Telecommuting: the virtual practice?

Introduction

It’s a warm and sunny day here at the Gabba.  The first day’s play is under way and at lunch time the game is evenly poised.  There’s some good cricket to come, and there’s an air of anticipation amongst us true cricket tragics – what will this series bring?  Will Australia win this battle of willow and leather?  Although possibly another question is more relevant at the moment, dear reader:  why is this discussion relevant?  Well, it probably isn’t, but I just wanted to highlight that I am at the start of the game – the Ashes.

Nevertheless, in a desperate attempt to relate that introduction to the topic of this blog entry, I will point out that I am surrounded by a whole bunch of people that are also skiving off work.  Sorry; ‘taking a leave day’.  There’s a row of about ten of us here – and we’re all diligently checking our Blackberries, iPhone, or Android smartphones for those urgent messages.  Admittedly, for the spectator seated next to me it is mostly to receive an electronic shellacking, as England aren’t going so well to start with.  Well, almost all of us are using their smartphones.  In my case, it’s my very nerdy Kindle, since the battery in my iPhone ran out by the lunch break.  But the fact that you can skive off at the cricket, and still cover off at least some of your work, shows the extent of the mobility today’s technology affords us.

This technology is now affordable; once this ability was limited to multi-national corporations, Big 4 accounting firms, and enthusiastic fourteen-year-olds needing to keep tabs on their Everquest account.  Now, though, this technology is relatively cheap, and the smallest organisation can have mobile road warriors.  Wherever you are – the kitchen table, the board room table, or even at the bar at the Gabba, apparently – can be your office of the moment.

What is this called – other than creative and demonstrably purposeful skiving off?  Well, officially it’s called teleworking – we know it more as telecommuting:  the ability to connect and do work whenever and wherever we are.  Of course, some of us when we are in our cups might tend to have another phrase to use when we see that little Blackberry light flashing to indicate yet another ‘urgent’ email.  From experience, I can tell you that that little light is handy to have when you are trying to find the Blackberry you just threw into the bushes in exasperation.

Mobile technology tools and support are needed to allow telecommuting to take place – iPads, Citrix, Smartphones and so on.  The technology tools are there to be used and they are accessible to any practice.  The opportunities are real.  The work of the accountant is tailor-made for telecommuting and the virtual office.  Even in public practice – where we do have clients we have to see! – a fair chunk of our work is just us, our computer screen, and a cup of bad coffee.  I can make bad coffee anywhere, and I can do client work anywhere, really.  Opportunities for increases in productivity, better access to information, and a flexible workforce, are there to be gained.  Challenges exist too, including team cohesion, security and the all-important ‘work-life balance’.  These opportunities and challenges are central to the theme of this blog entry, with some conclusions provided that you might like to think about when adopting telecommuting in your practice.

The opportunities of telecommuting

The best telecommuting tools allow you to respond better to information requests from clients.  A simple fix to a tax return, or a modification to a letter before it goes out, can be dealt with while commuting (on public transport; the law may differ in your state, but it’s usually highly illegal to telecommute and drive at the same time).  I have it on good authority – my brother-in-law – that an iPad is easy to set up with Citrix, so you can access all the software you need when you are out and about.  You can approve client proposals, fee letters, and answer those email tasks wherever you are.  This is a good thing, of course, and means that that valuable face-to-face time in the office isn’t spent buried up to your neck in answering tedious emails.

The same technologies allow you to work from home just as easily.  Several partners in accounting firms I know have foregone the laptop for the Blackberry or iPhone.  They have a desktop computer at home which they can work on if they want, and the Smartphone when they are out and about.  This is good, because laptops are actually the bane of all occupational health and safety concerns.  Your spine will thank you for not lugging around that laptop – although on the flip side that role as Quasimodo won’t be so easy to get at your local amateur theatre company.

Having this information available at your fingertips means so much to you too.  All client files can be made available at low cost on these devices – at least through that Citrix option. All client letters – any client letters – working papers are available when you are out and about.  No more need to say, ‘I’ll check that when I get back to the office’ – the question can be answered there and then.  That’s the sort of thing that clients appreciate – a straight answer, no prevarication.  Even if the answer isn’t the answer they wanted.

This of course means too that you can do things like enter your timesheets into the practice management system – assuming it’s compatible – when you’re at the client’s premises.   If you have it electronically, you can access the information wherever you are.

A key benefit, though, arising from telecommuting is the flexible workforce you can support.  This just might be key to retaining or recruiting staff members that need this flexibility to help them balance their busy lives.  When I was (much) younger and had no children, I had little conception of how much flexibility I was gong to need.  I had visions that children were always well and were perfectly happy to go to daycare 11 hours a day, every day.

Then I had children and I must admit to having a paradigm shift without a clutch.  I now dread the pronouncements that doctors make from time to time:  ‘She has hand foot and mouth disease – she can’t go to daycare for a week’, or even worse, ‘you now have hand foot and mouth disease – you can’t go to work for another week’.  Seriously, children complicate lives – often at short notice and with little respect for the commitments you’ve made to clients.  Telecommuting allows current staff members to be effective at home when these pronouncements have been made.  It also allows people to be flexible in their regular leaving hours.  Many people are ‘day extenders’ who might leave work early to pick up the kids from school or daycare, and then log in later that night to address those smaller tasks that can be done from home.

And flexibility isn’t just appreciated by parents – if the unchilded can leave a little early on a Friday to catch a music gig, and catch up on their work over the weekend, this too is appreciated.  And anyone who has ever battled traffic congestion to be at the office by 8.30am will appreciate a telecommuting morning before coming into the office now and then.  Newly minted CPAs are increasingly expecting to have the same technologies available in their working life that they had available all during their high school and university training – and are aghast to not find the same options available when they hit the work force.  For people that have become used to having the technologies available at university, the look on their first day of work is how I would have looked if I had been presented with a slide rule, an abacus, and a green pen when I graduated in 1991.

There are also a whole cohort of perfectly qualified accountants who cannot make the commitment to work full time because of their parenting responsibilities.  These accountants are usually keen to get part-time work – but these roles are made more difficult if there is an expectation of being on-site by 9am until 3pm.  Many of these people would like the challenging work public practice can provide – but can’t make the commitment for those hours.  Telecommuting allows these people to be productive, be flexible with their hours, and the loyalty engendered by this opportunity can be very high.  Besides, it allows the practice to avoid all those costs associated with having a new desk for that person – even if you have to regularly courier working papers to people working from home, it will still be cheaper than providing a desk at work.

The challenges of telecommuting

There are dangers to think about though when it comes to telecommuting.  Maybe not the same dangers as skydiving into an apiary wearing only beachwear and honey-scented deodorant, but there are challenges to think about such as team cohesion, security, and that all-elusive ‘work-life balance’.

Team cohesion can become unstuck if you do decide to give the ‘virtual office’ a go.  People being what they are, telecommuting can create issues between team members.  This is particularly so if ‘telecommuting’ is considered a ‘bit of a bonus’.  Tensions arise.  In my former practice, a staff member traded off salary for extra leave entitlements and leaving at 4pm.  Even though she had ‘traded’ her salary for these benefits and regularly telecommuted after 7pm, a general undercurrent of office gossip was unhelpful and uncomfortable.  This challenge needs to be addressed through clear understanding of the commitment and responsibility required for telecommuting, and good job design to ensure that telecommuting does not create perceptions of extra work by other team members.

There is also the issue that having staff members telecommute lessens that ephemeral quality, esprit de corps – you may no longer feel like a part of the team if you are working from the kitchen table.  This may mean that loyalty to the practice – or even the mundane friendships that form around the water cooler – is reduced.  Staff members that never come into the office, who never speak to each other, and whose only interaction with their peers is via email and instant messaging, may be more tempted to leave and join competitors.  At the least, they may be tempted to solve problems without referring to their colleagues and thus missing vital solutions.  This issue can be addressed by setting out expectations around physical presence in the office – perhaps Tuesdays and Fridays, between 11am and 2pm, when all staff should be in the office.

Security represents another challenge.  Having all that information at your fingertips can make you drunk with power (or is that only me?), but you will be sick to the stomach if you leave your iPhone with access to all the practice’s data in the back of a taxi.  Fortunately iPhones have a ‘Find my iPhone’ feature, and can be set to reformat if the security PIN is not entered correctly.  These options are important, as the data these smartphones can store is monumental.  When I started work we had a 40mb disk to share the work of a team of 10 people.  Today, my iPhone will store 32 gigabytes of data alone.  That’s a lot of client correspondence, and it’s a lot of data.  That data might also be accessible to unauthorised users if the technologies used to access the data are not robust.  Concerns about security can increase the costs of telecommuting very quickly.  Implementation of a secure Virtual Private Network, encryption of stored data, and passwords for mobile devices are just the start of the technical aspects to address this challenge.

If your data is very confidential, or very valuable, then there are sound reasons not to adopt telecommuting, particularly where the data can end up in uncontrolled environments.  However it is fair to say that most organisations do not have data confidentiality requirements that are so extreme as to preclude telecommuting – perhaps, though, staff members need to know what data can be accessed offsite and what data should not.  The challenge of information security needs to be addressed through training programs and technical measures to ensure security of access and distribution of the practice’s valuable data.

The final challenge to consider is work-life balance.  The opportunity for productivity gains that is provided by telecommuting comes at a cost – the mobile road warrior is available any time, any place, and can easily feel overwhelmed, and so available at all times, that they are constantly ‘wired’ and unable to switch off from work.  Although there might be short-term benefits from a productivity perspective, in the longer term this effort can lead to staff stress and burnout.

It is best for the company to ensure that the telecommuting tools do not result in this employee stress.  Addressing this challenge requires clear guidelines around the use of these telecommuting tools – including when and how to respond to requests.  Obviously there will always be times when it’s ‘all hands on deck’ to get tasks done, but when telecommuting becomes the standard approach to work there are real potential problems to consider.  In addition to usage guidelines, awareness training and knowing when it is appropriate to telecommute, and when it isn’t.  Otherwise, there’s a real prospect that people could end up at the cricket, huddled over their blackberries and iphones, like this lot here:

That’s me in the red shirt, iPhone in hand.  I do hope we’re checking the score and not telecommuting.

Your next steps?

So, what to do?  Well, it’s not all upside if you want to adopt telecommuting.  It’s not as costly today as once it was.  The benefits are there, including productivity gains, better access to information, and the ability to provide flexibility to your workforce.  There are challenges though around team cohesion, security, and work life balance.  For some specific practices, the challenges of telecommuting might be excessive.  That’s OK.  Think about the opportunities and the challenges, think about how (and whether) you can make telecommuting work for you.  And take a deep breath, because you’ll need to keep looking at this question as the technologies are always becoming cheaper, and the ‘art of the possible’ with telecommuting is constantly changing.

I leave you with the thought:  do you think that using tools that allow you to access work remotely, wherever and whenever you are, is on the whole a good thing or a bad thing?  And please, share any lessons you’ve learned from being an experienced ‘road warrior’.  I’d particularly like to know if it’s possible to get beer out of a Kindle…

[Endnote:  I cannot believe this match ended in a draw!]

[This blog was written for @cpaaustralia’s Public Practice Community Forum]

1 thought on “Telecommuting: the virtual practice?”

  1. Are people who telecommute ‘losers’?

    As a post-script to this blog post, last weekend I was at a fellow’s place for a bbq. A fellow who by all accounts (his own, as I’d never met him before) is a Quite Successful Bloke. And he made a comment that startled me (it also offended me, but that’s by the by – I won’t go to his bbqs in future and he won’t come to mine 🙂 ).

    As an enthusiastic CPA I’d mentioned this blog post and the wonders that technology provide for telecommuting and work-life balance and flexibility. As I do above, of course, I also mentioned that there are of course dangers.

    He said words to the effect that, ‘I always wonder about these people that go home early on Thursday to pick up their kids or something, and then send an email on Sunday because they’re doing work then. I think those people are losers myself’.

    It was all I could do to not do him harm, as I think that’s very judgmental. But whether he’s right or not, perhaps the point is that some people, particularly in executive, have a perception that the person seeking work/life balance through telecommuting is a ‘loser’. I admit that I don’t think it’s a great idea to extend work through to the Sunday and it was an off-the-cuff comment – but the ‘loser’ tag seems a bit harsh.

    My questions:

    – are people who telecommute ‘losers’?

    – even if they’re not ‘losers’, is it a career-limiting move to ask your boss for flexibility through telecommuting as they might then perceive you as a ‘loser’?

    I’ll leave the blog with those happy thoughts for a while. Us ‘losers’ have gotta go earn a crust.

    Thanks: Micheal Axelsen

    Reply

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