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Transcript: Penelope Bustamante

April 15, 2020

You can listen to the full podcast here.


MAUREEN DINGUS:  Welcome to Leading Forward the Virginia Society of CPAs podcasts where we focus on innovation and leadership in the CPA profession. I'm your host, Maureen Dingus and I invite thought leaders for short, casual conversations on topics and trends important to the success of the CPA profession. This episode is part of our series on how the VSCPA members are managing and even thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for listening and I wish you all good health. Okay, so on today's episode, we are talking with Penelope Bustamante. She is the Chief Operating Officer at Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer in Norfolk, Virginia. And I'm going to kick this off by letting Penny tell us a bit about her background, her role at the firm and what she's really dealing with today.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:  Thank you for letting me participate in this. I have I joined the firm in June of last year. And I had been working at a larger firm up in the New York City metropolitan area in the same role as Chief Operating Officer. And I was up there for 13 years. And so now I've come down here to join WEC and their team

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Well, what a time to leave New York.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:    Yeah. So it is kind of challenging that within the first year here, I get to help lead the organization through these trying times, but I am kind of glad that I left New York at this time. They seemed like a hotbed up there, so I definitely feel a little safer down here.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, yeah, I'm sure your heart is missing though. It's it's probably adds a bit to the stress to have that connection.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:   Yeah, I have a lot of friends up there and a lot of emotional connections up there and family and it is stressful. I'm checking in on them a lot. So far thankfully, no one's fallen ill, but my thoughts are definitely up there as well.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, we're with you on that. To kind of kick it off a little bit. Can you tell us what your leadership team did to prepare for this disruption? When did you start to feel like you needed to act?

Yeah, so we were really super proactive here. I'm so proud of our firm for that. It was when we first started hearing news about Seattle and what was going on there that we got nervous about what if something like that happened here? That time it seems so far away, but we started wondering what if there was an emergency here where we had to have everyone immediately work from home. Were we ready? So we The first thing we did was, we sent out a survey from wide and asked every single employee from receptionists through partners, to tell us what kind of equipment they had at home, and if they needed anything if they had to work from home. So that was huge because it allowed us to make sure we had the right equipment that people would need to work from home. So that was very helpful. And then by late February, maybe the first week in March, we already started testing, forcing people to work from home for a day, the full day, just to make sure that they can connect that the technology was working, working from home from for an hour at night or something is one thing, but when you get an eight hour stretch it was was definitely an eye opener to see the different challenges we were facing then.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, really our stretches day after day is absolutely different than popping on email a little bit in the evening, right. So what what type of pain points did you see when you started doing those tests and even moving to more full time?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:    Yeah. So maybe in the beginning, when we were first doing the at home tests, we realized that we needed Upgrade some of the way that people connected into our systems. Were cloud based for everything except for engagement. And it really depended on how people were getting in. were they using VDI? Were they going through VPN?  What were we using? How are they accessing the information that they needed? And so those test days gave us a little bit of a chance to stress test the system and find out what was going to work for us. So some of our challenges were around that.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Do you have? Do you have anyone coming into the office? Are there some tasks that just aren't able to be done remotely?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:    We do. So I'm coming in every day still, I live up the street so it's easy for me to walk in. And I'm sort of holding down the fort because we're still getting mail delivery, the buildings not shut. So and then we're in a high rise so there's lots of other companies here. So the mail still coming. UPS is still coming. So I'm here for that kind of stuff. And then we have a few key administrative personnel for things that have to be done here, no more than two or three at any given time. And it's the same people we're restricting who can come in. So they're here to do things like pick up the tax work papers and make sure that they're getting processed. Making sure if we have any hard copies of returns going out to clients, making sure that's been processed and out those kind of things.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  So just very limited.


MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, right. Right. Obviously, one of the things that we're all dealing with is just the the emotion of the disruption and the change to all our lives. Just so quickly, how what what is the vibe of your your employees, how are they handling this and what are you doing to help them

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE, CPA:    So that was definitely something that was on our learning curve. Once we moved to everyone full time working from home, there were a couple of things that quickly became apparent that we hadn't realized. One was communication among the teams. We use Microsoft Teams, and we had gotten already used to using that. But realizing that when you're really not able to see each other for a long period of time, the necessity of communicating and over communicating among team members to be sure the work gets done and that things are progressing, and as much of a normal tempo as possible, is important. And then from an emotional standpoint, it's isolating to be so far away from your co workers, even if you're in a house full of family members. And it's stressful. I mean, you know, we're having we're seeing people that have just a lot of stressors at home. They might have sick family members or young kids. And so kind of helping people deal with those emotional pieces is important. So we started twice a week now, we have two 30-minute like coffee catches. They're like little conversational Zoom. Sorry, teams meetings. We're using it. We're doing it through Teams right now, where everyone in the firm can join for up to 30 minutes and we don't talk about work. It's just literally a social chat, where we can just check in on each other and see how we're doing this sort of keep that emotional connection going.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, we had just yesterday morning, we had an all staff meeting that was different from our normal staff meetings. And just being able to see some of those faces that I don't work with every day really, really was--It was awesome. And it made me... It made me miss them more. But it also was just nice to have that real human connection. So that's just great that you all are doing that.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:   I'll share one other thing we also have on Teams, we started a channel called fun with WEC. And so we're posting all kinds of anything amusing that's going on, like you trying to get your work done and your dog comes in and grabs your computer mouse or we had a little mini celebration because somebody found chicken in the meat aisle. So like silly things like that to kind of poke humor at the situation, sort of relieve a little bit of stress. So that's been important to me.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Are your leaders or partners doing anything different on this end?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:  Yeah, for sure, definitely! Our partners are checking in. I mean, they've always been great about connecting with their teams. But they're even going above and beyond now. Our managing partner has been amazing. So she's still holding staff meetings to make sure that everyone's doing okay. And she's personally calling everyone in the in the firm, just to check in on them and see how they're doing and find out how we can help them. So it's been great.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  So every single person?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:    Yep. calling everyone in the firm.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, that's that's obviously a big commitment, but that won't be forgotten in the long run.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:    Yeah, it's very, it's wonderful. Yeah, they've been really great.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  So with this disruption, you know, I know that business has to happen, what, what's changed and what hasn't changed?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:  So, that's a good question. We, right now we haven't really taken the foot off the gas pedal too much with regard to even though the deadlines are extended for tax season, we're still trying to push things through as much as possible. So, in terms of, we're thinking business as usual, it's probably a good thing to attempt to do. But at the same time, we don't want to put unnecessary pressure on people who are especially people who have little kids at home, it's really hard for them, or a sick family member. So we're really trying to be very communicative. It's sort of a fine line to walk. But we also don't want to get out of this in May or June and have, you know, two months worth of tax work that we have to cram in when we're all mentally and emotionally exhausted from this, this experience. So we're trying to bounce that that's still a learning curve we're in.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Right, right. So it's that hope that there will be the time that we can all relax and have this work behind us. So whatever you can do to probably keep, like you said, keep your foot on the gas on that part will be appreciated down road. Yeah, yeah. So I really appreciate the time that you've taken. I know you have a lot on your plate right now. But as we wrap up, what are you? What are you doing to manage your stress?

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:  Ah, that's a good question. So I am, when I'm in the office, I'm playing relaxing music. And I'm constantly trying to find opportunities to share with the team things that are positive. I mean, you see every day in the news, if you look for them, you can find this great capacity for human generosity and kindness and just sharing that you see out there stories of like people driving by kids houses for their birthdays, and just these wonderful stories. So for me, that helps me think about human potential and all of this, and I want to share that out that is a destressor for me. I also am exercising. We're still, we're sort of in lockdown in Norfolk, but we can can still go out for walks and stuff as long as we socially distance. So I'll go out for a jog or I'll go out for a walk our Botanical Gardens still open. So I'll go there. That's the kind of things I'm doing right now.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Oh, great, great. Yeah, that you all have an amazing botanical garden. So you're lucky to still be able to go out and see that and I'll say, I've never seen so many people walking in my neighborhood. Yeah. We're all getting our steps in.


MAUREEN DINGUS:  All right. Well, Penny, thank you. Best of luck to your firm. It sounds like you all are on the right track. And I look forward to once we're through this, looping back with you about any lessons learned and hear about all your successes. So I really thank you very much.

PENELOPE BUSTAMANTE:  All right. Thank you.