Accountant working remotely
Accountant working remotely

The Benefits of Building a Virtual Team

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Having a virtual team started when one of the tax preparers on my staff was moving out of state. She was a great employee. She was smart, reliable, honest, and hardworking, and the returns she prepared were accurate. I did not want to lose her as part of our AdminBooks team, so I had to figure out how we could have her help prepare returns outside our local office. This was the catalyst for our company business model of hiring virtual workers.

Last year, I conducted my own survey in which I interviewed both virtual workers and employers who currently have a virtual team. I asked them about the benefits and concerns they have about working virtually. Here is what I found.

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Team From the Employee’s Perspective

Virtual workers are thrilled that they no longer commute to work. Long hours on the road lead to stress. Depending on the geographic location, statistics show that people spend an average of 25 to 45 minutes commuting to work one way. When there is no commute, there are none of the regular auto expenses, such as gas, repairs, and wear and tear on the vehicle. Other added benefits of working virtually include reduced costs for professional wardrobe and less money spent on the occasional lunches eaten away from the office.

Virtual workers typically have a flexible schedule. Depending on the policies at your firm, they may have the opportunity to work any time, whether it be day or night. One employer I interviewed mentioned they used to have strict hours that they required for the virtual worker to clock in and clock out, but then realized that results were more important.

Since the virtual worker can have flexibility in their schedule, they also can achieve an ideal work/life balance. It is easier for them to take off in the middle of the day to attend an event at their child’s school, schedule a doctor’s appointment or run an errand. Knowing they have scheduling flexibility not only relieves stress and improves overall mental health, but also encourages a greater sense of responsibility, ownership and control of their working life.

One virtual worker I surveyed said the best thing about working from home was that they could dress nicely one day for a webcam meeting with a client and wear sweats and slippers the following day!

Some cons mentioned in the survey were having to acclimate to time zone differences. My firm is in California, and two of my virtual workers are on the East Coast. We schedule appointments using Pacific Time, which means they must be aware of the time difference and adapt to it. After all, when our office opens at 9 a.m., it’s already lunch time for them!

A handful of people I surveyed mentioned one of the disadvantages of working virtually is loneliness. Going long periods of time without co-worker interaction can cause some virtual workers to feel isolated and not part of the team. Many tax pros are introverts, but when you take it to the extreme, it can impact attitude and spirit.

When working virtually, employees do not have the opportunity for office small talk. Think of a typical Monday morning in an office — greeting co-workers and having conversations about weekend activities. In a virtual environment, reaching out to your teammates when you have not met in person can seem awkward. With the use of technology, however, virtual workers can solidify a connection to their in-office counterparts.

Several people I surveyed mention technology issues can especially be problematic for the virtual worker. One issue is having to learn a bunch of different programs in order to stay connected in the cloud. Another challenge with technology may be feeling dead in the water if the power is out or the internet is down. If the screen-sharing software has a glitch, it puts everything to a stop. There isn’t anything that can be done about sporadic incidents. They are just as likely to happen in an office environment; it’s not an issue that is exclusive to being a virtual worker.

Another challenge is having the self-discipline to stay focused and not get distracted at home. Personal projects like dirty dishes in the sink or a pile of laundry to fold can take the worker down a rabbit trail that leads to productivity issues.

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Team From the Employer’s Perspective

One of the main reasons AdminBooks hired virtual workers was the limited local resources. When I listed a job ad in my town of 40,000 people, I struggled with finding the right fit. However, when I put out the same job ad for a virtual worker, the floodgates were opened with highly qualified, hungry workers who possessed great attitudes!

Workers who are allowed to telecommute tend to be happier and more loyal. This means less turnover and higher productivity. In fact, Stanford University research found that productivity increases by 13 percent when a worker can perform their responsibilities virtually.

When your team is virtual, no longer do you have to purchase additional office space, which will reduce overhead expenses. You will also save money on electrical, water and equipment costs.

While the lack of “water cooler talk” may make the worker feel isolated, the benefit is that there is no wasted time with excessive personal conversations. That’s 65 hours a year!! Multiply that by the workers’ burden rate times the number of people standing around listening … it can really add up!

Some employers report that when a worker is virtual and no one is there to physically watch them, their fear is that they will pad their time card with hours they did not actually work. Fortunately, we haven’t experienced that problem because we have a target number of hours it takes to prepare each return and complete monthly bookkeeping. If there is an overage of time spent, it is either a scope of work change for the client or a training issue with the worker. Most people are honest and will not cushion their time card when they know there is a budget.

Another challenge that we at AdminBooks take very seriously is data security. How do you control the security of confidential information when the team member works from another state? Stay tuned … we will address this in detail below.

At AdminBooks, we have 12 core values that we practice. It defines who we are as a team and what we do. It sets an expectation. But, when a worker is virtual, it becomes challenging to build culture from these values. The worker may not feel the same sense of belonging because they don’t have the office contact or dialog. A key solution is to get the team to collaborate and have the virtual workers feel invested and engaged. To set a foundation, we provide our virtual workers with a handbook with successful tips on engaging with the team.

When team members are spread in different locations, managers may have a more difficult time supervising their team. No longer can you walk down the hall and stop at somebody’s desk to check in. In the office, you can rely on body language cues and more easily recognize when your worker is stressed or unfocused.

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