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We can never go back to before

Why hybrid work models are essential to the future of the profession

Carolyn LaViolette, MNCPA communications manager | May 2021 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated April 30, 2021

How many times have you thought about how great it’ll be to get back to normal?

The idea of living “normal” life again may bring to mind a variety of images: large-group celebrations with family and close friends; high-fiving fellow baseball fans when the home team scores the winning run; or simply going to a grocery store without having to wear a mask.

But what about a “normal” workplace? Are you picturing all staff in the office working the standard 9 to 5? Before you start humming Dolly Parton, take a look at what some young CPAs — some of whom may be working at your firm or company — said about what they’d like the workplace to include:
  • “I don’t need to see you to be able to help you! Technology and online meetings are awesome.”
  • “We can be flexible and still serve clients. People can and should be able to work from home, part time or full time, when this is all over.”
  • “I hope the days of expecting employees to sacrifice the aspects of life that contribute to their health and wellness (time, rest, energy) fall by the wayside.”
These statements come straight from MNCPA young professionals who were surveyed late last year. We were curious to know if there were any positive changes at their workplace in response to the pandemic, and which of those changes they’d like to see continued post-pandemic. Overwhelmingly, young CPAs are craving the continuance of flexibility, choices and balance.

So, if you haven’t already, now is the time to start thinking about a different normal in the workplace. The future of retaining — and recruiting — staff may depend on it.

The future of workspaces

“Make working from home the norm, not the exception.”

If companies and accounting firms weren’t already set up to accommodate remote workstations, they certainly had to adapt quickly when Minnesota’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March 2020. Even for those companies that had remote staff, this was likely the first time where nearly everyone was working 100% remotely.

Today, what used to be an exception has now transitioned to being an expectation. “Hybrid work,” where employees regularly work a combination of in-person and remotely, is quickly being adopted by several local companies.

Target, Minneapolis’ largest employer, announced they’re switching to a hybrid work model and giving up 1 million square feet of office space. Multiple Twin Cities tech firms, according to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, are moving toward a hybrid work model post-pandemic, including Calabrio, Inc., HelpSystems and Irish Titan.

Jana Cinnamon, chief operating officer at Abdo, Eick & Meyers, LLP (AEM), advised CPAs to take note.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t going to apply to us,” she said.

Hybrid work models not only position businesses and firms as adaptive, but also attractive to future staff and clients. The more virtual our world becomes, the greater the competition for recruits and business will be. Cinnamon warned if the profession doesn’t figure out an effective hybrid experience, someone else will.

Young professionals in our survey echoed this need to embrace hybrid work models:
  • “Make working from home the norm, not the exception, and trust staff will get their work done.”
  • “Encourage change or at least be open to discussing change, even when [employers] have been set in their ways for decades.”
Cinnamon sees this time as an opportunity.

“There are companies and industries that have embraced hybrid environments prior to the pandemic,” she said. “The profession needs to keep up with these changes and make sure we’re not just offering it, but doing it well.”

Leadership in a hybrid world

“It’s not new skills that leaders need to have; it’s more intentionality around the skills.”

Transitioning to a hybrid work model will take more than just giving a laptop to an employee, a VPN (virtual private network) login and patting yourself on the back.

Laura Boyd, CEO of Leadership Delta, works with organizations and executive teams to help them develop sustainable growth. She tells her clients that their leadership skills in a hybrid environment need to be amplified to overcome virtual obstacles.

“It’s not new skills that leaders need to have; it’s more intentionality around the skills,” Boyd said. “You still need to be a strong leader and have strong guiding principles. But when you get into the virtual environment, you need to be a little clearer.”

Boyd and Cinnamon shared what they believe are essential leadership skills to tap into when managing in a hybrid environment:
  • Set a clear vision. What are your expectations for a successful hybrid work environment?
  • Align people to that vision. How are you communicating your vision for success? Are you communicating clearly, early and often enough?
  • Execute your vision. How are you motivating staff? Are you checking in and being available for questions?
“The principles of good and effective leadership are the same whether you’re remote, in person or a hybrid of the two,” Cinnamon added. 

CPAs should also take time to develop their emotional intelligence. Leading in a remote world requires heightened awareness of yourself and your virtual staff. Having a single conversation and assuming your expectations are clear will likely cause misunderstandings in a hybrid world.

“Employees aren’t Crock-Pots; you can’t set it and forget it,” said Cinnamon.

Addressing the elephant ‘not in the room’: culture

“Culture isn’t free food in the office or having happy hour at the end of the workday.”

A prominent concern with transitioning to a hybrid work model is how best to share the organization’s culture. At the surface, it does seem daunting. How will staff learn and embrace your work identity if they’ve never stepped foot in the office?

According to Boyd, leaders must first define what their virtual culture should look like. Identifying values, setting clear expectations and building trust are key to the culture-setting process.

“For example, if I’m building a virtual culture, the first value I would stress is making the hybrid environment a judgment-free zone,” said Boyd. “Judgment should have zero tolerance.”

Another value to consider when building a hybrid work culture is relationship building. Personal connections are often lost in virtual meetings because it’s natural to skip the chitchat and dive straight into the agenda. But without those moments, Boyd stressed that connections — and trust — are easily lost.

Young professionals expressed the same desire for connection in our MNCPA survey.

“Make sure to include out-of-work activities where people can still see each other if they’re not in the office every day,” one respondent indicated.

At AEM, Cinnamon said relationship-building remains one of their key values in a hybrid-work world.

“We’ve found new ways to interact in a remote setting,” said Cinnamon. For example, the traditional water-cooler conversation has been replaced with midday mixers over Zoom and discussion threads on their intranet.

Cinnamon challenged the concerns about sharing culture with remote staff by clarifying what culture means. 

“Culture isn’t free food in the office or having happy hour at the end of the workday,” she said. “Culture is about your values: How do you get things done, and what is the personality of your company?”

Recruiting, onboarding and retaining staff in a hybrid world

“Invest in people and treat them as your most valuable asset.”

As with leading and building a virtual culture, recruiting and onboarding tactics are also going to take a new level of intentionality and creativity.

“There’s opportunity to further expand recruiting efforts both geographically and in diversity of skills and background,” said Cinnamon. For example, Cinnamon pointed out that offering a hybrid work environment may be attractive to employees with young families who opted out of the profession because working from home better accommodates their needs.

Once those employees are hired, leaders must provide development opportunities for remote workers on a continual basis. Regular professional development conversations with remote staff will help identify their goals, as well as connect them to mentors and projects to help them develop their skills.

Young professional survey respondents echoed the desire for continued professional growth regardless of where they work:
  • “Invest in people and treat them as your most valuable asset, not something to be exploited.”
  • “Show more appreciation to staff by focusing on their professional growth and development through active coaching and mentoring.”
As simple as it all sounds, Boyd added it’s also important to ask if how you’re checking in is working. “Ask them, ‘This is how I normally check in, does this work for you? How can I better serve you?’ It’s about coming along side your employees.”

And, for those employees who may not feel comfortable sharing what they want directly with their supervisor, Cinnamon suggested offering multiple ways to collect feedback, such as an employee pulse survey.

“We’ve learned that what works for one person doesn’t work for another, so we’re trying to show up in different ways.”

With great change comes great opportunity

Change is never easy. But, often, the easy choice isn’t always the right choice.

The CPA profession is on the precipice of a big transition that could affect everything from retaining current staff to attracting students to pursue accounting careers. Future clients are watching, as well, to see how the profession responds and adapts to the changes brought about and accelerated by the pandemic.

Both Boyd and Cinnamon urged CPA leaders to embrace new patterns and habits in the workplace. The same service can be provided — it just may look different than before.

“Work has evolved for several years and things have changed for the better,” said Cinnamon. “We’ve adapted all along. This moment in time is no different.”

Carolyn LaViolette is the MNCPA communications manager and holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership. You may reach her at 

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