Until 2020, most business leaders, including me, regarded remote work as either a pie-in-the-sky dream or a privilege reserved for certain positions or industries. But, starting this month, MBS Accountancy now allows all staff – from newbies to veterans – to work anywhere they choose – their home, the office, or anywhere else in the world. We’ve been experimenting with remote work in our firm since 2020’s coronavirus precautions, but we’ve now codified a “work where you want” approach into our firm’s culture.
In May, I announced in a weekly team meeting that I was removing the minimum time-in-office requirement so everyone could work wherever they felt most productive. Even though we had already been working remotely, my team reacted to my announcement with excited smiles. Nobody broke out in a happy dance, but we all knew that this was a big shift for our firm.
Answering the “so what?”
I realize that an announcement about remote work isn’t particularly newsworthy these days. After all, many companies and even some accounting firms have been working remotely for years. My goal isn’t to focus on the transition to distributed work itself, but rather on the shifts made and lessons learned while we worked to get here. As American tennis player Arthur Ashe wisely noted, “The doing is often more important than the outcome.”
Lesson 1: Move slowly but surely when making a big change
To get inspiration on how we could successfully transition to distributed work, I started studying how other companies had made the jump. I loved Twitter’s approach…
After a manager-only memo was accidentally sent to all of Twitter’s staff in 2018, a company-wide experiment was started to determine whether distributed work was the right path forward for Twitter. Mike Montano, Twitter’s Head of Engineering at the time, tested the work-from-home idea by teleworking one to two days a week and CEO Jack Dorsey announced a months-long workcation in Africa. This freedom to travel and explore was wanted I wanted to emulate in our firm. As Twitter’s then-HR director Jennifer Christie noted, “The future of work is offering employees more optionality.” I wanted to give my staff the freedom they needed to do great work without missing the best moments of their lives.
Toward the end of 2021, as we were coming back into the office, I decided to give my team the option of working from home for a few days throughout the week. During this time, we compared the productivity of our in-office workdays to our at-home workdays. We also made adjustments to our communications so everyone could stay connected and collaborate closely with one another, whether they were in the office or not. I was fairly certain that distributed work was the right direction for us, but moving at a measured, thoughtful pace let everyone on our team really learn how and where they preferred to work.
Lesson 2: Connections are deeper when you’re working from home
One of the biggest concerns I had about switching from an office-based work model is keeping our team connection strong. Recent studies have shown that remote workers are more susceptible to feelings of isolation, depression, and disconnection from a company’s mission and culture. If we were to work from home, I wanted to ensure that we stayed as connected and collaborative as before – if not more so.
To my great relief, I’ve found that our interactions – while decreasing in quantity – have skyrocketed in quality. When you’re in the office, it’s easy to substitute meaningful conversations with surfacy chats. However, when you’re working from home, every touchpoint is golden. We now use Zoom time and chat messages to open up a genuine dialogue that goes beyond small talk. We may be distributed, but we’re more connected than ever.
Lesson 3: Decreasing control shows trust better than words
I’m a firm believer that, when you show people you trust them, they’ll usually rise to the occasion. I realize it’s become a cliche for a business leader to say they trust employees, but that doesn’t make it any less important. What determines whether it’s a cliche is our actions. If we act in a way that undermines or contradicts what we claim to be true, we might as well save our breath because no one will ever believe us.
But, if our actions are truly aligned with our personal values and beliefs, even cliched statements like, “I appreciate you,” become powerful affirmations that strengthen and motivate those around us. When I made the “work from anywhere” announcement, I told my team that I trusted them to continue doing their best and to use the new flexibility to improve their work-life balance. I could have simply told my team I trusted them – they might have even believed me. But supporting my claim with action gave my words credibility.
Lesson 4: Work flexibility makes life easier
“I appreciate how much easier it is to book a doctor’s appointment and run errands,” said Edie as she reflected on her experience working from home. Nawal echoed her positive words, noting that, with less commute time, she can finish her work faster and help her kids with their homework. Ana has more flexibility when planning out her studying sessions for the CPA exam.
Without a commute, it’s easier for Fabiola to plan and prepare dinners for herself and her husband, and also spend more time with friends and family. Erin doesn’t feel guilty anymore when she needs to stay home because of daycare issues. In fact, Erin is now able to switch between the office and her home as needed, even within the same workday.
For me, having the flexibility to decide where I want to work has allowed me to be present in a way that I’ve never been before. When I gave myself more flexibility in how and where I worked, I was able to better support my family while my wife went back to school for her master’s degree.
Adolfo decided to move his family out of California to be closer to family and friends in the Midwest. Since his move, Adolfo’s been able to remodel a shed near his new home into a home office, which has given him the space and time he needs for creative deep work. Because he didn’t need to come into the office to be considered productive, Adolfo was able to choose where he wanted to live and take more control over his life.
Maggie used her new work flexibility to travel to Canada on a months-long workcation. She appreciates being able to spend time with her Canadian friends and grandchildren, and has stayed just as connected to our team as before.
Lesson 5: Setting boundaries is vital for work-life balance
It’s common to talk about the need for more personal time in the work-life balance. This is because we tend to err on the side of getting more work done at the expense of our personal life and family. But, as we’ve started working from home, several of us have noticed that there is a flip side. If we’re not careful, we can get so wrapped up in our personal lives that our productivity suffers.
Victor noticed that, while working from home let him get more done, it also made him more likely to pick up his phone and get distracted. Even if there were no notification alerts, he’d pick up his phone out of habit. To remove this distraction, Victor learned to put his phone in another room while he worked.
Erin’s kids appreciated having her around, especially because she would usually be too busy with work to be present with her kids. Still, Erin explained to her kids – who range from 3 to 17 – that, while she was at her desk working, she was not to be disturbed.
In my experience, establishing boundaries between my work hours and personal time has helped me be more present with my family. With a clearly defined line between when I’m working and when I’m not, I can fully focus my attention on spending time with my wife and – during the summer – getting mid-day hugs from my kids. My work-life boundaries have also helped my family set proper expectations on when I am available and when I must work.
Committed to always getting better
Moving to distributed work is our kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word that denotes continuous improvement. Moving from an office-based environment is the end result of many mental shifts in how we view our work and its relation to the rest of our life. Already, our transition to distributed work is opening up opportunities for us to better balance our personal and work lives. We’re not done either…
In the months to come, my team and I will be establishing new ways of measuring our productivity and performance but I don’t want to overlook lessons learned while getting to this point. We’ve made it out of the office. Now, we can go anywhere.