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Are CPA Firms Walking Back on Remote Work?

Jeff Phillips CEO | Padgett Business Services 
Are CPA Firms Walking Back on Remote Work?

Is it just me, or have firms walked back on remote work now that we can meet maskless indoors? If you’re a firm owner reading this, all I’m saying is, look, don’t do it. You’ll lose good people. Chances are, if you’ve been waffling on your purported return to office, you already are.

Instead, downsize the office, boot Zoom back up, and prepare to let history take its course. You’re going to have to let your people decide, and not force them to come back. 

In other words, please read the remote room. Too much is at stake.

“Prestige” doesn’t pay my rent

The Great Resignation is real and it’s affecting all industries. Forty-seven million people quit in 2021 and companies across industries are facing 40 percent turnover. The accounting profession was already facing an 18 percent increase in turnover in 2019. I don’t suspect the last two years made it much better. (Remember pandemic work hours?)

Plus, the value proposition for being an accountant has been unchanged for some time.  Essentially, it’s not great:

  • Enjoy the same inflation-adjusted pay as the last generation
  • Get lots of time in at the office
  • Get even more time in on phone calls
  • Enjoy protracted reprieves from your personal life

​​Unsurprisingly, dissatisfaction rates are so high that accounting professional associations are trying not to talk about it. But accountants are fed up. So are all employees. But especially accountants. Just read r/accounting for a look at peak accounting pique. The top-viewed post there is about finding a new accounting job and is viewed 800,000 times per month.

A post from r/accounting

As many as 40 percent of Americans plan to leave their employer this year, reports Quartz. And 48 percent of workers said the ability to work from home some or all of the time would be a major or the most important factor in determining whether to accept a job offer in the future. But managers just aren’t hearing them. Forty-four percent of executives are thrilled to come back into the office every day.

Wonder what those numbers are for our profession? The Verge estimates that it’s even higher, and paired that guess with a picture of a calculator on fire.

And so, in light of all this, please, dear firm owner, read the room. Don’t unwind the one thing accountants had going for them — hybrid work sanctuary. Here’s what to do instead. 

How to create a hybrid work-friendly accounting firm and avert an exodus

Survey your staff regularly, and start today

What is most important to them? Why do they like working at your firm?  What can be better?  Are they engaged with their work? Do they have what they need to do their job well? Are they interested in hybrid accounting work? Asking is a first step in showing your staff that you care for their well-being. (The second and absolutely necessary step is acting on what you learn — reconsider surveying if you aren’t ready to act.)

Don’t force anyone to return against their will

If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all reprioritizing what’s important. That means the right balance is different for every person. Ask your staff what they want in this regard. Allow remote work and negotiate a deal where everyone wins. 

Anticipate turnover and pain

Whatever policies you devise, they are certain to make some people unhappy. Adjust your business plan to anticipate higher turnover and costs to replace staff. The fewer surprises the better, and better to have the conversation now than during busy season

Pay people more

Get your compensation market-adjusted. Raise prices if you have to. Gusto research shows that the replacement cost for a technical employee such as an accountant can be $84,000, and that doesn’t account for the lost productivity while you search. Losing someone is a big cost.

The Big Four are already leading by example in this regard. KPMG recently announced it would spend $160 million on salary increases for its staff. Make no mistake, this is a strategic investment in curbing turnover.  

How do you know if your comp is below market? Rates have been rising quickly in the last 18 months, so chances are, you are already paying existing staff below market. It’s difficult to assess market rates generally, but a good initial barometer is the free calculator on Salary.com. Assume the current market for that role is around the 90th percentile. 

Also, consult your recruiting partner. Staffing firms (like Accountingfly) have a great read on what constitutes a fair offer.

Limit your hours, especially during busy season

My friend Dennis Sherrin, Managing Partner at Avizo, and his team did the unthinkable when they implemented “project 40,” in which they mandated that the whole firm work no more than 40 hours per week during busy season. While they didn’t get precisely to that number — they averaged 44 hours — it was a dramatic decrease, and it dramatically reduced turnover.

The Avizo team pulled this off by applying some of the items on this list. They wanted to improve work-life balance so they surveyed employees. They wanted to show employees they could be part of the solution, so they formed a team consisting of one member of each part of the firm and appointed a staff member to lead. That team created and implemented “project 40.”

Be remote-first, hybrid second

Have an office, but know that it’s only there for useful things like meetings that must happen in-person, and only when necessary. Make clear that going there is not required, and nobody’s compensation or careers will be shortchanged by their geographical decisions. It’s the right way to earn their trust, and maybe also reduce your real estate costs.

Hire remote staff 

Seems obvious, but once you stop caring where your next hire lives, you become a remote firm. And remote hires are often easier and faster to hire than local ones.  

Hire seasonal freelancers 

Nearly a third of the US labor force identifies as a freelancer — an expert who can come in, complete a project, and leave. If you’ve broadened your hiring pool to the entire US, and built the tools and culture to incorporate remote workers, you’re positioned to “surge” staff using freelancers to work through big backlogs of work.

Continuously ask your staff what they need to be successful

Yes, this is on the list twice. It will help you uncover issues you didn’t know you had — and can help you solve those issues before good people go looking for other jobs. 

So, it’s time. Let us downsize the office, boot Zoom back up, and prepare to let history take its course. You’re going to have to let your people decide, and not force them to come back. 

In other words, please read the remote room, or you can expect yours to get a lot emptier.

Jeff Phillips
Jeff Phillips is the CEO of Padgett, one of the largest tax and accounting firms in North America. Jeff founded Accountingfly in 2012, the recruitment platform that “practically single-handedly awakened the profession to the enormous potential of hiring staff remotely,” according to Accounting Today. Jeff has been named to the Top 100 Most Influential People list five times for his contributions to helping solve the hiring challenges of CPA firms. His team has been making remote hires since 2015 and he works directly with firms to help them transform their processes and culture to embrace remote talent. He is a former president of the CPA Consultants’ Alliance.

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