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The New Normal: The WFH Firm

Altering a CPA firm to accommodate remote working takes clear practice management vision.
May 11, 2020

This article appears in the 2020 May/June issue of Disclosures magazine. Find more issues of Disclosures here.

By Randy Johnston

In this challenging time of the pandemic and working from home, tools to manage the practice, team members and your workload can help. Most CPA firms report that advisory work has exploded — helping clients manage cash flow, apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and dealing with the extraordinary move of changing the April 15 federal tax deadline to July 15. Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic will be the trigger event that shows how our firms can work in the “new normal.”

As our firms adjust to extraordinary client demand and the changing regulatory environment, we will need to consider the tools and techniques required to solve the new problems at hand. While our vision of the future is never as clear as 20-20 hindsight, what is needed to run the “new normal,” the work-from-home (WFH) CPA firm?

Defining the Future

What defines our future firm best? Some firms smugly declared that they were ready for WFH because they were hosting their applications or had implemented a private cloud. Unfortunately, they had not considered the strain WFH would have on all of their systems, communications and support. On the other hand, partners discovered that WFH sometimes meant “not work.” Team members who were self-starters continued to produce and, in many cases, had more work than ever to do. Other team members discovered ways to game the system, such as logging in, answering a few emails and then heading off to take a shower or have breakfast before returning to their computer.

Additionally, some team members found that their home was ineffective to accommodate WFH. They didn’t have a comfortable chair to use for an eight- or 16-hour day. The kids and the dogs made too much noise to have a business call undistracted. Getting by on a smaller monitor at home didn’t work when this became the full-time setup. And the spare bedroom, basement or closet wasn’t as effective as a home office, without desk space and all the tools of the trade. Even managing small entrepreneurial businesses from home requires the right tools. Indeed, we have learned the deficiencies of our WFH setup. Perhaps there are tools from the past we don’t need anymore like calculators or phones, but probably not.

So what does the WFH future require? A few apparent changes will occur. First, retirements that were imminent because of the healthy stock markets will be delayed. Postponing retirements will alleviate some of the immediate need for staffing. Unfortunately, some firms have made plans to furlough team members as soon as they can plan their future workloads. Some firms have reduced partner draws. Other firms have increased client service and billings at this time, keeping their clients and their firm ready for when the business climate improves. Appropriate staffing will continue to be a practice management issue.

Second, WFH is likely to become the “new normal.” While there had been a trend to more remote working, WFH was more of the exception than the rule for most CPA firms. The pandemic stay-at-home orders forced firms to implement WFH, and proved that this can work. Maintaining the culture of the firm for the long haul will be a challenge that must be solved.

Third, forced remote work has proven that cloud technologies can scale. Microsoft Azure had a 755 percent increase in load in March 2020 compared to April. Microsoft had to turn off features such as synchronization and icon rendering to keep the system working under pressure. Azure performed admirably, and Microsoft’s management of the system stress was notable.

Fourth, it was clear that some technologies didn’t work at first and had to be adjusted. Voice over IP (VOIP), video meeting tools and many others suffered under load. During the early conversion to WFH environments, most remote systems that I used had failures of one kind or another. However, the management and IT teams at these companies responded and addressed most issues within a couple of weeks.

Fifth, there are likely to be systemic changes. For example, many practices proved that they could WFH effectively. So, will the need for expensive real estate and fancy offices drop? Can we mostly eliminate the 30- to 90-minute commutes that many have routinely been making? Do our expenses drop when we don’t have to sit in traffic and pay for fuel?

Tools To Manage A WFH Practice

Practice management systems that have workflow capabilities, billing, scheduling, electronic payment, portals and integrations into our document management system, tax and accounting and auditing tools are best. Whether your firm does value billing or bills by the hour or project, you still need to get the invoices out and get paid in a timely fashion. While there are useful practice management tools for smaller firms such as Accounting Power, OfficeTools, Clarity Practice Management and TPS Cloud Axis, new competitors like Canopy, Karbon and Pascal Workflow are trying to break into the market. Products for larger firms like CCH Axcess Practice, Onvio Firm Management, Practice Engine or STAR are all quite aware of the need for managing remote professionals.

But practice management software is only part of what is needed to manage a remote or WFH group of professionals. Other remote tools should include:

Decide What is Right for You

What is the right thing to do for your firm and your clients? Can your team members effectively serve clients if they work from home? Are you providing the right tools with the proper education? Have you planned expertly for all the remote tools listed above? Have you focused on your client and team member experience? How do you and your partners manage people effectively when you can’t walk down the hall or you don’t have a partner in charge of an office location?

Visibility in your practice management system, combined with effective document management and workflows, are the keys to practical remote work. Yes, we’ll still have issues managing things like due dates and scheduling teams for engagements. Flaws in your practice management, document management, workflow, portals and other tools became evident during the stay-at-home orders. But if you can’t get the bills out and get paid, how would your firm stay around to continue to help clients?

Randy Johnston is a shareholder in K2 Enterprises, LLC, a leading provider of CPE to state CPA societies. He also owns Network Management Group, Inc., a managed services provider. Ask for help at NMGI by emailing [email protected] or call (620) 664-6000.