Industry Trends

Accounting Firms Aren’t Cool with WFH After All

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
remote work

July 8, 2021

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There are many workplace lessons from the pandemic, but some of them we already knew. For example, people like flexibility. Had you asked anyone prior to March 2020: “Would you like more flexibility in your job, for example, the chance to work from home a few days a week?” many—the vast majority probably—would have answered: “Yes. I would love more flexibility in my job.”

Likewise, many people learned, presumably for the first time, that many employees can be productive—more productive, even—while working from home. Studies conducted long before the pandemic found this to be the case. Then everyone was working from home, and lo and behold, not only were people productive, they often worked longer and harder at home—and then this more or less became common knowledge. 

Businesses of all kinds are taking these lessons to heart. They are listening to their employees, revisiting their policies, and embracing changes that will provide more flexibility to work from an environment that works best for everyone. With the understanding, of course, that employers can trust that their people will continue to meet the expectations of their job.

Then there are accounting firms. At one point last summer, a survey revealed that they were coming around on remote work. “Overall, 82 percent of accounting firms were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ likely to allow employees to work remotely even after the pandemic,” the Accounting Today article reported. At the time I wrote:

Accountants, for their part, have realized that productivity knows no one environment, that professionals remain professional even when they’re working sans pants. 

Roughly a year later, it appears that many accountants are all, “Oh, we were just kidding about that.”

In a recent survey of close to 500 managers, executives and senior leadership in banking, financial planning, fintechs, financial services, accounting and other related industries, leaders at accounting firms were far more likely to be working full-time at their firms’ offices; much more likely to expect to keep their current office footprint after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic; and more likely to predict their employees will all be working full-time in their firms’ offices a year from now.

The results of the survey, conducted by Accounting Today’s parent company, Arizent, in mid-April, indicate that the profession has not fully embraced the remote work revolution brought on by the pandemic, viewing it as a temporary solution to an immediate problem.

Before the pandemic, many accounting firms wanted their people to be in the office all the time because their physical presence served as evidence that work was being done. During the pandemic, firms’ employees were unable to be physically present in the office, but work still had to be done. By and large, that work was completed, and quite successfully, I might add. So now that the pandemic is receding and it’s becoming safer to be in an office environment, accounting firms are all, “Let’s all get back to real work, everyone. That means showing your physical face and wearing your mediocre-est business casual attire in an office because we don’t actually believe you were that productive last year”:

[A]ccounting leaders are much more likely to cite client meetings and maintaining employee performance and productivity as reasons for having a physical office location; the overwhelming majority (70%) don’t think remote work has improved productivity.

And while these accounting leaders don’t believe WFH has done us any good, they, on the other hand, have apparently performed a particular part of their job admirably:

Among other insights, the responses also show that accounting leaders […] think they did a very good job supporting their employees over the past 15 months.

I have to say, to infer that employees were either lazy or delinquent but also to inflate one’s own altruism is an odd—but not surprising—attitude from accounting leaders. It’s especially odd in an era when lots of people are willing to quit jobs that won’t make WFH an option. 

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Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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