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29th January, 2019

How I made the switch to running a remote accounting firm

Canadian CPA and entrepreneur Ryan Lazanis shares his tale of striking out on his own – and ditching the traditional office in the process, shining a light on what’s possible for accountants in Australia and New Zealand.

Close to six years ago when I started my firm, I had zero clients, I had no real business but I did have a concept for an accounting firm.

The concept would be to make accounting easy, automated and pain-free for small business owners across Canada.

My firm would work with clients virtually, but one of the very first business decisions I made was to take on a lease for an office space. The thought of working from home just didn’t seem right, nor professional, and my thinking was that having a physical office would at least give a bit of credibility to the operation.

Running a remote accounting firm just didn’t seem like a good idea.


My first firm – the early years


It was also my first business and I’d never managed employees before, so when it was time to bring on my first team member back in 2013, I didn’t think that it could be done in any other way other than to have my new team member report to the office daily. And looking back, it was the right decision at the time. In fact, I don’t know how I would have dealt with this otherwise given my lack of experience.

I also strongly believed at the time that to build a culture, it was important for people to actually work together face-to-face in the same location.

And for several years I was happy with a physical office. It was an open office concept, modelled after some of the tech startups that you see around – free snacks, unlimited coffee with several coffee machines, an office scooter, basketball net, foosball table and so on.

The space definitely didn’t look like an accounting firm, which I thought was pretty cool.

READ: Why your practice is unsellable on paper

Working hours were flexible and from time-to-time some people would work from home, but generally speaking everyone would be working in the same office at pretty much the same time.

About three years in, one of my employees approached me, mentioning that he would be moving to Ottawa. He was a valuable team member who had been with us for over a year and we didn’t want to lose him. So we suggested to try out a remote work situation with him to see how things would work out.

I was always big into experimenting with new ideas in the firm, from running an accounting firm with no timesheets, to trying new technology, so this would just be another experiment for us. By doing so, this would allow us to experiment and work out some of the kinks of how to maintain a culture remotely, even if it was just with one team member.

And so began our shift to a hybrid accounting firm model.


The hybrid approach


A hybrid model is when some of your team work from an office while another part of your team works remotely.

Although I knew others running a purely remote accounting firm, for me it was always about different strokes for different folks, and even though we were early on our path towards running a remote accounting firm, I was still skeptical about how well a remote firm would suit our team and culture.

The team member who moved to Ottawa was already familiar to us, so we didn’t have to really onboard him from scratch. He already knew the apps, clients and team, so it was an easy transition truthfully, and we were able to work through a few relatively minor kinks in our process early on.

Quickly, we saw just how well this whole arrangement was working out for the company and our team member.

Other team members saw this and decided to work remotely more often as well. We started seeing happier employees and happier employees means increased productivity and retention.

Shortly after that, we decided to hire our first remote team member all the way on the other side of the country. With our first team member that went remote, we had already known him and so did the team. In this instance, we were literally trying to bring someone into our culture and team who we have never met in person, so my concerns were mostly cultural and relating to team integration.

READ: 5 tips for keeping remote staff motivated

To alleviate these concerns, we decided to put additional emphasis on the onboarding process for at least the very first few weeks, which would include lots of touchpoints with different people on the team. There were way more touchpoints than what you would probably get with in a normal, physical office setting, and with all members of the team.

This, again, worked very well.

Following this, we were sold on the concept of having completely remote team members without even having to meet them in-person.

All job postings were advertised as remote positions. Even those applying from where our head office would be, were treated as remote team members.

From this point onwards, there was no turning back. We were officially on our path to becoming a fully remote accounting firm.

 

This article is the first in a two-part series with Canada-based CPA, Ryan Lazanis. Click here to read the following instalment.

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