Date posted: 26/10/2018 10 min read

Failing to connect

Studies of teleworking in accounting firms show the accounting profession still struggling to make telework work. Firm leaders need to step up.

In Brief

  • Two recent studies of teleworking in accounting firms, both led by chartered accountants, show just how much the accounting profession still needs to do to make telework work.
  • Many managers simply do not know how to measure the amount of work professionals do when they are not in the office
  • Teleworking is not just a matter of sending someone home with a laptop. It demands a special set of management skills – notably output- focused leadership and trust in staff.

By David Walker

We're well past the day when teleworking – working from home using internet and telephone – is big news. Approximately 3.5 million Australians worked from home regularly in 2015, almost a third of the country’s employed workforce.

With online accounting systems well into their second decade and other internet-based technologies now standard in most workplaces, we might expect that teleworking accountants would be commonplace.

Yet two recent studies of teleworking in accounting firms, both led by chartered accountants, show just how much the accounting profession still needs to do to make telework work. The bottom line of this research is that many accounting firms’ leaders and managers seem fearful of letting their staff work from outside the office.

Presenteeism’s influence

The problem is clear in the New Zealand accounting industry, where Les Jones CA analysed teleworking opportunities at 243 firms from Whangarei to Queenstown as part of his doctoral work. His work showed that in the 2014-2016 period, just 8% of the firms that would talk about teleworking actually had staff working from home.

Jones was surprised by the attitudes to technology among accounting firms. Some thought technology was there to be used – but others would not even allow phone calls outside the local area. Some thought cloud systems such as Xero, ideal for teleworking, were a fad. None issued mobile phones to teleworkers.

Jones found two New Zealand firms that had accepted teleworking as part of their normal way of doing business. At one of those, a firm leader told him simply: “I don’t give a rat’s **** where they work, as long they get the job done.”

But overwhelmingly, even in New Zealand firms that allowed teleworking, firm leaders made it clear to Jones that they wanted to see their people working. They worried that teleworking staff would be out of their control – “that they could not police the activities being carried out,” as Jones puts it. One firm disallowed teleworking on the grounds that if a client didn’t come into the office, they could be lost to the firm. Most worried that because teleworkers were at home, in a space which they associated with housework and relaxation, teleworkers would be distracted by other tasks. As one put it: “The chooks need feeding and the washing needs doing.”

Most of the NZ firms treated teleworkers as contractors, with some even taking a set proportion of the client’s fee as their pay.

Yvette Blount, senior lecturer in accounting and finance at Sydney’s Macquarie University and a teleworking specialist, says Jones’ research is consistent with the wider literature. “Presenteeism” remains a powerful influence on teleworking, she says. Many managers simply do not know how to measure the amount of work professionals do when they are not in the office. And their employees know or suspect it – so they avoid telework unless it becomes necessary.

The female factor

Perhaps most interesting of all, every one of those staff teleworking at NZ firms was a woman. Firms mostly granted teleworking only to women with young families, a group whose other option was often to withdraw from the job entirely. Male accountants who asked to telework had their requests denied.

“It is only ever about the children,” one of Jones’ male interviewees told him. Another said he had never thought about the possibility of allowing telework by male caregivers – and added: “I wouldn’t do it so he could go to the gym.”

The telework “privilege”

An Australian study led by Macquarie University’s Karen Handley CA (and funded by Chartered Accountants ANZ) found many of the same issues that Jones detected.

Telework is not business as usual in organisations
Yvette Blount Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Finance, Macquarie University Centre for Workforce Futures

Australia’s Fair Work Act gives workers a “right to request” flexible working arrangements such as teleworking. But Handley and her colleagues found that flexible working is still widely considered a privilege in Australia, not something that anyone should be able to have subject to the special needs of the employer. They also found that for people who request telework, “pay discrimination increases and promotion prospects diminish”. The people they talked to believed that staff needed good negotiating skills to get flexible working arrangements. Handley and her colleagues also reported that policies were applied less consistently the further down the management tree the staff worked, and that there were issues with handling overtime. And they found discrimination against men wanting teleworking or other flexibility. As Blount notes, the Australian findings have a great deal in common with the New Zealand research.

When telework works

While our understanding of telework management is still growing, this much is already clear: teleworking demands leadership. It is not just a matter of sending someone home with a laptop. It has the potential to go wrong, and it demands a special set of management skills. “Telework is not business as usual in organisations,” says Blount.

To start with, telework is not for every worker and every job. As Blount points out, it works best when employees have strong self-discipline and time management skills as teleworking offers distractions of all sorts, from parenting to exercise to slumping in front of the TV. It works better when the job allows workers to choose their own methods, hours, pace and even goals. And it works best when teleworkers continue to spend one to two days per week in the office, studies suggest.

Not all employees find telework ideal. Blount notes that some struggle with the social and professional isolation it can bring, and others lack the home facilities to make it work.

Work inputs become largely invisible when workers telework, so management must focus on outputs rather than inputs. That’s fine for some activities. But Deloitte leadership practice head Juliet Bourke has pointed out that knowledge workers such as accountants may not have clear individual outputs when they work in a team. Such cases make telework success harder.

Finally, telework doesn’t suit every style of work. Tech giants Yahoo, Google and IBM have all cracked down on it; they believe that their employees work best when they work face-to-face. Blount thinks this has much to do with the nature of their work, particularly the need for collaboration. While accounting can need collaboration, too, Blount argues accounting needs it less often, tilting the balance of costs and benefits in telework’s favour.

The need for leaders

Making telework work requires management commitment and particular skills – notably output- focused leadership and trust in staff. “You have to know as a manager when it’s appropriate for people to be working from a different location and when they should be in the office,” says Blount. When it comes to telework, she adds: “I still think – I know – that the capacity to skill-up managers is the most important thing.”

Why telework?

For staff, telework’s benefits include greater reported happiness, better work/ life balance, higher business productivity and cuts in travel time. An increasing number of staff would like to work away from the office for at least part of their workweek.

The payoffs for employers can be substantial too – and not just because the business saves on office space.

• A joint Auckland University of Technology and University of Melbourne Trans-Tasman Telework Survey, released in October 2013, found telework “promoted improved productivity and satisfaction with work” amongst those who split their time between the office and home – and estimated the average productivity gain at 12%.

• And a widely cited study of Chinese call centre workers by Stanford and Beijing University researchers, published in August 2014, reported a 13% performance boost from working from home – 9% from reduced breaks and sickness, 4% from higher calls per minute.

• And a recent Gallup survey of US workers found that of people who work from home 60% to 80% of the time, 41% are more likely to “feel engaged” and just 11% less likely to feel “actively disengaged” than people who never work from home.

Checklist: 12 steps to telework management

If you want to introduce telework to your firm, these steps are recommended by telework experts:

1. Declare that telework is not a privilege but part of the organisation’s normal work practices.

2. Ensure some staff actually want to telework.

3. Create a pilot program that will help the organisation learn and which will build internal support.

4. Create policies setting out when and how telework will happen.

5. Assess whether workers’ individual personalities and circumstances will support teleworking.

6. Analyse roles and teams to ensure teleworking will work in specific situations.

7. Work out the right mix of remote work and office attendance to optimise team contact. Try to ensure some office time for teleworkers each week, especially early in projects.

8. Ensure teleworkers’ supervisors have a results focus, not a process focus.

9. Put in place appropriate IT support.

10. Maximise your own use of phone, email and other electronic tools to ensure you provide leadership to teleworkers.

11. Encourage colleagues to interact electronically with teleworkers.

12. Build an assessment process to see if telework is working in practice for each individual and role.

David Walker is the former editor of Acuity. He first telecommuted one day a week in 1993 and has led a project team with members on five continents.