to want to go.”
However, like Greenberg at Friedman, he sees drawbacks to remote work. “Harriet [Greenberg] made a really good point that the biggest thing we see missing is the learning that’s taking place for young people,” said Goodman. “People in the first three to five years of their career are definitely being shortchanged by the pandemic and remote working. … It’s unfortunate and we need to figure out a way to achieve that balance, to have mentors and to mentor people.”
Other firms have also been increasing the use of their flexible work arrangements since the pandemic. BDO USA has long allowed its employees some degree of remote work flexibility and work-life balance, but effective May 24, the Chicago-based firm expanded it to give its professionals more of an opportunity to reimagine how their day-to-day work can be accomplished.
“This is something we’ve been building muscle on for over a decade,” BDO USA chief people officer Cathy Moy said in an interview. “What we’re doing is doubling down on our commitment to flexible work models, and really driving those decisions to be made among the teams. There’s not a big rulebook coming down from on high. We are articulating a set of concepts and a vision for how this works, but it is empowered within individual teams to say, ‘What are we trying to accomplish? What defines a great outcome on this project or client engagement, and how do we do that, and where should we do it from?’ Sometimes we’ll come together with a client, sometimes it makes sense to come together in the office, and sometimes it makes sense individually at home to tend to some of the other parts of our life that we’d like to fit in with what we call ‘work plus life fit.’ It’s a very empowered series of one conversation at a time solutions to drive great outcomes, and that works for us because we’ve been building this for a long time.”
PKF O’Connor Davies also announced in May that it is updating its remote work policy to offer greater flexibility. The “Schedule Your Work Week” telecommuting program at the New York-based firm enables employees to decide which days they will come into the office each week. The policy builds upon a pilot program first developed at the outset of the pandemic. Under the enhanced policy, PKFOD recognizes each employee’s specific life circumstances and gives them the flexibility to decide how to work. While some positions will inherently require more in-office time, the policy does not establish a minimum number of onsite days that most employees will be required to be present for in the office. The policy also doesn’t eliminate employees’ responsibility for applicable, work-related travel, which has resumed with the lifting of certain pandemic-related restrictions.
Retaining and hiring
Accounting firms will need to find ways to keep their staff satisfied and engaged, and avoid prompting them to quit if they try to insist employees go back to working in the traditional office environment.
“I don’t want to do one thing to make a talented person leave Friedman,” said Greenberg. “We’re just going to go slow. We’re not going to insist. Right now what we want is for people to want to come back to work, to see other people start coming back to work. If you want people to come back, you start giving free food every day. You start talking about getting together with cocktail hours at 5:00 on a regular basis. You open your beer tap, because those are the social things that I think people are missing. The work is getting done. It’s getting done super efficiently. They feel like they’re missing their friends and colleagues, and they’re missing having a beer with clients. We’re just going to go really slow and encourage, but not insist. I’m concerned with the firms that do insist, and it will be our game because those people are going to leave, I think. We’re going to see turnover in this profession like we’ve never seen before. It’s a hard job. There are long hours. There are tremendous deadlines, and if we put back what people might think are antiquated requirements to be in an office five days a week, you’re going to have trouble getting staff and it’s going to be to the benefit of firms that are much more flexible.”
She sees the pandemic as being a transformative event in the accounting profession. Accountants are likely to have more of a choice of working conditions in the future, but with the expansion of remote work and remote ways of doing business, firms will have a greater choice of employees and the ability to reach more potential clients.
“We’re headed to a place where people are going to set their schedule, where the employees will continue to have more power,” said Goodman. “But I also think firms in New York are going to have an advantage. If we use it right, we can start hiring people from Tucson, from Tallahassee and Des Moines, and pay them the same wages we’re paying our New York people, and pick off the best talent and add them to our team, and really be able to have a group of experts.’”
As his firm, Janover, has been operating remotely over the past year, it has been hosting webinars. “We never even thought about it, but we brought in more business from webinars last year than we usually bring in,” said Goodman. “We have clients coming in from Chicago and Santa Barbara and the west coast of Florida, and places where we never even thought we would bring in business from. With every challenge, there’s opportunity, and there’s tremendous opportunity for us here.”