We’ve all learned to appreciate the flexibility of telecommuting over these past few months out of necessity, but let’s not forget there is a case to be made that working in the office presents a number of benefits for CPAs. In her Careers & Lifestyles column for the winter 2021 Pennsylvania CPA Journal, Alyzabeth Smith, senior associate for Siegfried Advisory in Wilmington, Del., discusses several of the most prominent reasons, including a better ability to disconnect and bolstered team camaraderie. In this podcast, she offers a sneak preview of her column.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
The coronavirus has forced many individuals to have to work from home. While the reasons they are doing so are far from ideal to say the least, the experience has allowed many to see the benefits of the home office. No more arduous commute. No more spontaneous, concentration-breaking coworker drop-bys. Just more time in the day, in general. However, there are a number of benefits to in-office work that may be being forgotten in the time of necessary quarantine, and in the Winter 2021 Pennsylvania CPA Journal Careers and Lifestyles column, Alyzabeth R. Smith, senior associate for Siegfried Advisory in Wilmington, Del., seeks to remind CPAs and their organizations why a return to the headquarters could still be preferable once all is safe and the green light is given.
Let's talk about some of the benefits of working in the office you've identified during quarantine-induced work from home. Why is working from the office better for delineation of personal and professional boundaries?
[Smith] I think there were a lot of things that pre-COVID we didn't really appreciate and now we're starting to really recognize what some of those benefits might be. I would say one of the primary ones is the act of leaving the office. It set expectations for our colleagues. Again, like I said earlier, think back to the pre-COVID days, when you needed a coworker, you went by their desk. If they weren't there, you huffed and you puffed a little bit and then you just kind of waited for the next day and then you maybe gave them a little grief and asked for whatever you needed.
These days, that quote-unquote desk is never technically empty because of all of the electronic leashes, for lack of a better word, that we use as our primary modes of performing our tasks: email, instant message, cellphones. We always used those things, but not quite the way we're using them currently. Having to constantly be turned on, ready to work, it makes it really difficult to maintain that personal space that we really need for our health. The physical act of leaving the office, it helps to clarify that separation between work and home.
How does working in the office benefit individuals in terms of building camaraderie with a team?
[Smith] One of the funniest commercial examples that I've seen of team interaction is the series of Progressive Insurance commercials. I'm not sure if you've seen those or not.
[Smith] I think that's their attempt at showing the new 2020 normal. And they have one that I think they called “Mara Unmuted,” and Mara's having this outside conversation with someone, and this conversation is fully audible to everyone in the meeting. You know how when you use Zoom, that presentation box highlights the speaker?
In this case, the presentation box keeps detouring to her and it, of course, is a disruption in the meeting. I think this is a great example of how our communication is changed, which immediately impacts our team interaction and camaraderie. What I mean by that is while Zoom has been the primary reason that we've really been able to transition to home offices, you don't really get that same multidimensional perspective that you would get in person. People don't wear pants in Zoom meetings sometimes. Clearly in person that sort of attire would have a different impact. The point is, we can decide what people can see through an electronic means. This makes it substantially more difficult for us to establish authentic connections. In the office, we can run into someone in the break room, we can have chance encounters just by sitting near someone. We're able to pick up on their external cues and these are things that fall by the wayside in a videoconference.
In what way can working in the office bolster communication among teams?
[Smith] I think primarily it's just easier to get a hold of people. With electronic communication, we have easier choices with respect to response time, if we choose to respond at all. In the office, if electronic means fail, as we talked about earlier, you can just go pay that person a visit, run by their desk. Also, a lot of times conversations are held publicly, and assuming that the topic doesn't include sensitive information of course, sometimes group input can lead to a more robust solution to a problem.
Do you feel like working from home has an adverse impact on creativity and problem-solving? Why is that aspect stronger when you're in the workplace?
[Smith] I think actually that's a good segue from the last question, talking about being able to talk publicly leading to more robust solutions. I think a large part of that is the fact that you're exposed to different perspectives and different perspectives are very useful in finding creative solutions to problems. These perspectives are easier to access when we are in a position to have those chance encounters referenced earlier, see each others' views. These things provide supplementary insight that can be used for problem-solving. These are minimized when we're working from home and they're just one less tool in our toolbox for innovation and problem-solving when we're separated.
Would you say that the reliance on email, in particular, can complicate communication with connections when working on the home front?
[Smith] We often ascribe a tone that isn't there when we're reading an email or we might miss a tone that was intended. Also, email really slows the flow of decision-making because, in a team setting, you have to wait for each person to respond, which, as we talked about earlier, can be at their own convenience. And if there's even one question at all, it can lead to this huge avalanche of correspondence that someone has to sort through later and God forbid you're out of the office when this avalanche of correspondence comes through. Never know when to jump in. I think we were all used to this in some respects before, but I think we're definitely seeing an increase in volume with the absence of in-person communication. A lot of these things we may have dealt with before when we were in the office definitely have been compounded now. We're seeing them in a more concentrated form, particularly with respect to something like email.
What sort of effect could working from home have on productivity? And what are some of the factors that can lead to a slow down when at home?
[Smith] I would say with working from home, distractions are a huge drain on productivity. They don't have to be, of course, because now that we've been doing this for a little while I think people are starting to get a little bit better at managing their schedules. But by virtue of being in your own environment, in your own domain, you start noticing things that you wouldn't have noticed had you been in the office. For example, I personally noticed that there were birds that had started nesting on my balcony. I'd wouldn’t have known that or really noticed that because during the day I was normally in the office, but by virtue of me working in my home office and glancing around outside through the blinds, I was looking and going, what's that? You have distractions and these things that you feel like you have to address because you didn't know they were there before.
I'm sure a lot of people are dealing with children having to be schooled from home in many cases. That's an important distraction that you have to deal with. But the fact that people are working from home does give some workers options for flexibility and production as well. Even though they are being distracted, that doesn't necessarily mean that they won't meet their set objectives for productivity.
What do you find most enjoyable about the at-home work experience?
[Smith] I would be absolutely remiss if I did not underscore, put in bold print, that I love working from home. But I recognize the benefits also for being in the office and being in a team environment. However, one of the things that I love about being at home is that it takes considerably less time to get ready in the morning. And while my commute was pretty negligible to begin with, even the small savings that I've had from not having to get in the car and drive the 15 minutes or whatever, to get to the office, I've been able to experiment with different ways to start my day, different ways that can lead to better personal health, such as yoga or meditation. There are various studies out there – I'm sure people can Google them if they're interested in further exploration of the topic – about how being a better person and being in better shape, being healthier, etc., leads to more productivity. It makes you a better person, a better employee, who is able to come up with those creative solutions that we talked about earlier.
We're having some fun with this topic, but we certainly have to remember, whatever the pros and cons are, an en masse return to the workplace can't really happen until it's completely safe. What do you think it will take to create that atmosphere and that sort of psychology that allows people or makes them want to return to the workplace?
[Smith] I know some brave souls who are ready to volunteer to go back into the office this afternoon, if it was possible. But I think for the masses to really feel safe and to actually want to come back into the office, there'll have to be some proof that there are measures in place that work. I know that there are some people that are having crises of confidence in terms of knowing what information to believe and what not to believe. Luckily, I am not part of the pay grade of people that makes these decisions about what is done in order to make the public feel safe. That's definitely a heavy burden there, but someone's going to have to come up with something in order to provide the public with proof that there are measures in place that work. I feel that the only way for that to really happen, to know that something works, it takes time.
That can be a while to be honest, because there are variables at play that we haven't experienced before. This is new to everyone, but I'm optimistic. I think the day will come. I think it'll look a lot different than the days we've seen before. The 9 to 5, five days a week, that has been the standard across the board for businesses. I'm pretty sure that's a thing of the past, as I'm sure a lot of people have echoed, but I think, again, that there will be a normalcy. It may not be a return to normalcy, but there will be normalcy that's established.