Q. I am concerned about my remote staff’s lack of productivity – Help!?
A. Productivity is not a new or unusual concern among CPA and law firms. However, these days it seems to have created a sense of desperation as partners struggle to understand and manage a remote workforce. Let’s explore this issue in more depth…
I have been asked this question recently more than ever before; what has me scratching my head is the fact that many firms’ staff historically has been often OUT of the office – at client sites or doing fieldwork – so why is there a strong feeling of disconnect NOW … is it because everyone is working remotely? Or have these issues around productivity pestered us pre-Covid? The answer is a little of both. There have always been concerns about productivity – especially since there are a variety of ways to interpret the term and differing opinions that affect productivity statistics.
Interestingly, perhaps because of looming predictions that have us all working from home for the long haul, there is a lack of control about what staff is actually “doing” since they cannot be seen. I will address what is needed to ensure you can effectively track your firm’s profitability – despite their being in a remote workforce. Let’s explore the following key areas:
Additionally, it is often the case that new staff – especially young hires – are subject to an intense period of training (one full week of 8 hour days) and then thrown into fieldwork. No wonder they don’t know what they’re doing – it’s the same with sending a more seasoned professional to a 3-day conference. How much information will they retain – attending 3-4 sessions each day for 3 days and attending a few keynotes? (They usually remember one good story they heard and about 20% from the breakout sessions –TRUE!). It’s more effective to have a self-guided recorded training program that can be reviewed repeatedly for reinforcement of the concepts as well as review sessions. Pre and post audit meetings make much more sense than annual reviews, too. (Coaching on-going is, of course, the best way to develop professionals into their true potential throughout the careers).
Training / Knowledge of the Big Picture – I would suggest that a lack of training – as well as a missing sense and understanding of clearly defined and mutually agreed upon expectations that define success – has been the problem with the firms I work with – for years! Not just since Covid. The biggest problems stem from the lack of understanding of how your firm works – truthfully, many senior staff and soon-to-be partners admit not knowing how other parts of the firm are run, how the different parts work together (tax staff often doesn’t ever work with or know staff from audit, as an example) and many don’t have knowledge of the economics of the firm. Onboarding staff should start with the beginning, then introduce the middle and wrap up training by tying together all the loose ends – resulting in everyone being on the same page in terms of expectations for each new employee and his/her role. In other words, it’s a lack of clarity around painting “the full picture” that is the downside of most firms, as staff are often instructed piece-meal as to do “this” or “that” (i.e. “just try to copy what we did last year as best you can”) as opposed to a complete of understanding of the entire client engagement process.
Transparency around Workflow and Progress
I often find myself coaching leaders of CPA and law firms on how to better manage workflow and decrease the downtime during client engagements. E-mails and phone calls go unreturned for hours or days; so does filling out and sending forms to others for approval. The proper utilization of technology to expedite processes that currently exist is the key to streamlining efforts and educating staff on how things should get done, including how much time it takes to complete engagements – which, in turn, can help firms to better gauge their productivity and profitability and can improve the determination of fees in the future.
I strongly encourage you to invest in and fully utilize technologies / software available to you (the sooner the better). This will be important in the future so choose wisely and commit for the long-haul. Another important item to mention is the often looked opportunity to use technology in working with your clients – everything digital / electronically available for upload and download, shared directories and an ability to see status of workpapers in real time – this should be done internally and externally.
A Culture of Accountability – Progress Reporting Upward & Outward
The last piece of this puzzle is creating a culture of true accountability among your workforce – this may require a shift in the current culture at your firm and may prove to be the most significant improvement you can make to ensure that your firm thrives in years to come. If you are able to educate and inspire all within your firm to establish and focus on shared core values, utilize technology effectively and firm-wide, and empower all staff to demonstrate their value and contribution to ALL – by encouraging communication that explains and illustrates progress in a real time and genuine manner, it will be a game changer. Imagine no more burdensome grueling annual review processes (forms, meetings, goal setting exercises, etc.)! Imagine having a means by which staff report upward (to their supervisors) and when appropriately, outward, to the whole firm, the accomplishments that have been made that contribute to the clients’ successes and/or the firm’s bottom line! It’s very rewarding to watch the magic start to happen …. This requires a finesse of learning what is to be communicated (i.e. the result, not the task performed, the benefit received, not the action taken, etc.). This is the holy grail of professional services as I see it – understanding the true value, often from the perspective of another, as to how and why we do what we do. This can foster a heightened sense of mindfulness which translates into productivity, profitability and an understanding of how things work firm-wide like never before.
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