July 1, 2014 was the Blumer CPAs 2 year anniversary of being a virtual firm. We messed some stuff up, but have also learned a lot. I believe our virtualness sets us apart, so we are committed to getting better at being a virtual firm. So that I can add to my learning around being virtual, I’m documenting 9 things we’ve learned in 2 years of being virtual.
First, let me define virtual. We do not have offices, and thus we don’t exist anywhere except at a web address. But you could have firm offices and still be virtual to your clients. In that scenario, the team still meets together in one location, but the clients may or may not come to your offices. I don’t call that virtual, I call that paperless. Virtual in my definition is when a client can not assume that they have access to you physically. It’s a totally different mindset, and that’s why I’m defining it.
1. It’s not for everyone.
Being virtual is not necessarily a better strategy, but it certainly is a differentiating strategy. That’s why I like it. I like to be set apart from my brethren in the profession and I believe our virtualness accomplishes this nicely. But it can cause problems too. The wrong employees will not thrive in a virtual setting, so you may need to make employee changes, or improve your hiring process to address the fact that you are virtual.
2. Everything is fueled by trust.
You don’t have in person relationships you can rely on for communication in a virtual setting. Trust becomes so important that you have to start stating it overtly as a requirement before you can do work together. Trust becomes the fuel you can’t work without. A lack of trust becomes the reason people have to leave a virtual company because of its importance to working successfully with the team. You can’t always see if things are happening so you have to trust things are happening.
3. Don’t trust trust.
I know this is a weird point, but it relates to #2 above. Since trust is so important, you have to build processes around making sure people are in fact trustworthy and accountable. You can’t just hope for trust in a virtual company. Even though trust is foundational to running a virtual company, it is important that you build a foundation where people can be supported, held accountable, and you know what is going on.
4. Business model changes lead to other great things.
Transitioning into a virtual company led to further changes I never anticipated. Becoming virtual forced our hand at being intentional about culture, processes, and team retreats. We would have never been intentional about building the right culture, making our processes more explicit to our customers, or investing in an annual team retreat had our virtualness not forced us to do it.
5. Virtual team roles are glamorized.
Many potential team members love the idea of working alone and doing what they want. But, in reality, it takes a special kind of person to work in a virtual environment. The autonomous, virtual employee is glamorized. But it is a difficult role where many responsibilities are carried alone, and there is limited camaraderie when the going gets tough. You are forced to talk yourself out of bad moods, convince yourself you are valuable, and give yourself pats on the back when no one is there to do it for you. Successful virtual team members thrive with strong family support and a stable life.
6. You won’t always know what anyone is doing.
Let me clarify this. I mean you can’t see (with your eyes) what people are doing every minute of every day. You must know that work is being done, but you won’t know when and how people are doing their work. You have to be comfortable with this. When I speak about having a virtual firm, many CPAs ask me, “how do you know what everyone is doing?” I need clarification on this question. Do you mean “How do you know if people are working between 9 and 5?” or “Are people accomplishing their work?” You can’t know the former, but you absolutely must know the latter. I had to become comfortable with this reality, and trust (see #2) allowed me to relax and realize I didn’t need to know everything.
7. There are things you can’t allow.
When you are virtual, you have to tell your clients, “I can’t come to your office,” or “I can’t receive paper from you and we will never deliver paper to you,” or “you won’t likely be able to get anyone on the phone when you call us.” Back to point #1, not everyone will like these rules. But there are rules you have to operate under. If you don’t tell your clients there are new rules that you operate under, they will make wrong assumptions about how you will serve them. You can’t allow certain things in a virtual firm, and you have to tell your clients what is and is not allowed.
8. Operating a virtual company is highly valued by the right employee and client.
It may be true that a virtual model is not for everyone, but it is right for some. Actually, it is excellent for the right employee or client! The right employee will thrive in this model, and the right client will pay you more in this model simply because they value it more highly. Some team members are just made to excel at working independently. When you find them, you have a gold mine.
9. You can’t manage people based upon time.
I know there are virtual companies out there that still bill by the hour. But if you let #6 above punch you in the face, you have to face the fact that you will never know if your employees’ time sheets are accurate. You can’t check this, and you certainly can’t manage anyone this way. It will mess with your head. As the leader of your firm, you could start wondering why something took so long, knowing there is never a way to confirm that time sheet unless you come out and say, “it seems your time sheets don’t really reflect what I think you are doing.” And you do not want to go there. You’ve just begun to tear down trust when you question a metric you ultimately can’t even prove is wrong or right (see #2). The best way to do this is to stop thinking you can even manage people. You manage work, not people, so get busy trying to figure out where the work is, what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how to deliver your work accurately and timely.
In summary, I can say I would never go back to a traditional model. I can’t believe how much I love to work at home, see my family, and do taxes in my pajamas. It’s freaking awesome. Nobody bugs me and I don’t have to worry about the busy commute. We’ve had to correct our path a number of times, and we’ve hired and fired a few times already because of our virtual decisions. But we are a wiser firm. I would say we now have the best clients in the world, being served by the best team we have ever had, and making more money than we ever have. I hope more firms take the virtual route… if you think it’s right for you!
Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children. Stay connected with Jason by signing up at JasonBlumer.com.