Why remote work is here to stay for accountants (and what your practice needs to do)

Remote work has been a thing for knowledge workers and engineers since the late 20th century. In fact, NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting” all the way back in the early 1970s.

But the normalization of work-from-home culture was slower to take off, either for lack of tools like Slack, Zoom, and cloud-based software, or a conviction that remote workers would be less productive. Then the pandemic hit.

Faced with lockdown orders, companies were forced to adapt to a work-from-home model, for better or worse. One industry that seemed to thrive in the remote work revolution is accounting. In this post, we’ll cover:

The benefits of working from home for accountants
Why accounting is particularly well-suited to remote work
How accounting practices can adapt to remote staff

The benefits of working from home for accountants

There’s no shortage of articles out there enumerating the upsides to remote work, ranging from saving the planet to saving money on work clothes. Some of the most common benefits are:

  • Reduced commuting time
  • More flexibility balancing work/life priorities
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced stress

And counter to the concerns of many remote-work skeptics: Employees often report being more productive at home, not less. Some anecdotal reasons include spending less time socializing with coworkers, fewer interruptions while focusing on tasks, and a personalized work environment.

For anyone used to battling a stressful commute, swapping a car or train ride for a walk from the bedroom to home office can often mean a calmer, more relaxed start to the day.

But for accountants and accounting practices in particular, working from home has added benefits:

Supporting a remote workforce improves efficiency

Storing documents in a cloud database helps keep them organized and accessible. Rather than rifling through cabinets of paper files or searching multiple email accounts and hard drives to find a specific document, people can simply search by keyword.

When accountants have remote access, that option can be extended to other teams for better collaboration, regardless of who’s on- or off-site. Clients and auditors can access documents more easily as well. 

The reduced stress of remote work supports often overworked staff

There’s an undeniable shortage of accountants. Those in the field are prone to longer hours and more responsibilities. The flexibility of remote work can help combat burnout directly, while the systems in place to support a remote infrastructure can help automate tasks, saving time and effort.

There’s a broader pool of potential new hires

Another benefit for an industry facing a candidate shortage: Remote work increases the likelihood of finding qualified applicants. Hiring managers can look outside an already-tapped labor market by searching for candidates in other geographical areas.

Remote work is also an attractive draw for many employees and can give you an edge in securing and retaining talent.

Why accounting is particularly well-suited to remote work

The problem-solving and task-based nature of accounting is something that translates well to working remotely. For both environmental reasons like fewer disruptions from coworkers, or logistical reasons like simply needing a good computer and a reliable internet connection, accounting is a profession that transitioned to work-from-home orders well.

Accounting platforms and technology also support a remote workforce. Many tedious tasks were already targets of automation prior to 2020. The pandemic increased the urgency of a trend already well underway. From bookkeeping platforms and invoicing programs to sales tax software and e-filing, nearly every aspect of accounting can be performed via pixels rather than pen and paper.

Auditing is also experiencing digital transformation. Practices that perform audits continue to adopt digital solutions to handle workloads and meet client expectations. In addition, government auditors are embracing digital auditing capabilities to both streamline audit processes and shift standards from periodic to ongoing audits.

The increasing focus on digitalization means practices will have to invest in the kind of technology that enables remote working, whether or not that’s the objective. Given the benefits of supporting remote employees and the desire for flexibility from an in-demand workforce, the shift to remote work as a standard is less a question of if than when.

How accounting practices can adapt to remote staff

For large firms with established IT departments, sophisticated technology stacks, and multiple locations, the shift to remote work can be less of a burden. For smaller practices, shifting resources from a single location to homes in multiple towns, counties, or states can be more challenging. Some things to consider:

Make sure you abide by workplace regulations

If you have employees across state lines or expand your hiring pool to different regions of the country (or world), you’ll need to make sure you adapt your company policies to each state’s labor laws. Everything from break requirements to sick leave to health coverage can vary from state to state, so it pays to research the applicable rules.

Consider tax laws

Taxes are notoriously complicated and varied across jurisdictions. You not only have to consider variations for income taxes and withholdings, you must also consider the differences when it comes to sales tax.

  • Establishing a workforce in another state may trigger sales tax nexus, even if you don’t hit economic nexus thresholds
  • If you do establish nexus in additional states, you’ll need to adhere to multiple filing deadlines, frequencies, and requirements
  • Purchasing equipment or software in one location for use in another could have consumer use tax implications

Support healthy workspaces

Companies shifting to remote or hybrid work options may provide either office furniture and equipment or a stipend to help employees create a healthy, ergonomic home office. As remote work is normalized, more employees will come to a new job with an existing setup; it’ll be interesting to see how these policies play out in the long term.

Implement the right technology

To keep remote workers connected and productive, it’s critical to implement digital equivalents to office processes. For instance:

  • Messaging programs like Slack or Teams can help facilitate conversations more effectively than email
  • Conferencing platforms like Zoom or GoTo Meeting enable collaboration and face-to-face meetings
  • Cloud-based document software like Avalara compliance document management allows remote access to files for approved individuals

Adjust your security practices

While security is always paramount, having a base of remote employees can introduce additional risk. Processes that help ensure sensitive information is protected include:

  • Implementing VPNs and ensuring employees are aware of the dangers of unsecured networks
  • Establishing remote access protocols to lock down lost or stolen hardware
  • Thoroughly vetting software and platform security policies and procedures prior to installation
  • Implementing security features like multifactor authentication, identity verification policies, and data access controls
  • Conducting ongoing security training for employees

Embracing a future of remote work for your accounting practice

While decades-long trends in cloud-based software and the consumerization of IT have both been driving forces for supporting remote work, we’ve entered a new phase in expectations around workplace flexibility. More and more, employers find remote and hybrid work options are deciding factors when recruiting and retaining talent.

Accounting departments and practices are not immune to this change. In fact, the accounting industry is arguably a better fit than most for remote work. Those that embrace this trend and properly support employees through adaptive policies, equipment, and technology will be better-positioned to successfully transition to the next wave of digital transformation.

After all, for accounting, the demand isn’t just coming from employees: Pressure to evolve is coming from clients, governments, and partners as well.

Automation can help you with the tax implications of remote work. Products like Avalara Exemption Certificate Management and Avalara Returns for Accountants not only work for internal processes, they can also help you offer additional services to clients without requiring an increase in headcount. 

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