Virtual Work Teams as a Competitive Advantage:
Moving Away from Our Attachment to Time and Place

Increased competition for talent in firms is spawning new and innovative employee engagement strategies. And, at the top of the benefits list for many is increased control over time, or, said another way, the ability for an employee (or partner) to complete their work at a time and place of their choosing when possible. This demand for anytime, anywhere work is driving CPA firm leaders to give up their attachment to their traditional work values of “face time” and mandated office hours and move to a more flexible, virtual work model.

Easy internet accessibility, paperless service delivery processes, free video conferencing, real online collaboration tools, portals, the proliferation of powerful mobile devices and other technology innovations make the dream of anytime, anywhere work a reality. And, technology-wielding, multi-tasking Millennial team members (those born after 1982) want – even expect – their firms to take full advantage of these many wondrous innovations to deliver service in new, time- and place-independent ways.

For instance, in larger cities with significant commute times, Millennials tell a story that goes like this:

  • One of the reasons I chose my firm is that its offices are close to my home and commuting is painful where I live
  • When I joined, I was assigned to the audit department where we audit for-profit and not-for-profit clients year round
  • Nearly every week, I am assigned to an audit team that is expected to meet at a client’s office that can often be a considerable drive from my home. I have to show up when the client opens, which may be 8 a.m., causing me to commute in rush hour which can sometimes take hours
  • When I get to the client’s location, I am expected to stay in the conference room and leave the client communications to the in-charge or the partner on the job
  • When I audit my sections, I access electronic assets from our portal where the client loaded them weeks prior to the start of the audit
  • We then leave when the client’s office hours end, which can – again – be at the peak of rush hour, causing a long commute home

The story ends with a question: “Why, then, do we audit at the clients location when we can easily conduct most of the audit from our offices, home or another locale that won’t put each team member through a weekly commuting headache?”

There are several potential arguments for this traditional field audit approach that include:

  • Some feel that there are benefits to the teamwork that occurs in the small room during field work. But this same collaboration could happen in a conference room in your office, at a local Starbucks or via Skype, Zoom or Face Time (the mobile app).
  • Some argue that the concentrated focus of being “locked away” together makes the audit most efficient, but the weekly grind of starting Job B (a new audit) at the beginning of the new week, at a new client – whether Job A (last week’s audit) is finished or not — can easily cause Job A from the prior week to drag on inefficiently. Instead, if clients no longer expect a team to show up at their door on Monday to audit, the team can keep working to finish Job A and then start Job B thereafter. Clients will be less concerned about where or when the work is conducted as long as the jobs are delivered with quality and on schedule.
  • It’s true that clients are used to an audit team showing up as a group and staying for a period of time to get the work done and they may not appreciate this changing. But younger client decision makers are emerging and their value on face time is less than their predecessors. Some clients would be happy to have their conference or meeting room back and their already-virtual orientation could make the change an easy sell.
  • The need to look people in the eye in interviews and visually inspect for elements of the audit still very much exists. Is a whole team of people required – many of whom don’t have client contact – to make the drive each day, every day at a rush-hour driving start time?

This is only one example of the pressure we see on the accounting time and place paradigm. The increase and rise of working women is placing pressure on firms to figure out how to encourage new mothers (and new fathers!) to experience the joys of parenting and fulfill their parental responsibilities while continuing to contribute meaningfully at work. Often, this entails thinking outside of the box about where and when work is performed.

The ability to serve clients across borders and outside of traditional geographies is causing firm leaders to consider putting “boots on the ground” in distant locales via virtual team members. And, when a valued employee chooses to move from our town, technology offers the opportunity to retain an employment relationship at a distance.

These scenarios, and more, are driving the very real need for firms to give up “old norms” and practice sustaining innovation – truly transforming the way we do things – and allowing for a more practical, valuable and competitive model.

We believe your young people are restless. They question the relevance of some processes and practices and they can visualize how to deliver much of their work differently – often remotely and perhaps at “odd hours” and still be very effective. Try putting some of their ideas to practice. Form a guerilla team with very few traditionalists on it (maybe only one!), have them read this article, our Practice Perspectives article, and our blog on abolishing mandatory Saturdays, too. Then ask them to develop at least five implementable ideas to begin your firm’s shift away from the “old’ time and place paradigm. Do it today and you’ll be surprised by the enthusiasm, creativity and competitive advantage you unleash!

For more ideas on how to shift the mindset of your firm leaders to move to a more virtual work environment, contact Jennifer Wilson.