The pandemic made remote work the new norm for many companies, but one group has been prepared for years—and research shows high engagement is still possible.
Prior to 2020, remote work was barely a blip on any business radar. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, what was once considered unique has become an exploding norm. For IntrapriseTechKnowlogies LLC, though, the practice of remote work presented itself—and evolved—by accident, and well before other companies jumped aboard.
The advisory-focused CPA firm hired Alisa Nishimoto, PMP, as a part-time project manager in February 2010. Although she was living in San Jose, Cal., at the time, Nishimoto and her family planned to move back to Hawaii, where she grew up and she planned to join the rest of the IntrapriseTechKnowlogies team at its Honolulu headquarters. However, after a year of searching, Nishimoto’s husband was unable to find a comparable job in Hawaii, so the young family decided to remain in San Jose.
“Our team had already adjusted to having to collaborate with her via instant messages and email,” said Donny Shimamoto, CPA, CITP, CGMA, the founder and managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies. “We just decided to allow her to continue to work remotely.”
That position turned out perfectly for Nishimoto, who had just had a baby. “I love the flexibility it provides now that I am a mom and have commitments to family, including school engagements and several extracurricular activities for the kids,” she said.
A new norm dawns.
Shimamoto noticed the experience of remote work functioning well for IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, too.
“Originally being centered in Hawaii, it was hard for us to find staff that we needed since we have such a niche expertise,” he said. “We also had people who lived on the mainland and already had full time jobs that wanted to moonlight with us to get some additional income working during their nights, which was still business hours in Hawaii due to the time zone differences, so it worked out.”
He added, “We started with Hawaii and California, then found people in Washington, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, and Oklahoma. Because I travel so much to meet with clients and speak at various events, remote work became the norm, even for me, and our team learned how to collaborate without having to physically be together.”
The formula was in place for Shimamoto’s IntrapriseTechKnowlogies team, so it was an obvious route to choose for the team behind his latest initiative, which fell into place during the pandemic. The Center for Accounting Transformation “guides professionals through the adoption and change required in order to step into the future of the accounting profession,” a future that most assuredly involves technologies more widely accepted and used with employees staying at home during a pandemic.
Remote work surges in pandemic.
An April 2021 report from Statista stated 17% of U.S. employees worked from home five days or more per week before COVID-19, a number that jumped to 44% during the pandemic and surged to as much as 70% in April 2020, according to Gallup, before leveling out at 58% in September for four months and dropping to 56% in January 2021. The number has dropped every month since, but the Delta variant threatens to halt the decline.
Although the IntrapriseTechKnowlogies and Center for Accounting Transformation teams were already remote workers, these stats play an important role in both practice and research. Some of the learning opportunities with the Center for Accounting Transformation include a focus on available tools and best practices for enabling, engaging, and managing remote or hybrid work teams, as well as mitigating cybersecurity risks and protecting client data. Out of necessity, companies and employees found themselves quickly adopting and adapting to technological tools like MS SharePoint, MS Teams, Motivosity, 15Five, Bamboo HR, and, of course, Zoom , along with countless other applications.
“We look into a significant number of tools that are out there and try to help companies first figure out which will work best for their needs and then determine the best way to implement those tools with their teams,” Shimamoto said. “Some of the tools we use ourselves, but we encourage others to determine their needs and use what they think will work best for them.”
Currently, the Center for Accounting Transformation is compiling responses from its summer research on hybrid and remote work policies and best practices, set to be released in late October. Meanwhile, team members were asked to complete an informal survey to gauge their feelings on overall remote effectiveness, tools, and resources as well as areas of improvement.
Tools for remote work gain popularity in adoption.
While most people resent the pandemic for throwing everyone into isolation—and the Delta variant for what seems like the public trying to resume normalcy too soon—software developers must be secretly thanking their lucky stars. Companies, organizations, governments, schools… all raced to adopt technology to allow some continuation of services.
One great example is Zoom, launched in 2013 by Eric Yuan. Within a few months, Yuan reported one million Zoom users, jumping up to around 40 million by February 2015. But then, in May 2020, Yuan revealed in a blog post that Zoom was averaging 200 million daily meeting participants, according to Business of Apps.
Because it came free with Office 365, MS Teams immediately had users simply by virtue of installation and upgrades. In April 2020, Microsoft reported 75 million daily active users, but that number skyrocketed to 145 million daily active users just one year later. In July, ZDNet reported the platform has reached 250 million monthly active users.
Morris Harris, CPA, CGMA, PMP, is a fan. He exclaimed, “Teams is awesome!” Harris, a principal consultant with IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, added, “It’s a one-stop-shop for meeting space, file sharing, and social and work engagement.”
Mai Le, a consultant with Center for Accounting Transformation, said, “I like that you can video chat and text in Teams. Setting meetings via Outlook to tie to Teams has been very easy.”
Remote work tools can help increase communication among employees.
Another tool used by Harris, Le, and their coworkers is Motivosity, an employee engagement and recognition platform that allows teams to thank and reward each other publicly, in the form of awarding “bucks” to say thank you and for demonstrating company core values. The bucks can later be redeemed for digital gift cards at a variety of stores, but the real value, according to several team members, is in team acknowledgment for work well done.
Heather Bunning, a principal consultant with the Center for Accounting Transformation, said, “I really like how you can celebrate individuals on our team and give them recognition so that everyone on staff is aware of the work they are doing. This is especially great in cases where those team members may not interact or work together as much.”
Similarly, 15Five is also used by the groups. Dan Taylor, a partner with 15Five, described it as “a continuous performance management tool that helps companies engage with their employees at a deeper level” using engagement surveys, weekly check-ins, performance reviews, and goal setting and tracking features. Taylor, who uses it himself, said, “The thing I like most about it is that through quick weekly check-ins, I have an abundance of communication with my boss and tons of clarity on my job. It makes collaboration and focus on my goals better here than anywhere I’ve worked.”
Bunning, who also uses 15Five, said, “I like the pulse check functionality, not just for myself, but also for my team. Sometimes when you speak with people, they may be more cautious on what to say, but they are more comfortable writing it.” Lisa Roman, a senior consultant for the Center for Accounting Transformation, agreed. “I like that it gives me an opportunity to mention things that may be of concern to me,” she said.
It might seem like too many platforms for some companies, but for IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, a major positive evolved from all the experimentation, according to senior consultant Lisa Veneri Stewart. “I was happy that we were ahead of the game in technology and that Donny always had the foresight where technology was concerned, which gave us an advantage when COVID hit,” Stewart said. “We could lead by example with our customers.”
Remote work offers broader reach…
Leading by example is just what Shimamoto has in mind. Being able to share with his clients and subscribers all the benefits—and drawbacks—of technology tools allows him to consult on a deeper, more meaningful level with detailed experience. Plus, an added benefit of employing remote workers means teams can produce at a level not sustainable in a traditional office environment.
“As a small company, the thing that amazes me is that if I include our subcontractors, that we are truly a global team that crosses many time zones,” Shimamoto said. “Our day starts with our east coast team and progresses across the mainland U.S. to the west coast and Hawaii teams. Near the end of the west coast day, our subcontractors in Vietnam start their day. This allows us to hand off to them and they overlap with our Hawaii team, but also work through the ‘night’ while our U.S. teams are sleeping. In the morning—east coast time—the Vietnam team hands off to our east coast team, and we progress through the day again.”
He added, “It’s truly a 24-hour operation, which allows us to turn work product around faster.”
…But it’s not without drawbacks.
As with anything, remote work does have some obstacles, but they aren’t without solutions, either.
In fact, the same benefit Shimamoto touted could occasionally be a hurdle, according to Le. “Time zone collaboration,” she offered. “I tend to get my time zones mixed up. Other than that, it’s just conditions I can’t control, like weather or power outages. If it happened in an office, everyone would know, but when it happens at home, I have to find other ways to communicate it ASAP and figure out solutions to get urgent work done.”
Michelle Ichiyama, an executive assistant with IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, offered an all-too-common drawback across every profession. “When I’m working from home, family members tend to forget that I am working,” she said. “Sometimes it is difficult to find a quiet place to work, since I have six-year-old twins.” However, for Ichiyama, the good far outweighs the bad. “It’s great not having to commute to the office. I used to commute three hours each day on the bus.”
Roman also had a familiar refrain, saying, “It’s much easier to work more or longer than I should since it’s always available.”
According to Shimamoto, solutions to some issues can be as easy as keeping employees engaged, appreciated and accountable.
“I think the secret to staying engaged is to truly be interested with them as a person—including appropriately crossing the work/home boundary,” he said, adding that one example is social media. “Many of our team members are friends on Facebook. This somewhat replaces the hallway or lunch conversations where you get to learn more about each other’s personal lives.”
Shimamoto said he also always tries to say thank you. “I also always try to ensure that they know that I’m relying on them and that I’ve hired them for what they know or can do to bring value to the team,” he said. “When I provide feedback, I try to have them see that it’s constructive criticism or a reset of expectations, so that we can become more successful in the future.”
Some are still hesitant to offer or keep remote or hybrid work as a recruiting and retention tool.
With the accounting profession continuing to battle pipeline issues, especially with Millennials and Gen Z driving the “Great Resignation.” Of the concerns topping their work wish lists? Flexibility. According to the story by U.S. News & World Report, “Galagher found that 72% of companies surveyed either raised or plan to raise their base salaries in 2021. But numerous surveys taken during the coronavirus, have found that money alone will not be enough to satisfy workers, with schedule flexibility and additional benefits top of the demands employees are making of employers.”
So, why are some employers reluctant to offer remote or hybrid work to their employees?
“The biggest misgiving I hear is ‘How do I know they’re working?’” said Shimamoto. My usual response is, ‘If that’s what you’re worried about, you need to fix your hiring process.’ Especially with business professionals, no one likes micromanagers. People need to feel like their managers trust them to get the job done. But, as we say in audit, ‘Trust isn’t a control,’ so you also need to put processes in place that help to track that people are making progress. Whether that’s a project management system, daily stand-ups, weekly one-on-one meetings, or all the above, put something in place that provides you with concrete data as to what is getting done.”
Harris agrees with Shimamoto.
“I think the biggest hesitation would be lack of trust of employees since managers do not physically occupy the same space as the employees they manage,” Harris said. “Ensuring employees are being held accountable to the roles they’ve been assigned to fulfill and establishing the means to gauge that accountability should assist in overcoming those concerns.”
He added, “Working remotely presents huge opportunities to enhance team productivity so long as it’s leveraged properly, and the right tools are used to support such an environment. I think it’s like with anything, you get out of it what you put into it.”
Ready to make the most of remote? Check out these events:
- Northeast Future-Ready Firm Conference: Nov. 11, 8:20 am – 3 pm, ET (6 CPE)
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- Engaging Your Hybrid Team: How to Ensure Employee Engagement and Equity When Working Remote (2 CPE)
Explore the leadership changes to implement now so you can encourage employee engagement and ensure equity in a hybrid environment. Plus, look at how your organization should shift its performance measures and definitions of success, so all employees are treated fairly, regardless of where they work.
- How Accountants Are Managing Hybrid Work: What Research Tells Us (1 CPE)
Learn more about the results of the 2021 Hybrid Work Policy and Cybersecurity Risk Research conducted by the Center for Accounting Transformation. Find out how corporate culture impacts hybrid work policies and how these policies impact an organization’s cybersecurity risk.