Keeping Virtual Tax Teams Connected

By Charlotte Frank, CPA, MPA, J.D.

Co-Editors: Michael W. Crisler, CPA, and Steven F. Holub, CPA, MBA

In today's world, a tax professional's workplace can be anywhere, not just at the CPA firm's physical office. This is not a new phenomenon. Tax professionals have been working away from the office at their homes, client sites, and other places for years. The bar has now risen, though, for keeping virtual tax employees feeling connected and just as much a part of the team as those who are in the office. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of both the CPA firm and the virtual tax employees to continue to strive for and achieve high productivity levels, even though all team members are not physically working in the same location. Tax practice leaders and office managers are, therefore, talking not only about their tax return and provision software but are also talking about the technology tools that they are using to manage their virtual tax teams.

Which CPA Firms Are Affected Most

Virtual tax teams are not a key consideration for only larger CPA firms. All CPA firms—whether small, midsize, or large—should expect to experience, if they are not already, an increasing number of tax employees performing at least some of their work remotely. Desire for greater workplace flexibility across the generations, especially with Millennials, and challenges finding qualified tax talent are two primary reasons for the rising prevalence of virtual tax employees.

In many recent studies, workplace flexibility is identified as a strong contributor to employee job satisfaction, stress reduction, and overall retention (see SHRM Foundation, Leveraging Workplace Flexibility for Engagement and Productivity (2014), available at www.shrm.org; EY, Global Generations: A Global Study on Work-Life Challenges Across Generations (2015), available at tinyurl.com/gsftgap). Workplace flexibility refers to the time, location, and manner in which an employee works (Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, Focus on Workplace Flexibility, available at workplaceflexibility.bc.edu). As Millennials (19—35-year-olds in 2016) are now the largest share of the American workforce, slightly exceeding Generation X, according to 2015 Pew Research data (Pew Research Center tabulations of monthly 1995—2015 Current Population Surveys, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series), they are bringing new perspectives regarding the relationship between their work and their personal lives, which is also reshaping the mindsets of some in other generations in the workforce.

At CPA firms, Millennials are challenging the traditional work paradigm of the long hours in the office associated with public accounting, especially during tax season. In particular, they are attempting to dispel the notion that work must be done in the CPA firm's physical workplace or that employees will be most productive in the firm's offices. This view is corroborated in PwC's 2013 NextGen: A Global Generational Study (available at www.pwc.com), where Millennials reported that productivity should not be "measured by the number of hours worked at the office" but instead "by the output of the work performed."

In general, Millennials seem less willing to sacrifice their personal lives and passions to be in the office when the work can still be done outside "in office" time. While flexibility can take on many formal arrangements from a human resources perspective, Millennials, in many cases, are simply trying to influence a new work standard for all at CPA firms, which can directly affect their ability to pursue personal matters—e.g., attend a child's soccer game, work from home, participate in community events, etc.—but still be able to get their work done. For many employees, work and personal time are no longer distinct silos; rather they form an amalgamation that represents the entire person.

Note that this new standard (if it catches on) would apply for ad hoc occurrences of time away from the office. There would still be a need for formal flexible arrangements where an employee requires regularly scheduled times working away from the office or shorter work hours. The CPA firm's physical location as the "workplace" is not being abandoned; it still serves an important role, but the role of that location is being viewed in a new light. How well a CPA firm's tax operational infrastructure is equipped with expanded and different uses of technology can help in bringing about Millennials' and other tax employees' desires for greater workplace flexibility.

According to a recent AICPA survey, 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, during the 2013-14 academic year, master's degrees in accounting awarded increased by 31%, and master's degree hires experienced the most significant growth, with an 11% increase since 2012; however, that may not be sufficient to meet the current needs of CPA firms. With new tax laws taking effect (e.g., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, P.L. 111-148, and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, P.L. 111-147) and related client issues becoming more complex, there is a need for new graduates entering the tax profession to be able to "get up to speed" more quickly—i.e., shorten the learning curve—or upon hire have more advanced education and experience.

Frequently, CPA firm tax recruiters discuss the challenges of finding qualified tax talent and are expanding their tax new hire searches outside their localities. Hence, it is not uncommon for smaller CPA firms to hire tax professionals who live outside the CPA firm's immediate geographical area with the agreement that the person will work remotely the majority of the time. Since these new hires will have very limited time in the CPA's physical office, it is essential to find ways to leverage technology to give these virtual tax employees the access and support they need to perform their jobs most effectively and in the most cost-efficient manner.

Adapting the Tax Operational Infrastructure for Virtual Teams

As with any technology implementation, adapting a CPA firm's tax operation to use virtual teams is not an overnight process. Many technology tools on the market are designed specifically to address the needs of virtual teams. However, preparing for the needs of virtual teams does not involve just investments in new technology; it could also involve changes in how existing tax technology is accessed or made available to employees through the IT system environment. In addition, many key factors and dependencies especially related to IT support, cost/benefit, and security must also be considered. Hence, thoughtful, upfront planning is required.

Firm management should not wait until the start of busy season to recognize the need to provide better support to virtual employees and teams. Doing so could potentially cause additional employee angst at a time when they are generally already feeling pressured due to heavy workloads compressed into a tight time frame. This is especially true for those tax employees who cannot easily get to the firm's physical office, e.g., due to arrangements where the tax employee lives outside the CPA firm's immediate geographical area. Employee productivity, as well as morale, will be lowered if significant time has to be spent, for example, resolving delays in getting access to required files or applications or emailing files from the office network to allow for remote work on a laptop and then emailing files back, or if employees are not able to fully participate in team meetings.

Considering the needs of virtual employees and teams should be inherent in all tax practice operations. Below is a five-point planning checklist for adapting a tax operational infrastructure for virtual employees and teams.

1. Assess the CPA Firm's Current Remote Access

Does the office currently provide secure access to the firm applications used by tax employees (e.g., tax return software and email system) and data (e.g., client tax files) for employees working outside the office server network, e.g., through some type of virtual private network (VPN) technology? Using remote access, are there any limitations compared with what the employee could access if he or she were in the office on the network? From which mobile devices—i.e., laptop, tablet, or smartphone—is the remote access available? Are there any limitations on what access is available depending on the device? Have all employees been issued a firm laptop with the proper installations for remote access? Have all employees been provided appropriate credentials, instructions, and installations for other mobile devices (if applicable) to enable remote access? The answers to these questions will determine potential next steps for devising a plan of action.

If there is a strong desire or need for mobile accessibility on devices beyond laptops within a CPA firm, technology platforms, such as Citrix Worx App ­Gallery, AirWatch, MobileIron, and Good Technology, can assist in delivering secure enterprise-ready mobile applications and content access to employees. Finding the appropriate platform for a CPA firm will depend on a number of factors and capabilities offered by these platforms, such as mobile device types supported, secure email and browser, remote desktop access, network security management, and the suite of applications accessible.

2. Find Out Employees' Desires for Virtual Work and Teaming

Before making any investments in new technology to improve tax employees' ability to work and team up virtually, talk with all the tax employees (not just those on formal flexible arrangement schedules) about their experiences working away from the office. Inquire about any challenges related to performing specific tasks, including any obstacles with current remote access, and any ideas for potential solutions to better enable their communications and improve feelings of connection with the rest of the team.

In discussions with employees about how to improve virtual teaming, make certain to focus on the capabilities—both technology- and nontechnology-related—they would like to have. Avoid eliciting from them simply a list of technology tools they would like to see implemented. This will allow a better understanding of their requirements and ensure their buy-in for any new technology tools or changes to existing technology that would be implemented.

3. Establish a Strategy for More Conducive Virtual Teaming

Define a strategy for improving virtual work and teaming for tax employees based on tax employee input and the firm's current system and technology environment. While the establishment of remote access and technology will play a large role in the strategy, the strategy generally will not be driven solely by systems and technology. Changes to the tax practice processes must also be considered. For example, when commenting about their desires for improved virtual work and teaming, the tax employees may have mentioned changes in how work is assigned, changes to staff meetings, or changes to the manner (or frequency) in which communications occur between team members outside of periodic staff meetings.

4. Research Virtual Team Management Technology Tools

Assemble a small team of tax employees to investigate and compare potential technology tool options based on the requirements for improved virtual work and teaming identified by the full group of tax employees. Engaging in due diligence is essential. Do not be tempted to immediately select the lowest-cost technology options or to select the first technology tool researched. Remember to investigate the capabilities of currently implemented technology tools that the firm chose not to initially enable. Enabling a previously disabled feature on an existing technology tool, such as use of video cameras on laptops, could be a quick win at minimal cost. Also, reach out to peer firms to obtain their experiences with tools used to manage their virtual tax teams.

5. Establish an Implementation Timeline

Assuming there is support for investment and buy-in from the appropriate firm leadership, establish an implementation plan timeline to establish remote access, effect process changes, and implement the selected technology tools. In most cases, all of the changes will not be implemented at once; however, tax employees who see incremental progress will experience a huge boost in feeling connected with one another and in their views of the CPA firm's commitment to their virtual work and teaming experience. Make the full team aware of the implementation timeline and assign champion(s) to promote the process changes and use of the new technology and other improvements.

Technology Tools for Managing Virtual Teams

A system environment that makes it easy to remotely access and navigate to the CPA firm's applications necessary to perform the tax work, such as tax return software, client tax organizers, tax provision software, and data files, is essential to make certain that virtual tax team members can do their assigned work. Beyond that, a host of technology tools on the market can further support virtual team management—to make the work of virtual employees go more smoothly.

For years, virtual teaming options have been mostly limited to teleconferencing. In a meeting where a majority of the participants are together in person, it can sometimes be challenging for the few who are on the phone to stay engaged. During the meeting, remembering to ask for input from team members on the phone or having people on the phone have speaking roles on the meeting agenda can improve engagement. Technology can also help enhance connectivity to content and employee engagement. Overall, before selecting any tool(s) for investment, it is important to seek the advice of all tax employees regarding what specific tasks they would expect technology to make easier and more effective when working and teaming up virtually.

Many vendors of these virtual tools offer free trials and have scaled pricing models (generally based on the number of users) to accommodate the budgets of different size firms. These virtual team management tools are often delivered through secure web- and cloud-hosting environments, but some can also be installed on servers on-site at the CPA firm. The exhibit with the online version of this article, available at thetaxadviser.com/virtual-teams, highlights capabilities for a few of the most common virtual management tools on the market today.

Making the Connection

In summary, it seems that the vendors of many of these virtual management tools have realized that the key to keeping virtual tax teams connected is to allow those employees who are working remotely to be more "present" using available technology. Through advancements in technological capabilities, such as video and audio, real-time chat, shared document creation, and collaborative discussion, vendors are attempting to create "in-person" experiences for employees working remotely. Through technology, the employees can interact with (and sometimes see) each other as if they were together in person. Interestingly, even though there are strong desires and reasons for tax employees to work away from the physical CPA workplace, employees still need and want to be connected to their co-workers, and more advanced technology beyond teleconferencing can help make that connection happen.   

 

Contributors

Michael W. Crisler is a member and the chief manager of Crisler CPA PLLC in Hendersonville, Tenn. Steven Holub is a national director in the Professional Practice Department of Cherry Bekaert LLP in Tampa, Fla., and is a former chairman of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Practice Management Committee. Charlotte Frank is a tax senior manager in Ernst & Young LLP's Tax Performance Advisory practice. For more information on this column, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

Newsletter Articles

SPONSORED REPORT

Keeping client information safe in an age of scams and security threats

A look at the Dirty Dozen tax scams and ways to protect taxpayer information.

PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

Tax software survey

Results of the annual survey are in, as more than 3,800 CPA tax preparers tell how their return preparation software worked for them during this year’s busy season.