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Telecommuting: The New Normal?

October 3, 2018

I’m writing this article from my couch, next to my dog, as part of the VSCPA’s telecommuting agreement, and as companies turn to similar arrangements in increasing numbers, the chances continue to rise that you’re reading it from home, too.

According to 2013 numbers from the American Community Survey, 3.3 million Americans (2.6 percent of the U.S. workforce) listed their home as their primary place of work. That’s an 80 percent increase from 2005, and those numbers don’t account for the self-employed or unpaid volunteers.

A well-planned telecommuting arrangement benefits both employers and employees. Businesses can reduce their real-estate footprint and related costs and provide a benefit to attract and retain employees. Employees save money and time on commuting and can achieve a greater work-life balance through telecommuting.

That last point should be especially salient for CPAs just weeks removed from tax season. Instead of being stuck in an office finishing tax returns, a tax professional might be able to step away from the computer to eat dinner with his or her spouse or tuck children into bed before returning to work.

“I definitely think people feel more confident that they can make life and public accounting work,” said Susan Moser, CPA, managing partner at the Tysons Corner office of Cherry Bekaert and one of the panelists for the VSCPA’s Business & Industry Conference (BIC) session “Telecommuting — Is it Right for Your Organization?” “Everybody always used to talk work-life balance, but I think the better term is work-life integration. People need to make phone calls during the day and work at night.”

Cherry Bekaert has had a formal telecommuting policy in place for three years, known as the My Life program, but some of its employees had their own arrangements in place long before it was formalized. In fact, part of the reason the firm put the formal policy in place was to aid in measuring its return on the policy.

“As long as people communicated, we were willing to make things work for people,” Moser said. “But in some offices, that wasn’t working, so people asked us to formalize something so that they had an opportunity to do that. We came up with a process where people could request a tailored work arrangement or a non-traditional work schedule. It was about how the firm could accommodate them and what accommodations they needed to make.”

The Arlington-based Council of Better Business Bureaus had a similar informal arrangement when management decided to jump in on telecommuting with both feet. Daniel Marin, the organization’s manager of operations and administration, also spoke on the issue at BIC and touched on the issue of making the policy work for everyone who wanted to take advantage.

“It was handled on a case-by-case basis,” Marin said. “We had a few remote workers who lived out of state who had started locally in Arlington and wanted to relocate elsewhere. So they made arrangements with management to be able to do their jobs completely remotely. Other individuals would make arrangements with their supervisors to do flex work or remote work here locally.

“Not everybody in management shared the same ideas or agreed with the concept, so it created this inequity, this two-class system, between those who had the privilege and those whose supervisors denied it to them. So we decided it was time to formalize everything and make it as fair across the board as we could.”

As the American Community Survey numbers indicate, organizations are implementing telecommuting programs in record numbers, and one of the biggest reasons for that is simply because they can. The rise of virtual private networking (VPN) technology allows employees to link to their company’s server from anywhere with an Internet connection.

That’s how the VSCPA is able to make telecommuting work. In fact, aside from rare exceptions, most VSCPA employees connect to the Society’s VPN at the office the same way they do when telecommuting from home. Other organizations have seen similar results.

“It’s much easier now with our systems and processes,” Moser said. “Everyone in the firm has laptops, and they can connect from anywhere. So many of our systems that we use for clients, including our tax software, are global, Internet-based. You really can do things from anywhere.”

Another reason for accounting firms to consider a formal telecommuting arrangement is that companies likely already have some of the infrastructure in place. Audit professionals often do a great deal of work at their clients’ office, necessitating the ability to work remotely.

“We’re in the client service business,” Moser said. “A lot of things that people do, we needed to be working at the client’s office. The client’s needs needed to be front and center. If there were things you needed to do at the client’s office, you needed to do those things at the client’s office.”

The rise in telecommuting hasn’t come without hiccups and controversy, including the legal variety. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit cited technological advancements when reversing a Michigan court’s decision, holding that with current technology, “attendance” cannot always be assumed to refer to physical attendance at an employer’s work site and that previous cases that rejected telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation were based on outdated technology.

With that in mind, any company that wants to initiate or expand a telecommuting program must make significant investments in information technology (IT) infrastructure, including updated phone systems, often of the Voice Over IP (VOIP) variety.

“There’s a huge telecommunications factor for telework that needs to be there and successful,” Marin said. “We got a Cisco phone system and standardized all our computer equipment. We bought everybody in the organization a laptop and a headset that was equipped with VOIP phones. We turned a couple of call centers into call centers that could be managed completely remotely.”

Marin cited technology as one of the three “pillars” of a successful telecommuting program, alongside an equitable, organization-wide policy and clear communication. The last one was especially important as he worked to convince skeptical managers that the program could be successful.

“People have the mindset of ‘They’re out of sight, they’re out of mind, they’re out of control,’” he said. “But I’d be willing to bet that in an office without people working remotely, they’re still communicating by phone and by email. They might be 300 feet away, but they’re still emailing their staff or picking up the phone.”

“The staff that work remotely almost tend to be more responsive,” he added. “There seems to be a correlation between being away from the office and being responsive to phone and email.”

The panelists have seen the morale boost their companies’ programs provide firsthand. Moser mentioned one Cherry Bekaert senior manager who had been dead set on leaving public accounting after having a child. Two years after giving birth to her first child, she’s still with the firm.

Marin, whose entire staff works in the traffic-choked Washington area, views the lack of commuting time as the main psychological benefit for his employees.

“We had a few people whom the difference that it made, you could see practically overnight,” he said. “They went from almost a level of despondency to being completely re-engaged.”

Of course, telecommuting doesn’t work for everyone, particularly less experienced workers who need more direct supervision. Not everyone has the temperament to work as effectively from home, but those who pull it off often say they’re more productive at home due to the relative lack of interruptions.

“There are some individuals who are not necessarily cut out for it as much as others,” Marin said. “We’ve had people who make the decision for themselves that they don’t like to do it, and they come back into the office for the social aspects, or that they just can’t work as well at home. But the vast majority of people see it as one of the biggest benefits that they have.”

Moser said some Cherry Bekaert employees had previously left the firm because they felt they couldn’t make public accounting work with family obligations. That’s one reason she and her fellow partners put the My Life program in place.

“I don’t care if it’s tax season or not,” she said. “If your kids have a soccer game, they’re only going to be eight years old and playing soccer once.”

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