The COVID-19 Office: What Does It Look Like?
By: Natalie Rooney
What does your workspace look like these days? Are you back in the “peace and quiet” of an office routine? Are you still working from home in your jammies while trying to homeschool? GSCPA members share their plans for work as we continue to navigate the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape.
The Early Days
In the earliest days of stay-at-home orders, the staff of Atlanta accounting firm Smith & Howard worked from home with very few exceptions. Managing Partner Sean Taylor, CPA, says of 135 employees, only four were ever in the office at the same time to perform essential activities.
Operations over at Windham Brannon were similar, says Managing Partner Heidi LaMarca, CPA. Before the stay-at-home order was issued, the firm had conducted a 100 percent trial run on March 17. “It worked so well, we never came back,” LaMarca says. Leadership had discussed an August 1 reopening, but the surge of summer cases had them rethinking.
According to a July survey of 1,000 U.S. workers conducted by LinkedIn and Censuswide, 33 percent of workers without kids are worried about offices reopening before the end of the year. That figure jumps to 40 percent for parents with kids at home. Accounting firms are taking a thoughtful approach to any back-to-office plans. Minimizing virus transmission at work is at the top of everyone’s agenda.
Easing Back Into Office Life
On June 1, after months of working from home, the leadership team at Smith & Howard created “return to office” guidelines to dovetail with the firm’s philosophy of “Moving Forward Together.”
“Our theme from the start was that people have the freedom to continue to work from home exclusively, regardless of what is in the guidelines and the phased-in approach,” Taylor explains. “We aren’t forcing anyone to come back. They have the ability to choose. We recently extended that option through October and will re-evaluate what we do after October in the coming months.”
The guidelines outline access to the building, restrictions on gathering areas, mask usage, and even how to safely access the restrooms.
A few departments returned in early June, and a few more followed in mid-June. About 25 percent of the firm’s employees come to the office on any given day. Taylor says employees seem to have adopted a personal rotation schedule – in for a few days and then back out for a few days. The firm continues to maintain the technological ability for everyone to work at home.
As of mid-July, Windham Brannon opened its office on a voluntary basis for those who didn’t have an ideal workspace at home. Employees can decide if they want to start working in the office again, but they do need to sign up in advance to ensure there aren’t too many people on any given day. “Although fully open for business, we won’t fully open the office for the foreseeable future,” LaMarca says.
Office Wellness Checkup
Before releasing the return to office guidelines, Smith & Howard conducted a workplace wellness audit. Five professional service providers – general contractor, office furniture supplier, cleaning company, HVAC expert and landlord leasing broker – walked through the office and assessed the office’s readiness for employees.
Action items were marked as red, yellow and green. Red items were addressed immediately and included physical space issues. The number of chairs in the reception area was reduced, and the remaining seats were reorganized. Chairs were rearranged in conference rooms with extras taken to storage, so people weren’t tempted to return them to conference rooms and exceed capacity limits.
The office’s existing 66-inch cube heights turned out to be perfect for wellness separation.
Hand sanitizing stations are now placed throughout the office, and everyone has been provided with custom made Smith & Howard face masks.
The firm has also halted its “hoteling” option for auditors. Those who come to the office will be assigned workspace instead. “We want to limit the chance that someone would use the same space in a close time period,” Taylor says.
The owners of the Smith & Howard building provide ongoing cleaning and have stepped up their efforts to sanitize. The firm hired a third-party cleaner to come in on Sunday nights. Fogging was done once a week for the first month. “We’ll continue to update our policy as things progress,” Taylor says. Overall, Taylor says he’s pleased with the recommendations from the consultants and the actions being taken to ensure employees’ safety. “It gave us a third-party voice to share with our employees that we have done our due diligence,” he says.
Work Travel: Grounded
Taylor says most clients say they aren’t ready to have firm staff on site. “Less than ten percent of clients have expressed interest in having us come out,” he says.
When a Smith & Howard employee does go to a client site, they follow the same protocols they would at the office and any additional client guidelines. If an employee is concerned about a client site, the employee can speak with the partner in charge and opt-out of going. “Clients have been very understanding. We’re doing a great job remotely, and no clients have expressed disappointment,” Taylor says.
Smith & Howard employees cannot travel to a current high-risk area of the country. International travel was halted before President Trump’s travel ban. Everyone must follow CDC guidelines as well as the guidelines for whatever state they’re headed to.
The firm continues to monitor and follow guidelines as they change and evolve.
At Windham Brannon, employees, including the audit team, aren’t going out to client sites, nor are clients coming into the firm’s offices. Staff members have visited a few advisory clients at their offices after going through a comprehensive checklist. “We want to understand the clients’ criteria to keep our people and theirs safe,” LaMarca says. “If someone isn’t comfortable going to a client’s office, we’ll find someone who is or figure out a way to do the work remotely.”
Smith & Howard has been using Microsoft Teams internally, taking advantage of the videoconferencing, chat and screen sharing capabilities to help with supervision, review and mentoring. Clients have mostly been fully remote as well, and for the most part, Smith & Howard has been able to communicate with clients seamlessly. Occasionally paper documents come into play, and courier services and scanning are used.
The real issue with long-term remote work is employee morale. While the Smith & Howard team has enjoyed virtual happy hours and meetings, mentors actively check in with their mentees. The firm is launching a monthly virtual firm-wide townhall in August to make sure employees continue to engage across departments.
Taylor has been sending a weekly video message to all employees, a process he intends to continue. “We’re constantly producing, scripting and storyboarding our topics,” he says. “I think everyone understands we’re doing everything we can to stay connected while we continue to work remotely.”
LaMarca says the successful transition to work from home has demonstrated to more experienced staff members that people can be efficient outside of the traditional office and hours. “People are working in different places and at different times, but we’re all still focused on serving the clients,” she says. “It has changed the mindset from ‘how many hours are you working’ to ‘you’re getting the job done well.’ It’s wonderful. We have good people who do good work.”
The pandemic has added an interesting twist to hiring and onboarding new associates and interns. “We had multiple offers out there with May start dates,” LaMarca says. “We honored all of them.”
New hires received their laptops via the mail, and onboarding was conducted virtually, but the technology was the easy part. “It takes a lot of commitment to remotely supervise someone new, make sure they have work and know what they’re doing,” LaMarca says. Each department takes ownership of its new hires to make sure they hit those markers.
“Before the pandemic, we had Microsoft Teams, and maybe ten people knew how to use it. Now we all know how to use it,” LaMarca chuckles. “It’s really easy to review files and share screens.”
The willingness to be on camera has grown over the course of working from home, as well. “For the first week, no one wanted to be on camera,” LaMarca says. “When we realized this working situation was going to last, we started doing our hair and makeup and turned on our cameras. It became more comfortable.”
Despite the extended time apart, employee feedback shows the Windham Brannon team still feels connected. Early happy hours with 150 people were a little hard to manage, so the firm went to team calls with smaller groups of people.“ They’re much more engaged that way,” LaMarca says. They’ve played bingo and trivia via Microsoft Teams. Employees are permitted to poll their families for trivia answers, but no one is allowed to do an online search. “There was definitely some smack talk accusing each other of Googling,” she laughs. “They’re a little competitive. It has been a great way to keep everyone connected and having fun.”
The Key to Returning to the Office
To prepare for employees who wanted to return to the office, the Windham Brannon leadership divided the staff into teams. One team can access the office on Mondays and Wednesdays. The other team can come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Everyone works remotely on Fridays.
Teams were created based on cube location. In a quad of cubes, only the individuals who sit diagonally can be in the office on the same day. Directional signs keep traffic flowing one way. Chairs were removed from larger conference rooms to ensure distancing. Small conference rooms were closed. Seating was removed from the kitchen.
Building management added a lever so doors into the building’s restrooms could be opened by stepping on it.
Additional signs around the office reinforce the need for social distance. Hand sanitizer, wipes and masks are on each person’s desk.
For fun, Windham Brannon’s HR team created “survival kits” for staff. The original At Home Survival Kit included snacks and tea. The Return to Work/Social Distancing Kit includes snacks but also has a face mask, hand lotion (because how dry are our hands after all of this sanitizing?) and a “Sanikey,” which allows people to open a door or use a touchpad without actually touching it. “There’s even a measuring tape to remind everyone to stay six feet apart,” LaMarca says. “It’s a fun treat for our people,” LaMarca says.
Leaning Into 2020, No Matter What
Long-term remote work itself doesn’t concern Taylor, but what does concern him is burn culture and morale. “We check-in, make sure people’s mental health is okay and remind them of the employee assistance providers. We’ll find a blend that allows people to work within the office and team setting and get that camaraderie going again.”
Despite everything, Taylor says, don’t treat 2020 as a lost year. “We set goals and we’re getting started on our ten-year strategic plan,” he says. “I’m encouraged our people continue to lean into that and aren’t treating this like a year off. Don’t put plans aside. Yes, it’s harder to do, but you have to continue to advance and not stagnate or fall back. I hope the whole profession does the same thing.”
LaMarca is looking ahead as well. The firm’s lease is up in four years, and she says there’s time to plan what the future looks like. “Some people are so happy working from home and never want to come back to the office,” she says. “And then there are people like me who are begging to come back.” She foresees a hybrid of in-office and at-home work. Initially, she thought they could cut down their office space, but what about social distancing? “It’s still up in the air as to what office space will look like.”
LaMarca networks with CPA peers and other professionals to learn about solutions being used around the world. “It has been helpful to hear who is doing what,” she says.
For the long haul, LaMarca says Windham Brannon is diversified in its service offerings and predicts several lines – cybersecurity, data analytics and virtual accounting – will gain strength. “We’re looking at how the world is pivoting, and we’re building new opportunities,” she says. “We’ll be bigger and stronger coming out of this. This process has been painful for everyone, but keep your eyes open and listen. We can do it.”
Natalie Rooney is a freelance writer from Colorado, but has been writing for CPA societies for 15 years. She can be reached at email@example.com