insight magazine

Today's CPA | Winter 2021

Rewriting the Book on Culture

Can we keep moving CPAs toward being the most trusted and strategic business advisors despite the post-pandemic workforce becoming more transactional?
Todd Shapiro ICPAS President & CEO

Back in 2019, way before the COVID-19 pandemic, we formed a strategic plan focused on the future of the CPA profession. As part of that plan, we developed seven predictions for what we thought the profession would look like by the year 2027 that we later detailed in our 2020 Insight Special Feature, “CPA Profession 2027: Racing for Relevance.” One of those predictions was that worker demands would dramatically change. Keep in mind that most employees worked in traditional offices versus remote situations in 2019. Few businesses had embraced remote work environments, though some businesses were dipping their toes in the water. Our prediction for the coming years was that the trend toward greater flexibility would continue under increasing demand.

Shortly after developing our strategic plan, one of the worst pandemics in our world’s history struck. One outcome of the pandemic was a rapid and dramatic acceleration of our worker demands prediction. Within weeks, if not days, many businesses became fully remote and found that workers could still be efficient and productive. The questions I had: What would happen when the pandemic passed, and what would the impact be on company culture in the wake of the biggest management experiment of our lifetime?

While the pandemic ebbs and flows, worker demand for flexibility and remote work will not recede. In one study, 70 percent of respondents stated they want flexible work options to continue, while 42 percent plan to quit if they can’t work remotely at least part-time. This growing demand for flexibility is taking place in an environment where 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. Firm leaders regularly tell me that staffing is their number-one issue, with some staff quitting even if they don’t have another job. The bottom line is that remote work is here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future.

So, what’s the impact of a remote workforce on culture? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been engaged in conversations on this topic. I hear people of all ages say that remote work allows them to be more productive and to do their job more efficiently as they aren’t interrupted by others. My response is that we need to define what “job” means. Is one’s job merely the completion of a set of tasks, or are those interruptions actually part of the job?

I’m concerned that the remote environment, with its lack of informal collaboration and conversation, is creating an isolationist, task-based workforce that views their employer merely as a transaction (paycheck) that one can get anywhere. One of my staff recently told me that someone she previously worked for said “you want your employees to be homeowners, not renters,” implying homeowners feel more invested in the organization. An isolationist, task-based workforce of “renters” who view their engagements with their employers merely as transactions can have far reaching implications, from a lack of long-term commitment and staff development, to challenges with being collaboratively innovative and creative.

To highlight the above, a senior partner in a top 15 firm recently shared with me that in a recent staff climate survey, approximately 95 percent of the firm’s staff said they were engaged, yet 40 percent said it wouldn’t take much to get them to leave.

We at the Illinois CPA Society believe that if the profession is to remain relevant, we need to move CPAs beyond compliance services and toward being the most trusted and strategic business advisors to clients and companies. When much of this transition is driven by formal and informal collaboration, how do we successfully move in this direction when we’re experiencing a clear shift in both defining what one’s job entails and securing “homeowners” in our organizations?

While I have my opinion on the long-term impact of a remote workforce, I don’t profess to have the answers. I do strongly believe that, for the CPA profession to remain relevant, it’ll need to provide a higher level of service—service that’s not based on the completion of compliance tasks but service that’s focused on strategic thinking and advice that’s best accomplished through teamwork. Can this be done effectively and efficiently in a remote environment? Only time will tell. I believe the book on the long-term impact of a dramatically changed work environment and culture is still being written.

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