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Firms Rethink Personnel Policies in Wake of Pandemic

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 19, 2021

Page 6-Firm series-personnel

Editor’s note: This is the second in a projected three-part series about how CPA firms are adapting to changes brought on by the pandemic, new technology and the needs of their client base. 

With the majority of accounting professionals working from home because of the pandemic, firms were forced to perform major reassessments of their personnel policies, ranging from hiring and on-boarding to benefits and perks. These changes arose primarily as the result of the shift to working remotely. 

Recruitment and training 

One major example is the recruitment of new staff, especially younger hires, fresh out of school. Prior to the pandemic, firms tended to follow the simple but effective model of setting up a table at a career fair and waiting for interested candidates to approach them. But given that both offices and schools were closed, many needed to change their approach. 

Clare E. Cella, the partner in charge of PKF O’Connor Davies, LLP’s New York office, said that the firm was forced to go entirely virtual for its recruitment, but that it had some success with the virtual events that colleges held. Similarly, the firm’s internships were 100 percent virtual—a major change from normal procedure. While she said that this system has worked out well so far, she doesn’t view these changes as long term, as she herself is eager to return to physical interactions. 

“We’re hoping things go back to business as usual at some point in time, because it’s so much more personal to meet face to face than working over a screen,” Cella said. “It’s very difficult to keep people engaged in a screen.” 

Dominic J. Rovano, a co-partner in charge of Janover LLC’s New York City office, said that his firm made similar changes. The recruiting program, both internal and external, went entirely remote, as did all the interviews with job candidates. Like Cella, he did not expect these changes to be permanent. 

“I think, by and large, as we turn toward an environment where people are in the office more regularly, there is something to be said about meeting in person that just doesn’t translate over video, [though] it is a nice option,” he said. Rovano acknowledged that the firm might stick with virtual interviews for the initial meeting, and then ask the job candidate to come in person, if that goes well. But he said that nothing official has been decided on this front yet. 

Steven Wolpow, co-managing partner at Nussbaum, Berg, Klein & Wolpow CPAs LLP, reported a similar experience, saying that recruiting and training went entirely virtual this past year, which was a huge challenge. He did report success with college programs that connected his firm with prospective job candidates, and so the firm was able to refresh its talent pool that way. Like Cella and Rovano, however, he viewed these changes as more of a temporary patch than a permanent change in how recruiting is done. 

“Zoom and Team calls are great, and we use [them] all the time, but virtual cannot make up for the direct face-to-face human interaction between people and the socialization that binds us together,” he said. 

Training and mentoring took a similar trajectory, going all virtual, as opposed to the traditional practice of gathering all of a new cohort into a big room at once and welcoming them to the firm. Each firm leader lamented the lack of face-to-face interaction—Cella said she looks forward to personally greeting new hires each year—as it can make the process more difficult. 

But not all change is temporary. For one thing, the rise in remote work has made geography matter a little less. Rovano said that shifting this mindset became a necessity, given the number of people who left New York for someplace else but continued to telecommute. This development, according to Rovano, has created a new way of thinking about whom the firm decides to hire as well. While he is eager to get back to office life, the idea of hires who’d be entirely remote and who can work from anywhere has become more plausible, over the past year. 

“This just opens up that range of talent,” Rovano said. “We’ve made hires, and we’ve had people leave the New York area and continue employment with us. [We’ve hired] people who [prepandemic] would not necessarily be commuting to an office in the New York area ... , so we are accepting of that shifting.” 

Wolpow was more skeptical of this practice, saying that his firm has not hired anyone outside its region and doesn’t plan to in the future. “It may be a good short-term solution for some during the remote stage we are in, but I don’t know if it [will] work when things get back to normal, if there is a normal anymore,” he said. 

Cella, while not reporting any new hires who work remotely, also said that the age of remote work has opened her mind to the opportunities it can present, in terms of where to find talent. She noted that the degree to which a professional would be 100 percent remote depends on factors such as how much face time a client requires, but she noted, “You could do a tax return almost anywhere.” 

She acknowledged that hiring from outside the region could be a “good thing going forward, [as] it opens us to a wider pool of candidates.” 

Benefits and perks 

Professionals at firms may be treated to a different set of perks and benefits than those they received prepandemic, as this was another area where some firms made changes. One example is food. Before the pandemic, many firms, besides ensuring that the break room was well stocked with snacks, also provided meals, especially during the busy season. This practice makes much less sense when there are few to no people in the office. 

Rovano, who said his firm was “a big snack provider, prepandemic,” attempted to fill the void with a snack box subscription as well as semiregular Grubhub gift certificates, to try and recreate that late-night busy season “pizza” feeling. Cella said that her office gave staff members a small stipend—about $50—during the busy season months for the same reason. 

She also said that her firm allowed staff to carry over more paid-time-off days and provided additional days off as well. 

Beyond keeping bodies nourished, Rovano said that his firm also paid attention to staff mental health. Throughout the pandemic, his firm has brought in speakers, hosted mindfulness sessions, and arranged for a licensed therapist to provide virtual group sessions. He added that it has also brought in professional trainers to lead group workouts. 

Both Rovano and Cella said that they also gave staff members a small stipend to buy home  equipment, so that their remote work experience could be as efficient as possible. 

Health and safety 

Although growing numbers of Americans are getting vaccinated, the virus itself still casts a long shadow, leading firms to rework health and safety guidelines as they apply to staff. To start, the three firms are all following guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control at their offices. Cella added that her firm asks its clients about their own pandemic policies before any staff over, in order to ensure that it won’t be sending them into a situation where they feel unsafe, and she noted that there haven’t been conflicts with clients over this issue. 

Rovano said that his firm doesn’t force a staff member go to a client if that person is not comfortable with the client’s health and safety measures; he pointed to virtual options that can serve as an alternative. 

Less certain will be a firm’s stance on vaccines. So far, none of the three has taken an absolute position on vaccines, one way or the other, and the question of whether to require vaccination in the future is an ongoing conversation among firm leadership. Wolpow acknowledged that it was going to be challenging to determine what would be an appropriate policy, given the differing preferences and risk tolerance of various employees, as well as the responsibility to control the virus’s spread overall. 

“Many of our people have now been fully or partially vaccinated, and I assume by the end of June, anyone that wanted to be vaccinated will be vaccinated,” he said. “The issue will be how to accommodate people who have not gotten the vaccination for whatever reason. Positivity rates are trending down in New York, but flareups are still of concern.” 

Rovano noted that since offices are a lot emptier than they used to be, there is at least time to consider the question before they begin filling up again, at which point the matter will become far more relevant. 

“We have not implemented any policies related to the vaccine, but currently, our offices are still very much at a reduced capacity,” he said. “We are still very much a virtual firm. We’re … assessing on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis and slowly moving toward a plan [for when] people are starting to head back into the office on a more regular basis.”  

When to return 

The vaccine question fits neatly with another issue: transitioning back to the physical office. While the firm leaders acknowledged that remote work will likely remain, in some capacity, all expressed an eagerness to get staff back into the office. That much they know. What’s less clear is the “when” and the “how,” as both questions encompass the ratio between remote and in-person work that firms will set. 

Cella, who called such matters “the question of the year,” said her firm doesn’t have a definitive answer on either question, saying that leadership is still trying to determine what would work best for a specific policy. That being said, she added that her firm was already ramping up remote work options even before the pandemic—it had already piloted a program whereby people could work from home a few days per week. How this will translate into a more permanent policy hinges on many factors, not all of which are within the firm itself. 

“I think it’s just trying to find that good balance of remote and in-person, but I can see that there could be situations where people would still be 100 percent remote, but [we] also had to accommodate our client base as well,” Cella said. “Thankfully, [because of the pilot program] we were technologically prepared, and we now know what works, and we see the pluses and minuses to it.” 

Rovano was in a similar situation. Seeing so many staff members go remote without major issues had a positive impact on the firm’s view toward telework, one that he’d like to maintain in some capacity going forward. Like Cella, he thought that the ideal situation would be a mixture of remote and in-person, though he said leaders have yet to decide on what exactly this mix will be. 

“We’re still working through that. We see benefits of remote, and we want to definitely maintain those elements in our model,” Rovano said. “But we also see benefits to in-person collaboration, especially when it comes to training and developing new talent. As our tendencies and habits change, it’s going to become an easier lift, but we envision elements of both going forward. I don’t know what that ratio is.” 

Wolpow noted that his firm’s office never officially closed during the pandemic, even though there were only a few people coming in on a regular basis, and right now, most people are still playing it safe by working remotely. He credited his firm’s earlier transition to a paperless environment, plus the IT staff, for making this transition so smooth. 

However, he said, “We are still trying to figure out when is the appropriate time frame to return to the office,” as leadership weighs various factors such as efficiency, safety and employee preference. While a formal policy has yet to be settled upon, he was confident that leadership would be keeping staff needs in mind. 

“Everyone in the accounting profession knows that there is an across-the-board shortage of talented CPAs, so it is important to create an environment where people feel comfortable and at home and among people that they consider part of their extended family,” Wolpow said. “That is the goal that we set for our firm.” 

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