Life as a roaming remote worker
Read time | 10 minutes
Professionals, creators, and innovators from all walks of life are testing the waters of remote work. Those who do it rarely want to change back to conventional office arrangements. According to the inaugural State of Remote Work 2018 survey, 90 percent of remote workers plan on doing it for the remainder of their careers*.
A Gallup survey in 2017 revealed that 43 percent of employed Americans spent at least some time working remotely - a four percent point increase since 2012. Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has revealed that the number of UK workers who have moved into remote working has increased by nearly a quarter of a million over a decade. By 2020, it’s been estimated that half of the UK workforce could be working this way, comprising a large number from the tech-centric Gen Z.
Flexible work comes in many shapes and sizes - from full time home office set-ups to co-working spaces, split shifts to job shares. What’s clear, working remotely is no longer a privilege but increasingly the norm. And it’s becoming ever more popular in the accounting profession.
A lot of conversations around flexible working centre on parents and carers. Yet, juggling caring for dependents and children is not the key rationale suggests a report by TimeWise. Those surveyed rank time for study or leisure, cutting down on commutes, general convenience and more control over work-life balance as reasons why they value flexible arrangements.
Those who do it often report higher productivity and greater job satisfaction. For the firms themselves, the driver is less focused on retention, but more about opening the doors to a diverse, talented pool of professionals. One thing is for sure, there’s definitely been a cultural shift in recent years, led by forward thinking organisations that recognise flexible work arrangements as a strategic and commercial differentiator.
Many Praxity member firms incorporate flexible working into their recruitment strategy - and have done for several decades. In Plante Moran’s case, closer to a century!
“Flexibility was one of Frank Moran’s founding principles. Way back then he appreciated the importance of work life balance,” highlights the firm’s HR Director Diana Verdun.
Plante Moran today offers multiple arrangements, from remote telecommuting, to part-time hours, flex-time, condensed hours or staggered time between home, office and client sites. While some professionals transition into flexible roles over time, negotiating arrangements with team leaders, others, like Senior Manager Nicole Simpkinson, are hired on a flexible working contract.
“Our firm doesn’t regard flexibility as a reward for long service,” adds Diana. “It’s our strategy to recruit the best and brightest talent nationwide. Yet this doesn’t limit us to employing people that live in the four states where we have offices.”
Currently, Plante Moran has people dispersed across 22 states, with an even split of male and female telecommuters.
Agility underpins Mazars’ approach to flexible work. It involves empowering people to work where and how they choose. The relocation of its head office in the Netherlands in 2016 provided Mazars with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new way of collaborating. The concept was replicated during the refit of the London office in 2017.
"I wanted to be in an environment that was modern for a working mum. It used to be about pay and pensions, but employees now place a lot of value on a flexible working environment. I think it builds loyalty if done well."
For Mazars Partner Sarah Lord, agile working was the key attraction when she joined the firm 18 months ago.
Making it work
Anyone that has experience of flexible working will tell you, it’s not just about where you work, but how you manage your time and resources to maintain that utopian work life balance. What suits one person, might not work for another.
The flexible working style agrees with Alice Grey Harrison, Director of Corporate Communications at DHG, who can be travelling several days a week. She offsets this with a couple of home office days each month. Alice Grey explains: “The quiet of home can be a real gift when I need creative concentration. I’m disciplined and productive with my time, often starting early in the morning. This then affords me some valuable time to enjoy fun moments with my daughter, compensating for the time I’m away.”
For Senior Communications Specialist at Plante Moran Kristin Lynn, recouping almost a full working day every week by avoiding the daily three-hour round trip to the office alleviates pressure. “I’m in the office with regularity, but work from home two days a week. During this time I find that I can crank through tasks with minimal interruptions. It’s the best of both worlds,” comments Kristin.
Some may consider being 2,300 miles away from an office just too unrealistic. But for Seattle-based Nicole, technology makes it work. Hired by Plante Moran as a telecommuter, it was her first experience of flexible working in her 25 year career. Nearly five years on she is a flex work convert, dividing her time equally between client sites and her technologically advanced home office.
“One of my early concerns flagged with my Partner was how being so removed from the Michigan office and lack of visibility would affect my personal growth plans,” comments Nicole. This ‘out of sight out of mind’ apprehension was addressed by developing an exposure plan with her Partner, which they revisit constantly. It details everything from colleagues Nicole should introduce herself to and how to resolve client issues, to meeting with new recruits and goals to accomplish.
“When you are removed from the water cooler conversations and spontaneous activities, it’s important to make a conscious effort to build and maintain relationships with teammates,” advises Nicole. When colleagues visit Seattle, Nicole will go out of her way to arrange breakfast or dinner meetings.
“I’ve also learned that it’s okay to toot your own horn when merited, to share your accomplishments with the team,” adds Nicole.
Alice Grey agrees, pointing out that everyone on the team needs to be on-board and facilitate an inclusive team spirit. “That way water cooler conversations and decisions don’t occur in a bubble.”
"I’m in the office with regularity, but work from home two days a week. During this time I find that I can crank through tasks with minimal interruptions. It’s the best of both worlds."
Kristin Lynn, Plante Moran
The three Ts
Trust, technology and teamwork are required in equal measure if flexible working is to be successful. Plante Moran’s remote work philosophy focuses on the ART of flexibility – Accountability, Reliability and Transparency.
Previously, there may have been a tendency or belief to justify commitment to the company by racking up the hours. “While this might have been true in the late 90s when there was little formality to flexible work arrangements, I would hope that this pressure has been addressed through leadership training and improved transparency,” comments Diana.
Nicole affirms that she has never encountered pressure from peers or partners. “Plante Moran’s fair, clear and transparent culture drew me to the firm. Providing we are pleasing the client and people feel valued, I don’t believe it matters where people are located.”
Sarah Lord adds: “A lot of it does come down to trust and people recognising that if they’re not working they will get found out. If a business is very open, people aren’t thinking ‘where’s Sarah?’ when something’s popped up with the kids.”
"Plante Moran’s fair, clear and transparent culture drew me to the firm. Providing we are pleasing the client and people feel valued, I don’t believe it matters where people are located."
Nicole Simpkinson, Plante Moran.
Managing people’s expectations
Part of the transparency conversation when team members work flexibly involves defining when people are available and sticking to these expectations. Alice Grey explains: “It’s really important in today’s world to be able to offer flexibility to accommodate different life stage demands. Success truly is dependent on communication and defining expectations.”
When one of Alice Grey’s team members moved to a reduced schedule they together developed mutually agreed upon office hours. “I have committed not to bother her outside of these hours and she has agreed to be fully present during her office time. This helps both of us be on the same page and level-sets expectations on both sides,” she explains.
Trust is a core value at DHG, continues Alice Grey and it does go both ways: “We find that when we demonstrate trust for our team members, they in-turn reciprocate the same level of trust.”
Having trust in people’s efficiency and productivity also means equipping them with all the latest technology and communication tools. Social media, video conferencing, screen sharing, instant messaging and SharePoint are standard fare for the remote worker.
Nicole’s favourite is Instant Messenger, as there’s normally an answer in five minutes. Alice Grey agrees, explaining: “It’s like popping your head into someone’s office to ask a quick question. While it does eliminate some of the face-to-face small talk, it is very efficient.”
"It’s really important in today’s world to be able to offer flexibility to accommodate different life stage demands. Success truly is dependent on communication and defining expectations."
Alice Grey Harrison, DHG.
The productivity effect
Video conferencing can be especially useful to counteract the feelings of loneliness, which the State of Remote Work 2018 survey revealed as the biggest concern among remote workers. Thankfully, technology can help to maintain team cohesion. Alice Grey likes Zoom video conferencing as she says it enable the team to feel as though we are together even when we are far apart.
To avoid cabin fever, Nicole frequently takes her laptop and continues her tasks at a local café. “It provides a change of scenery when I need it,” she says. Her team also use casual communication tools like Yammer to stay in touch.
For leaders on the fence, there’s also definitive data to prove that remote working can be more productive. A two year Stanford study revealed a productivity boost among telecommuters equivalent to a full day's work each week. Many participants also cited fewer distractions. Additionally, employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off.
For many remote workers, having just a seven second walk to a home study is productive in itself. Large numbers often start work far earlier than they would in a corporate setting.
Nicole’s case, a 5.00 am start suits her body and productivity clock and also accommodates her east coast client needs. Following an intense burst of work, she then intentionally breaks up the day with some exercise. “Rather than powering on through, this helps me recharge, giving me another burst of energy for the back half of the day when I might be dealing with west coast clients.”
“The ability to accommodate different work styles rather than trying to fit tasks into a 9-5 box is one of the key advantages of flexible working. It can also be helpful for people working in areas like tax and audit where there are peaks and valleys in workloads,” adds Diana.
Even if working remotely isn’t a constant arrangement, it’s important not to isolate yourself and seek support. Firms like Plante Moran often have working groups that can provide valuable tips and resources to help people figure out the balance that works for them.
As for the stigma that remote and flexible workers are ‘taking a day off’ nothing could be further from the truth, says Alice Grey. “How we approach our workday is changing and we are adapting to these changes by making flexibility part of our culture. DHG has an ‘Energy for Life’ program. It teaches us how to manage and maintain our energy so that we give DHG our best work, which in turn gives us the energy to focus on the things that matter the most to us.”
Regardless of gender, mental well-being or age, flexible working has clearly become embedded in the profession’s culture. While some enterprises might still be concerned that, unwatched, employee output might suffer, the opposite is usually the case. Migrating to a mode of work where happiness and motivation are stronger is surely a big tick for productivity.
“Gone are the days of 'presenteeism'. Firms need to embrace flexible working if they want to attract and retain talent.”
Mazars Partner Sarah Lord.
If you wish to take a closer look at the 'State of Remote Work 2018 Report: What It’s Like to be a Remote Worker in 2018' survey referenced in the article above, please follow the link below.