September 23, 2022

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All the work’s a stage

Historically speaking, the main way of managing employees of an accounting firm is to have them work at a physical location and monitor their activity. This allows managers to check on whoever, whenever, for whatever reason. I remember a rotating cast of superiors asking me, “What are you working on?” before ignoring my answer to give me something new to work on. This experience was so widespread among my colleagues that it was basically an accounting meme before accounting memes were a thing.

ANYWAY. My presence in the office: 1) implied I was available for work and 2) gave the impression of productivity, especially if I looked annoyed. From the perspective of managers, there’s lots of work to be done, and since people sitting in an office must be doing something, that necessitates people working in the office on Saturdays and logging a specific set of hours. This, as we’ve discussed, is commonly known as face time.

Face time has never been a practice exclusive to accounting firms, but this was the profession’s flavor of it. And even as technology began to allow for more flexibility in where and when people worked, accounting firms held the course. Stuffing people into offices to keep a close eye on them has worked successfully for decades, so why mess with it?  

The pandemic changed all this, of course. Under extreme duress, all kinds of businesses, accounting firms included, quickly learned that their people can work from anywhere and be productive, more productive even. This was a pleasant surprise to everyone, and firms quickly expressed a willingness to embrace remote work. Then when the pandemic seemed to be easing, they walked back their enthusiasm, as did many other businesses that enjoyed years of success under the face time regime. “It’s time everyone went back to the office,” people said. In response, most workers were all, “Nah.” 

The Return to Office movement has tried many ways to lure workers back with little success. Employees have gotten a taste of real flexibility, and they’re not going to give it up. Employers, on the other hand, are more mixed. Many have embraced some form of a remote working arrangement, either entirely or hybrid. Meanwhile, other employers are doubling down on forcing people back to the office. A recent edition of the Planet Money newsletter has a good example of a boss who’s digging in:

He was never cool with [remote work], even during the height of the pandemic. He’s had a hard time letting go, trusting his employees, and giving them autonomy. He’s the type that checks to see whether your Slack work-status dot is green from 9 to 6. 

Sounds like a bad boss. Does it sound like yours? Does it sound like you?  

Even though my friend often works nights and weekends and has a solid record of getting results for his team, it doesn’t seem to matter. His boss really cares about the theater of productivity, not just actual productivity. 

I don’t think I’ve heard a better description of face time. The office is just a stage where people pretend to work (but also: work). Smart bosses and firms know this, so they let their people choose where and how they work and judge the results rather than the venue. Bosses who are determined to require their people to be on that stage will not guarantee a good performance. If anything, it might encourage some people to start phoning in it

Niche ideas

Accounting firms that specialize in: 1) serving clients of a particular industry or 2) providing a particular service, have been a thing for a while now. We discuss these ideas from time to time, even ideas about nothing

A recent idea floated by David Leary is, for the lack of a better term, the mother niche. Maybe it’s the hand-holding niche; dunno, call it whatever you like. The basic premise, I think, is that a firm will do literally everything for their clients—lay out their clothes, remind them to brush their teeth, pick up their toys, etc. David argues there’s an opportunity for accountants to do more for clients because clients are busy and willing to pay for a firm to do virtually everything. 

But perhaps you’ve heard: accountants are busy too! I can’t think of many who would agree to pick up after clients for every little thing. Not to mention that, despite all the lip service, mothers are undervalued and unpaid. They shouldn’t be. Accountants shouldn’t be either.

Also, isn’t part of raising a child…ahem… client… teaching them what it means to be an adult and/or a business in the big scary world? It seems self-defeating to coddle clients to the point where they can’t tie their own shoes.

Me, elsewhere

If you’re nostalgic for a 1980s fraud, you’ll enjoy this Oh My Fraud interview that Greg Kyte and I did with journalist Gary Weiss who has a new book on Crazy Eddie. 

Listen on the Earmark app and you can earn CPE. Insane!

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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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