Firms must move – and move now – to support virtual work environments.
I’ll admit I’m biased. For fifteen years, I have run a completely virtual business. When not on the road speaking, teaching or consulting, each of our team members works from home in cities across the country. From our inception, the information assets of our business have lived in the cloud – even before it was called the cloud – so that our team members could share client information, tools and resources. We communicate with each other and our clients by phone, email, webinar and video conference and I feel confident that our team members would say that they feel “in touch” with each other and with our clients.
You can manage people, deliver exceptional service and produce high-quality work without going into an office or sitting next to your co-workers or clients. And yet, many leaders continue to insist that their people appear at a certain place – usually the office, sometimes the clients’ office – in order to perform their work. These same leaders also insist on mandatory work hours and resist work-from-home programs, employing remote workers or serving clients outside of their typical geography.
Leaders who resist virtual work are being short-sighted and here’s why:
- As labor costs increase, you’ll have to find a place to save – and that place will be space. As the shortage of high-quality CPA leaders intensifies, firms will find their already significant labor costs rising. Margins in the profession are on the decline and firms that want to preserve profitability will have to find innovative ways to increase efficiency and save costs. Retooling existing office space and avoiding expansion will be imperative. We’re already discouraging existing clients from space expansion and encouraging them to look for ways to support more workers remotely.
- If you don’t lead the way and provide top-down, cultural support for virtual work in your firm, your future workforce will find an employer who will. Survey after survey show that Millennials (born from 1982 to 2000) favor flexible and virtual work environments and the organizations willing to support them. These “anytime, anywhere” workers make up 36% of our workforce today and will account for 75% of our workforce in ten short years. You can’t sustain your practice unless you engage and retain them.
- When the workforce demands a shift, the market responds — and your competitors are headed there. In a recent Anytime, Anywhere Work survey we conducted with 99 distinct mid-size to large firms responding, 77% of firms indicated that they now offer work-from-home programs, 41% no longer mandate Saturday office hours and 37% support at least one remote worker in a geography not tied to a specific office location. When your people seek an alternative employer who will support “anywhere” work, they’ll be able to find them.
- Resistance feels “old school” and even distrustful. When you mandate that people stay late at the office or come in on weekends to “log their hours,” it feels like you don’t trust that they will meet their expected production and deliverable goals unless they are working under your watchful eye. While it’s true that new trainees may still need some in-person support, most Millennials will say that same support can be provided via videoconferencing and online collaboration tools that make it feel like you’re in the same room. This idea that “you must not be working unless I can see you” is antiquated and doesn’t project the cultural feel you want and need.
- Virtual workers can be highly productive and may be more engaged. In Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, they found that remote workers logged more hours than their office counterparts and were slightly more engaged. And those that had a blend of remote and “office-based” work were most engaged.
- Your clients are getting younger, too. Millennial clients, who will dominate the workforce in a decade, will expect their service provider to work the way they want to work, flexibly and virtually, using technology to enable collaboration and communication. Firms that support virtual work seamlessly will be in a much better position to retain their clients’ successors and attract younger clients, too.
I am not suggesting that you go all or nothing. Supporting virtual workers doesn’t mean you never meet in person again or that your office goes away. It does mean that you begin to think creatively about how to support your people and foster teamwork and productivity when they work from home, on the road, and when they move to a different city. And not just as the exception – but as a blended part of your organization with the same opportunities for growth and advancement that all others have.
The technology is in place and best practices are emerging to support you. Give up your attachment to having your people work at a specific place. Take steps to support virtual today.
About the Author
Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and management coaching, consulting and training firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.