Editor: Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M.
If you have been leading a tax practice for any length of time, you know the pace of change is relentless, with constant and often last-minute developments in regulations and the Code, rapid-fire technological advancements, and ever-accelerating market and client demands.
Today, you are also likely to be managing a shift to a remote, or at least hybrid, work environment. That is, you are navigating the future of work right now.
As a leader, you must be several things you might not have envisioned when you were just starting your career — a change agent, an innovator, and an adept people manager. Of course, you must do all this without compromising the quality of the service you provide.
Most tax leaders understand the formidable issues they are facing. BDO’s 2022 Tax Outlook Survey, which polled 150 senior tax executives of middlemarket companies, asked leaders to name their top five personal challenges. Not surprisingly, staying abreast of the latest regulatory developments was at the top of the list, but it tied for the No. 1 spot with managing a workforce that is at least partially remote. The remaining top challenges were people- and technology-related. Using new technologies, tools, and techniques was followed by finding and retaining talented people. Rounding out the list was the increasing volume of work and continually higher expectations.
There are no simple solutions to these challenges. However, at BDO we have formed and refined a point of view over the course of several years that addresses remote work specifically but is also suited to accommodate the many evolutionary shifts leaders are grappling with in this new world of work.
It all starts with a mindset that expects and embraces change. To be a leader today, you must accept the fact that everything will continue to shift and advance. Your approach, and the tools you use, must also constantly evolve — not only to keep up but to stay in the forefront.
To get this evolution right, organizations should focus on two complementary business drivers: culture and innovation. Thoughtfully cultivating both drivers is especially important to unlock and fully benefit from a remote or flexible workplace strategy. It helps tax executives develop a more productive, engaged, and creative workforce. This, in turn, can help the organization to realize tax savings, advance transparency, and model what the future may hold for the business. It also elevates the department itself, allowing it to serve as a strategic adviser to the C-suite.
Culture comes first
Culture comes first in this discussion because it is the foundation — a constant touchstone with a fixed set of values in an ever-changing environment. Culture is the key to building a sustainable business that always understands its purpose — its “why” — even as the organization continually updates and refines how it conducts business.
Trust is a central leadership philosophy at our firm. We employ smart, purpose-driven people, and we trust and empower them to achieve exceptional outcomes for their teams and their clients. We also make it clear that we depend on one another. No endeavor is an individual effort. While establishing this level of trust takes time and dedication, it is worth the effort. It fosters a sense of belonging and helps a culture weather the inevitable challenges that arise.
Accountability and a commitment to quality go hand in hand. Our professionals are committed to being part of a best-in-class organization because they know it provides opportunities for their continued growth. They are accountable to their clients and to one another. We are particularly proud that our culture encourages healthy dialogue and a spirit of ownership that supports quality work, no matter where that work is done.
Getting trust and accountability right allows us to advance our flexibility strategy. Over a decade ago, well before the pandemic, BDO began embracing flexibility as a key element of our culture and a powerful operational lever. We knew then, as we know now, that it helps us attract and retain the best talent and creates space for innovative thinking.
Because everyone has unique needs and responsibilities, flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It gives our people the power to decide where and how they work, based on their responsibilities to their clients and the firm. As a leadership team, we are focused on the outcomes of the work. We prefer guidelines — or guardrails — to rigid workplace rules.
When the pandemic required our firm to switch to remote work indefinitely, our people were able to pivot quickly. The hard work our professionals had put into developing a culture of trust, accountability, and flexibility paid off. Our teams rose to the challenge because we had a cultural frame of reference for our work.
Addressing the challenges of a virtual culture
When leaders prioritize culture, the outcome is a more inclusive and resilient environment in which people can do their best work both in person and in a remote setting. That said, there are differences when you have a team that is partially or fully remote. One of the biggest hurdles is nurturing the same type of interpersonal connection that is naturally cultivated in person.
We recommend proactively identifying and addressing the ways a leadership team can continue to foster the connections critical to their organization’s operations. At BDO, we are focused on three broad buckets: teaming, training, and coaching.
Many tax departments have locations in multiple cities or regions. It is important to encourage teams to gather in both virtual and physical spaces to share dialogue, brainstorm solutions, and simply spend time together — what we refer to as “teaming.” At BDO, we have introduced teaming hours where small groups meet in virtual rooms to collaborate on projects — just as if they had booked a conference room for a half-day. We have also been intentional about bringing back live meetings and client events when that forum is most suited to the opportunity.
With respect to training, we recognize the need to help people develop their skills in a variety of learning environments. Virtually, that generally means more frequent but less extensive development sessions using a self-study or virtual collaboration model. In-person connection will still at times help facilitate more rapid and nuanced understanding. Much of this learning has shifted, however, from large-scale conferences to smaller group settings that allow for a more customized participant experience.
Coaching may be the most important item on this list, as organizations must be invested in the development of their professionals to thrive. In a virtual environment, there are fewer opportunities for a sit-down lunch or a spontaneous chat in the hallway. No one stops by your office anymore, so you cannot save feedback for those interactions. You need to deliver it without delay, by intentionally scheduling a time to talk. That is why we are leveraging more immediate virtual coaching to complement live models, rather than try to replicate live coaching in a virtual space.
Intentionality is key to making any type of flexible work arrangement operate effectively. There is power and agility in virtual work environments, but the natural connection that comes with in-person meetings is not always easily replicated. It is important to deliberately schedule events, trainings, and check-ins for your teams at critical junctures in virtual settings. Thoughtfully considering your team’s professional development and personal well-being will make all the difference in the adoption of a remote model.
Innovate, innovate, innovate
Prioritizing innovation is our second recommendation for leaders looking to optimize a remote work experience. The truth is that you are unlikely to solve new challenges with old solutions. Great organizations — those that outperform and outlast their peers — encourage their people to experiment and find better ways to accomplish their goals. These organizations are also good at harnessing those ideas and bringing them into a testing environment. Once they validate their innovations, these companies know how to scale them for maximum benefit.
Our tax department has benefited because innovation has long been a strategic priority of the firm, and leadership has consistently maintained a high level of investment in technology and training for our own digital transformation.
The key is being thoughtful about the adoption and deployment of the tools enabling transformation. In recent years, we have established a strategic framework to drive our efforts in tax technology. The linchpin is the holistic approach we have taken to adopt technologies that align with our department goals: a commitment to quality and the needs of our clients, and an assurance that these tools will perform in a virtual environment to allow for more real-time interaction and delivery around the work product.
In BDO’s 2021 Tax Outlook survey, tax leaders said their top priority was to transform the tax function for greater efficiency and better insights. Those investments appear to be having an impact. In the 2022 survey, 49% of respondents said tax technology provided more accurate reporting capabilities, and 45% said it provided increased visibility into total tax liability.
Tax leaders are on the right track with their investments. They are optimizing productivity, addressing capacity constraints, and freeing up talented professionals for higher-level analysis and thinking. As part of that planning and investment, if your organization or department plans to embrace remote work, make sure that the tools you choose can operate outside the office for more efficiency and flexibility, and to ensure business continuity during disruptive moments.
While selecting the right tools is important, prioritizing the combination of culture and innovation will further bolster your strategy. Although 97% of tax executives plan to invest in tax technology this year, these same executives recognize that training is not only a priority but also a challenge. As they said in the survey, training their teams to use available technology tools and processes is the No. 1 challenge for the tax department. Cultivating a culture of change is necessary for a successful remote environment in which both your people and clients thrive.
As we seek to operate more efficiently and effectively in every environment, the interplay between culture and innovation becomes ever more critical. As leaders, we need to make the investment to understand what tools will most align with our organizational culture and goals and invest the time, resources, and human capital to ensure that adoption occurs in a way that maximizes the return on the investment.
The future is bright when culture and innovation align
Our advice to fellow leaders in the tax profession is this: Do not just accept the changes happening in our world — embrace them. There is much to gain.
Technologically, more tools and resources are at your disposal than even a few years ago. When used properly and effectively, they will enhance the quality of your work. When you master the flexible, virtual approach, your clients will thank you. You will get more done in less time, and you will have more capacity for strategic thinking and advice. As you push forward, however, remember that this is much more than a digital transformation. It is a cultural transformation, with opportunities to build an organization that fosters inclusivity and personal and professional growth. When you get that right, your people will thank you. More than that, you will continue to build a cultural foundation that can adapt and thrive as new advancements are introduced.
As you engage and plan with your leadership teams in the upcoming year, boldly knock down barriers to innovation while promoting a culture of shared ownership and trust among everyone in the organization. These two drivers will be foundational for companies successfully navigating the new world of work, especially for those embracing a remote workplace model.
Matthew K. Becker, CPA, is national managing partner of tax with BDO USA in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. Catherine Moy, CPA, is chief people officer with BDO USA in Boston. Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M., is director of the Tax Services Group at Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La., and chair of the Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.