The Back-to-the-Office Experience
What is and isn’t working as people trickle back into the office in a post-pandemic world? Three CPA firm partners weigh in on why listening to staff is more important than ever as we try to get back to business as usual.
Is it the donuts or free lunches? Is it our renewed desire for connection or fear of missing out? Or is it the lingering hope for a return to normalcy? Whatever it is that’s doing the trick, many organizations are managing to slowly coax more staff back to their offices—for at least part of the workweek. But the environment and experience workers are returning to is unlikely to truly mimic what they abruptly left when COVID-19 shutdowns went into effect more than two years ago—and that’s OK.
Astute business leaders will tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated workplace and workforce shifts already in motion. While that mindset doesn’t make these changes any easier to navigate, it does change the direction we head. After all, we can’t keep looking to go back to business as usual; we must chart out what it means to do business moving forward—including if that means being in the office full-time, part-time, or not at all—and how that affects productivity, morale, and culture.
Accounting firms in particular still seem to foresee a future with full-time, in-person work. In an April 2021 survey conducted by media company Arizent (owner of Accounting Today), 53% of accounting leaders expected that more than half of their staff would be back in the office full-time within a year, compared to 42.7% of all respondents, which was comprised of leaders in accounting, banking, financial planning, financial services, fintech, and other related industries.
In areas such as remote work policies, in-person meetings, use of offices, engaging with clients, physical office footprints, business travel policies, and employee onboarding, accounting leaders were significantly less likely to expect to permanently alter their policies because of the pandemic. That said, 60% of accounting leaders expected their firms to allow significant work-from-home opportunities after the pandemic.
A year on from that survey and accounting leaders still aren’t ready to replace one work structure with another, but they are acknowledging that remote work on a larger scale is likely here to stay. Now, they’re watching and listening to find the rhythms that’ll make long-term hybrid schedules and evolving work arrangements feasible for individual and organizational success.
Here are four key lessons organizations are learning.
1. Mandates Aren’t the Answer
BKD CPA & Advisors (now FORVIS LLP) started encouraging its people to come into the office last summer and, by September 2021, had formalized a hybrid work policy with staff spending three days in the office and two days at home, according to Tom Murtagh, CPA, JD, MBA, a tax partner in the firm’s Chicago office and the immediate past chairperson of the Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors. When the COVID-19 Delta and Omicron variants further delayed the implementation of that hybrid plan, Murtagh says the firm simply kept the doors open and took a wait-and-see approach.
During this most recent busy season, the firm saw a resurgence of people coming back to the office. “Our associates and senior associates wanted to be in the office,” Murtagh says. “Busy season perks, like lunches and dinners, helped draw people in, but the uptick occurred organically from the bottom up—not because of any mandates. A lot of people valued the office time and found they liked the boundaries of leaving work at work and going home mentally clear. Some of our people have been coming in five and even six days a week.”
Taking a different approach, the leaders of Schaumburg, Ill.-based accounting and business advisory services firm KRD Ltd. decided in spring of 2021 that their people wouldn’t be required to ever come back to the office—that’s right, ever. According to Lauren Clawson, CPA, a partner at the firm, staff didn’t believe the announcement at first.
“They weren’t sure they could trust that they were being told they could align their schedules with their home environments long term. But we listened to what we heard our people saying. We thought that the best way to retain people was to help them be happy,” Clawson explains. “Making the decision to offer a fully remote option has given people confidence to make their own decisions. Some people come in every day, some work completely remotely, and some come in a few times a week.”
In both cases, firm leaders acknowledged that their employees, across experience levels and roles, proved they could perform their work effectively from home—thus eliminating the stigma of working remotely and the need for mandates or one-size-fits-all approaches.
“There has definitely been a mindset shift that if people are being responsive and communicating, the trust is there. Rather than setting heavy mandates that people will naturally resist, it’s more important to meet people where they’re at and show you’re caring for them as individuals,” Murtagh says. “The challenge now becomes how to build a community.”
2. In-person Experiences Can’t Be Replicated
Despite the proven ability to complete most work from home, building community and culture is believed to remain rooted in personal interactions. “Ultimately, we’re a people and relationship-based business,” Murtagh says. “It’s just harder to do team building, relationship building, and mentoring remotely.”
Brian Daniell, CPA, managing partner at West & Company LLC, a multi-office public accounting firm serving clients throughout Illinois, agrees. His firm stayed open throughout the pandemic and is continuing its in-office expectations, which he says is more suitable for professional development—especially for younger staff. “We believe our less experienced staff should be in the office for mentoring and for learning the profession,” he says, noting that some of their recruits have come to the firm specifically for the in-person, one-on-one training they provide.
Beyond mentoring and training opportunities, Murtagh says his firm saw a positive energy shift that came with staff returning to the office: “We noticed that our people wanted the break to come in and see friends. There was an organic desire to be with people.”
Murtagh acknowledges that the nature of the work his team does is very “heads down and focused,” but the in-person experience often provides deeper connection and support. “By being physically present, people are influencing each other. When you’re
in the same physical space, you pick up on things on an emotional
level. If you’re feeling down, someone else’s energy might bring
you up,” he emphasizes. “Even the introverts have found they
benefit from that shared experience of being in the office.”
Murtagh adds that he has noticed favorable effects on motivation
and productivity: “Looking around and seeing everyone else
working might give you the energy to stay one more hour to finish
a project. It can help pull you across the finish line. I think being
together creates a positive impact on motivation and how you
approach your work.”
Murtagh says his firm is working to leverage the benefits of being
together in person while also continuing to use the video calls,
screen-sharing applications, and online chats that kept dispersed
teams connected throughout the pandemic. Most meetings are still
held via computers—even for those in the office, which Murtagh
says makes it easier for remote staff to see faces and pick up on
non-verbal cues. “People have gotten so used to presenting and
communicating with these tools,” he says.
3. The Definition of “Flexibility” Is Evolving
Melding the remote and in-person worlds will continue to be
important as it becomes clear that organizations will need to
develop new and varied work arrangements to recruit and retain
talent moving forward.
“Remote work is part of our society that’s here to stay,” Daniell says
while pointing to the uptick in applicants for positions at his firm
who are currently working in a remote environment and prefer to
continue doing so.
Clawson says, KRD has always provided flexibility for parents to
attend kids’ activities and for other circumstances, but she feels
there’s wider acceptance across the profession coming: “Our
industry has gotten used to the flexibility concept.”
Inspired by a podcast conversation between author and research
professor Brené Brown and organizational psychologist Scott
Sonenshein, Murtagh has started thinking about hybrid work beyond
preset daily schedules—and is challenging his team to do so too.
“Instead of coming in on the same two or three days every week,
maybe we need to be thinking about what our work looks like and
schedule our weeks based on the work that we’re doing, what we
need from our peers, when our clients can meet, and when we need
focused time,” he explains. “You might realize that Monday is the best
day to catch other people in the office, and Tuesday really needs to
be a head down day. It’s about learning how to get the best out of
yourself rather than following a prescriptive form.”
In other words, the definition of flexibility is likely to evolve as firms
explore what flexibility means to their employees in a post-pandemic
world. Murtagh says firm leaders can’t afford to make assumptions
about the types of flexible work arrangements that appeal to
staff. “Surveys and listening sessions provide great feedback, but
realize that flexibility can be very unique to a person based on
life circumstances, personal risk factors, family or caregiving
responsibilities, and other experiences,” he stresses, noting that
flexibility preferences can vary greatly even from one class of interns
and new graduates to another: “Nothing is cookie-cutter. What one
group is looking for could be totally different in the next group.”
Recognizing that people now have expanded preferences for how
they want to work, firms are expecting to recruit for more project-based
and contract roles. Offering opportunities for a fixed amount
of time or for the duration of a project is one way to appeal to people
seeking flexibility regarding timelines and role responsibilities.
Clawson also predicts that more hybrid models are on the horizon,
including options for more varied schedules to meet the demands
of people who would prefer to work fewer hours for less pay.
Getting creative with benefits is also important to meeting
expectations for flexibility, according to Daniell, who notes that
West & Company provides four-day weekends for major holidays.
“Work-life balance will continue to be critical going forward,” he
says. “In a very tough market for hiring, you have to show you’re
4. Adaptability Is Central to Success
Though the pandemic created disruption and upheaval, it also has
forced organizations to think deeply about how to evolve and
motivate employees as conditions change. With varied and
emerging work models, staying nimble will be key to coordinating
schedules, evaluating space needs, and leveraging the benefits of
remote and in-person work.
“Pushing back and trying to get things back to the way they were
won’t help your cause,” Clawson says. “The model has to change.
We’ve already adapted a lot, and we’re excited for the changes
ahead. We’re developing a firm where 22-year-olds will want to
stay. We want to be successful, and we want to be here for
generations to come.”
Clawson notes that KRD prioritized checking in on people during the
pandemic, and the firm continues to develop new programs based
on employee feedback and challenges that arise. For example,
leaders have put more structure in place for meeting with people
remotely and checking on projects; remote and in-person
onboarding programs that expose new hires to a larger number of
colleagues have been instituted; a buddy program was implemented
during tax season; and the focus within some training programs has
shifted. “We’re teaching more skills now for how to succeed in public
accounting, such as getting through busy season, navigating client
issues and personalities, building relationships, and communicating
with managers and partners,” Clawson explains.
Given all that has changed since COVID-19’s emergence, Daniell
doesn’t see further drastic changes on the horizon. Instead, moving
forward, he simply notes that firms have to be willing to listen to
their people and make accommodations: “We have to adapt to
grow and succeed in this new world.”
Clare Fitzgerald is a Chicago-based freelance writer with experience
working in CPA firms and covering trends in the industry.