Office Spaced

Picture: Joan McGuire

As more employees than ever work from home as a result of Covid-19, one CEO explains how her company thrives in an all-virtual environment. 

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Working from home has been on the rise since 2000 as technologies like cloud software eliminate barriers to telecommuting. According to the US Census, 5.2% of workers in the U.S. worked at home in 2017, up from 3.3% in 2000.

Then Covid-19 changed the world of office work overnight. It may never go back to how it was.      

A survey by consulting firm Gartner found 32% of organizations have now deployed new virtual tools, such as Zoom video conferencing, to facilitate employees working virtually. 

There is reason to think telecommuting might be here to stay. 

One forecast from research firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that employers and employees will recognize the benefits of telecommuting, and that between 25% and 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021, even after the world recovers from the shock of Covid-19.

Kristen Keats, founder and CEO of Breakaway Bookkeeping and Advising, is based in Portland, but that does not mean her employees have to work close by. With staff living across the world from Coimbatore, India to Salt Lake City Keats’s company employs an all-digital model, which might  provide a glimpse into the future of work post-coronavirus. 

“We have been entirely digital for two years now,” says Keats. “The advent of cloud accounting, Quickbooks and programs like it revolutionized the bookkeeping industry because they were able to connect accounting systems with banking systems.”

Working from home benefits the environment by reducing emissions from employees driving to the office. Keats says having an online office also allows for more independence and flexibility for employees to create their own schedules, not to mention time saved by eliminating commuting to work. 

The pandemic has also helped expose the weaknesses of technologies that often do not come to light in an office setting. 

“For companies that use desktop systems instead of a cloud system, I think this must be a wake-up call for them,” she says. 

For managers, telecommuting offers the opportunity to hire employees from a talent pool all over the world. An extensive 2022 study from Squaretalk and a 2019 survey by online freelance platform Airtasker found working from home also made employees more productive. 

Another benefit to telecommuting is the ability to accommodate employees with disabilities. While sight-impaired employees can have a more difficult time working from home, Keats says telecommuting has advantages for workers with physical disabilities because it means less moving around. Keats had a hearing-impaired employee at her last firm, whose needs were well-served by telecommuting. 

Still, there are challenges presented by the entirety-digital environment. One issue is lack of social interaction with managers and fellow employees, which can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from coworkers. 

Working from home also increases lag time between employee questions and responses because a lot of communication is done digitally. These matters can often be resolved simply by popping one’s head into the manager’s office. It can also be time consuming training employees on new tasks virtually   

“We use Slack really robustly. That’s our water cooler.” says Keats. “We also have an intranet which is like our internal Facebook. It’s also the database for all of our learning materials. We do a lot of instructional videos for our employees and our clients, so it’s like our hub of resources.” 

Keats’s company implemented an employee partnership program to keep staff connected. Instead of everyone meeting together for team meetings, members of Breakaway Bookkeeping and Advising always have a buddy to check in with them regularly. The buddies are also on a rotating schedule, so people at Breakaway get to know one another.

“We have been pairing up our advisors to stay connected,” she says. “Everyone has at least one person whom they can say, ‘What’s something I can celebrate with you?’” 

There is also an annual in-person company party where employees from all over the world can meet one another face-to-face. 

While advances in technology can facilitate telecommuting, they can also hamper productivity. Access to remote servers is often much slower. More working-from-home employees means more dependence on a variety of internet providers instead of just one. While not much can get done if a company’s server crashes, every employee using their own internet provider increases the likelihood that at least one worker will be experiencing internet issues on any given day. 

For Keats the benefits of an online workplace outweigh the costs. She says her employees are more independent than an in-office staff and it has become more of a platform for bookkeepers to be successful. 

A shift towards a more digital working world could change what it even means to work ‘for’ a company. 

“Our job is to connect our employees with everything they need to be amazing,” says Keats, who adds she keeps employees from breaking off and starting their own practice by providing an attractive work culture rather than relying on non-compete agreements. 

“It’s our job to provide them with enough stuff so that they wouldn’t want to walk away.”

While not every business model can support all employees working from home, Keats says that there are businesses that – like bookkeeping – have the capacity to go fully digital. 

“I think IT and the legal profession are well-positioned to go virtual,” she says. “And I think legal as well. It might look good for law firms to have a fancy downtown office, but they might realize they don’t actually need one.” 

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