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Telecommuting, an option for improving the CPA's work environment.

CPAs have come to rely on computers to perform routine accounting functions, tax planning and return preparation, forecasting, and audit testing. While these uses remain dominant for now, employing computers as communication tools is fast becoming a practice necessity. Many CPAs use networks and modems to transmit and access data -- electronic mail and thousands of databases. This allows access to information, clients, and co-workers when working in a remote location.

The combination of computers as communication devices and the growing need for flexible working hours will lead to increased telecommuting within the accounting profession. Telecommuters have been defined to be part- or full-time employees who regularly use computers and telecommunications equipment to work at home or at a designated remote site at least one day a week.

The Advent of Telecommuting

Telecommuting as a job option has grown considerably since the 1980s. Some companies, such as IBM, undertook pilot programs to determine the feasibility of telecommuting, while other businesses began offering the option of working off-site with computer linkups. Historically, about 80% of telecommuters have worked for companies with fewer than 100 employees. The fastest growing programs are now in very small businesses -- those with less than 10 employees -- and in companies with more than 100 employees.

Not all jobs lend themselves to telecommuting. Studies have shown that output tasks based on relatively self-contained jobs producing specific pieces of work, such as the work product of accountants, are most suitable for telecommuting. Despite the relative absence of telecommuters in accounting firms, many factors noted by businesses adopting telecommuting, e.g., employee turnover, the Family and Medical Leave Act, overhead costs, and use of non-peak computer hours, are also present within the accounting profession.

Balancing work and family commitments has become increasingly important to both men and women in the profession, especially younger employees. Many firms have already addressed requests from employees for flex time or temporary part-time schedules to accommodate child care or health needs. For the most part these requests are handled individually; although a growing number of firms have adopted policies addressing these needs. Some firms find that allowing employees at all levels to occasionally arrange part of their work time as telecommuters may be an effective way to reduce costs, improve the workplace quality of life, and eliminate unnecessary turnover of valued workers.

Advantages of Telecommuting

Telecommuting can provide significant improvements to workplace quality of life for both employees and employers. Telecommuting can serve as an alternative to the Family and Medical Leave Act because it allows an employee who might otherwise take unpaid leave to earn a paycheck while working at home. Employer benefits range from lower overhead costs to improved employee morale and retention. Telecommuting has enabled employers to improve their achievement of affirmative action goals, facilitating employment for disabled workers, and assisting women in returning to work following maternity leave.

Employers utilizing telecommuting customarily note that improved productivity and lower overhead costs, such as reduced office rents and use of non-peak computer hours, are significant advantages for their businesses. In fact, improvements in productivity are the most frequency reported outcomes of telecommuting programs. Surveys have reported business productivity gains between 10% and 100%, with the average being 30%. Some reasons are telecommuting employees work at times of day when they are most productive, they tend to finish projects ahead of schedule, and they often work for longer periods of time without interruptions. Employees working at home are often more available for consultations with their clients and supervisors by phone or by e-mail than they are when working in the office. Of course, not all job responsibilities can be performed away from the office, and on-site visits with clients will continue to be an important and necessary service. Nonetheless, accounting firms may benefit significantly by using telecommuting to expand the work options of their employees.

The costs of losing an experienced employee and recruiting and training a new worker are well known in accounting firms, where continuing education programs can be very costly. As a result, telecommuting is one option now seriously considered by firms wishing to retain valued employees. For example, KPMG Peat Marwick announced its intention to offer flexible work schedules and work at home options to all of its full-time employees. Other firms are examining these options as well.

Getting Started

Adopting telecommuting requires commitments from both employer and the employee. The firm must have adequate computer technology and equipment capabilities; it must identify appropriate tasks and employees to perform those tasks; and, it must possess or establish a support structure for telecommuting within the firm.

Many accounting firms already have much of the necessary computer equipment, including modems, fax machines, and CD-ROM equipment, making the capital outlay minimal. Many accountants already own computers and modems for home use, and other home products needed for telecommuting are widely available and easily installed. Once the necessary equipment is in place, the employer must identify the appropriate tasks and the employees to perform those tasks. Some jobs lend themselves to working off-site, such as write-up work, tax return preparation, and computer data testing in off-peak hours. Other assignments, such as financial statement audits and consulting, require extensive client interaction and are less suitable for telecommuting, although certain aspects of these jobs can be done off-site. Protecting the security of client data is a major concern when identifying the tasks to be done at a remote location.

Management Must Buy In

Unless management believes in the benefits of telecommuting and supports it, even on a limited basis, telecommuting will likely fad. The support structure requires that managers and supervisors be sufficiently trained in overseeing work assignments and performing evaluations of workers they do not see every day. Organizations that dropped telecommuting as a work option usually cite poor management and inadequate communication between managers and telecommuters as the primary reasons. Initially, many accounting firms may choose to implement the program, selectively offering the option to those employees best suited for the arrangement.

Employees working as telecommuters should have certain skills and experience. They must have technical skills; possess good communication, organizational, and computer skills; and be self-directed and self-starting. They must also have earned the confidence of clients, co-workers, and management. It would be rare to have interns or staff people with less than supervisory experience as telecommuters, although para-professionals preparing tax returns might be an exception.

Most telecommuters need to maintain core times for availability to clients, co-workers, and supervisors. They may also need to spend more time in the office or at client locations during peak seasons, while increasing their telecommuting in slower months. Finally, an employee must want to be a telecommuter. Researchers have found that the most successful telecommuters are those that choose the option because it allows them to combine work with another valued goal, such as pursuing a graduate degree or caring for a child or parent. Studies have shown that employees place a high value on having the flexibility to attend a class or visit a child's school during the day whole completing their work assignments at alternate times convenient to their employers.

Costs of Telecommuting

Despite many advantages, telecommuting does have associated costs. For firms that lack adequate hardware, software, or experience in computer applications and communication packages, startup costs can be significant. Equipment maintenance and insurance must also be considered. Firms that do not yet own the necessary equipment and programs, however, must weigh the additional costs against the benefits of retaining experienced employees who might otherwise leave due to inflexible work options.

To determine whether telecommuting is a viable option, a firm might wish to implement a pilot program starting in its nonpeak months. Most pilot programs between 6 and 18 months. Pilot programs help to determine what additional training and equipment are needed, the associated costs, and the most appropriate work to be performed away from the firm and client offices. Employees participating in a pilot program should be volunteers, with sufficient experience and training in accounting, computer, and interpersonal skills. At the end of the pilot program, employee attitudes, changes in productivity, and other benchmarks should be measured and evaluated by management.

From an employee's perspective, telecommuting means becoming proficient in the accounting, tax, computer, and communication programs used by the firm. Because learning these programs is generally considered to be part of their job training, most employees do not view these requirements unfavorably.

More important costs may lie in the personalities and perceptions of the employees themselves. If an employee feels isolated, misses the social and professional interaction with colleagues, fears being overlooked for raises and promotions, or experiences conflict at home over the use of space and time for work, then he or she may choose not to be a telecommuter or may do so only periodically. Telecommuting is not the best option for everyone.

Resistance to Change

Perhaps the most significant problem that firms may encounter in implementing telecommuting is resistance to change by partners and managers. Most partners and managers are already experienced in overseeing employees on- and off-site and handling several clients at one time -- the supervision of telecommuters should be similar to current practice.

Perceived loss of control and failure to trust employees working at home may be large hurdles to overcome in some firms, even when the benefits outweigh the costs. This attitude may be exacerbated in firms that perceive women as being the most likely employees to choose telecommuting as a work option, due to child-care responsibilities. Despite the fact that at least 50% of the college accounting graduates for the last several years have been women, attitudes toward women as employees have been somewhat slow to change. For example, in a recent survey of CPAs by the New York State Society of CPAs' Advancement of Women in the Accounting Profession Committee, nearly 40% of managing partners responding said they felt firms should not have to change to meet the needs of women CPAs. Fortunately, most CPAs do not share this opinion, and the significant increase in women CPAs in the last decade and the creation of high-level committees to address their needs suggest that firms will want to find ways in which to retain experienced women employees. Interestingly, a 1992 study showed that telecommuters were slightly more likely to be male than female, although the actual mix varied by company.

The real problem may be the perception that those working at home part of the time are not as dedicated or hardworking as those spending all of their time at the office or with clients. If this attitude persists, the telecommuter may indeed risk receiving slower promotions or losing them altogether. For example, a recent internal study conducted by Deloitte & Touche found that, despite the existence of flex time programs within the firm, the firm lacked an environment that supported these programs. Consequently, many employees felt that choosing a flex time option would have a significantly adverse effect on their careers, and few were willing to take that risk.

Management can help to reduce the resistance to alternative work options such as telecommuting by 1) identifying the job assignments best suited for telecommuting, 2) establishing core times when telecommuters must be available for client or co-worker consultations, 3) setting policies as to the number of days per week to be spent at home 4) reducing or eliminating telecommuting as an option during busy season if this is suitable for the firm, and 5) making telecommuting an option available to male and female employees once they have mastered sufficient technical, computer, and organizational skills. Yet even with these steps, the bottom line remains that telecommuting will succeed only with the support of management. If the partners are supportive, the rest of the firm will likely follow suit.
COPYRIGHT 1995 New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants
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Title Annotation:The CPA Manager
Author:Theisen, Barbara A.
Publication:The CPA Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1995
Words:1962
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