Industry Trends

Accountants, WFH vs. RTO, and the Future

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 

May 19, 2023

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Accountants, WFH vs. RTO, and the future

We’ve talked a lot about people worrying about how there aren’t enough accountants. One reason for the lack of future debit-and-credit wizards is that many accounting graduates or accountants early in their careers have either gotten wind of or had a taste of the work, lifestyle, culture, expectations, and money and decided: NOT FOR ME.

This has chafed a great many partners and more seasoned accountants who have long felt that many years—more than a decade—of working hard is what they had to do, so the next generation should follow suit. “Pay your dues,” the saying goes, “and you will do fine.” And I get it, partners in CPA firms got rich with this model for a long time. No one questioned it because it worked despite the toxic overwork.

A similar situation happened during our collective roller coaster of the pandemic. Working in an office was the norm for knowledge workers—including accountants—for a long time. Plenty of people were comfortable with this arrangement because it worked for them, achieving great success in the process. Sure, maybe it wasn’t great for everyone, but it’s what we know

Then, in March 2020, things began to get weird. To the best of my recollection, the shift went like this: 

  1. Normal office work, 
  2. to “Everyone work from home! However you can! Stop touching your face!”
  3. to “All right, everyone, back to the office!” 
  4. to “Hold on, spoke too soon,” 
  5. to “OKAY, now let’s get back to the office,” 

To wherever we are now. Part of the weirdness about where we are now is the complete disconnect between leaders pushing—begging, bribing—more people to return to the office and everyone who has found a sweet spot with hybrid or remote. Leaders believe productivity is better at the office, and workers beg to differ. The data is mixed, and it’s notoriously difficult to define “work” and “productivity” in this context, anyway. Is sending emails work? Is sending emails productive? Those are very different questions, and depending on the job, the answer could be “No,” and “No,” or “Yes,” and “Yes,” or “No,” and “Yes,” or “Yes,” and “No.” This leaves most businesses at a hybrid compromise because the job market is still very employee friendly right now. That hasn’t kept leaders and cartoonish mega billionaire internet trolls from bellyaching, though.

There have been plenty of recent takes on this. The Wall Street Journal dug into the numbers and noticed that, yes, the RTO (return to office movement) has stalled. An op-ed in Fortune addressed the cultural split, a battle between what’s best for women and what’s best for the powerful men still in charge.

But a recent Vox article discussed this in the context of productivity, and a quote included there put it in the most straightforward way I found:

“Part of the reason you’re seeing so many people lobby for return to office is there’s this notion of, ‘That’s how I did it growing up,’” HubSpot chief people officer Katie Burke told Vox. “I certainly did that. I had a Palm Pilot growing up. I wore suits to work. I don’t think that everyone needs to do the things that I did in order to succeed in modern work.”

Yeah, offices, suits, and PDAs with styluses were all things, and now they (mostly) are not. Or perhaps, they are still things, but now they draw puzzled looks. In many cases, they just aren’t necessary.

But also, it strikes me as weird for a professional person to think that anyone coming up behind them should follow essentially the same career path that they did. Nevertheless, that’s essentially what accounting firms have expected for decades. 

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that the biggest obstacle to accounting attracting more accountants for the future is the past. Unless the profession can put that behind it and move forward with a new approach, it better keep praying that the robots will come to their rescue

People are worried about accountants

It’s been a while since this section has appeared in On the Margins, so you might be wondering if there’s been any progress?

Take yet another article from the Wall Street Journal about the topic as your cue:

Graduates entering the workforce this year who are considering careers in accounting should see plenty of demand for their services as the industry grapples with a dearth of candidates. But even so, they may find what companies are willing to pay them underwhelming, particularly given the rigorous academic and testing requirements required to follow this career path.

Of all the things someone could write about the beginning of a young professional’s career, something along the lines of “underwhelming pay” might be the most depressing.

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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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