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Career Advancement Continues, Even During Pandemic

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Apr 1, 2021

The rapid shift to remote work—and the attendant loss of face-to-face office interactions—has not affected how CPA firm leaders decide who is ready for a promotion, as being absent from the office carries little to no stigma in the pandemic age.

While remote work has been around for years, several studies have associated teleworking with reduced career advancement. One of the earlier looks at this phenomenon was a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study, which found that those who primarily telecommute may get lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than those who work in an office, even if there is no difference in how hard or how long they worked.

Similarly, a Stanford study from 2013 found that remote workers, even when they were more productive than those at the office, were still 50 percent less likely to receive a performance-based promotion than their physically present colleagues.

Another study, from 2017, published in Academy of Management Journal, found that while those who occasionally telecommute can see career benefits, “generally the extent of teleworking was negatively associated with promotions and salary growth,” until one reaches a very high level of telecommuting hours, at which point the penalty tapers off.

The reasons why are varied. The MIT study, for example, found that managers are biased in favor of people they see around the office. The Stanford study suggested that remote workers are out of sight, out of mind, and so their performance is less likely to be noticed by managers who could promote them. The Academy of Management Journal study, meanwhile, said that remote work “signals a lack of commitment to one’s career” to the leadership.

None of these factors, however, apply to CPA firm leaders managing staff during the pandemic era. For instance, with regard to the amount of face time people get with leadership, Fred Berk, co-managing partner at Friedman LLP, noted that the staff has been in continual communication with each other since the shift to remote work, particularly when it comes to meetings via Zoom.

“We still have lots of face time, with constant ... communications with staff and all my partners. We have ongoing Zoom and [Microsoft] Team meetings, HR is reaching out to staff and having meetings with them on an ongoing basis. I think we’re in touch with our people more now than before,” he said, adding that the firm offered many promotions and raises in October “because people deserve it, and everyone’s working hard, given the difficult circumstances people are under.”

A February 2020 study by the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute revealed that, prepandemic, firm culture was a key factor in determining whether remote workers received promotions. The study found that telecommuters were promoted more when they worked in offices where working from home was widely accepted, yet in offices where few people telecommuted, those employees received fewer promotions. It stands to reason that, as telecommuting has become widely accepted during the pandemic, it no longer ­presents a significant barrier to promotion. Partners at other firms affirm that this is the case.

Bernard M. Holand, a senior partner at Perelson Weiner LLP, said that everyone at his firm is in continual contact with each other, which has led to plenty of face time with staff, even if it’s through a screen. He added that, with today’s technology, face-to-face meetings aren’t as important as they were before, given the wide variety of ways to reach someone. Often, the specific form of contact is less important than its quality.

“When people want to be in touch with you, it’s not only face-to-face meetings,” he said. “They send emails or they text at 11 p.m., and if you respond timely, they’re satisfied, and you have a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what clients want in their servicing—to receive prompt, accurate and caring responses.”

Holand noted that, in general, he has prioritized the ability to “maintain focus, multitask and manage” in determining who qualifies for advancement—all qualities, he said, that the pandemic has extensively tested in his firm. Through these tests, he found that certain staff members were actually thriving in this new environment, the proof being their output. He brought up, as an example, one staff person who “decided to stay home and raise young children,” whom he described as “a superstar” at working remotely, especially managing staff. Holand referenced another one who, similarly, has taken well to a flexible work-from-home schedule, saying, “I would not be surprised if, a year from now, [that person] wasn’t offered a partnership in the firm.”

“So what I’m saying, in summary, is if the person is technically skilled, if the person is a nice person, if the person is hardworking, I don’t believe they have to be physically in the office 24/7,” he said.

This moment has been similarly revealing for Louis C. Grassi, managing partner and CEO of Grassi, who has seen some staff members having difficulty managing the transition to remote work, while others are doing so very nicely.

“Some are much better than others. Some people are more focused, and some people get, maybe, less easily distracted. But we are seeing people who have really excelled in working remotely,” he said.

Grassi does not think that working remotely signals a lack of commitment to the future of the firm or to one’s career. He noted that while the firm’s New York City office is technically open, there are always very few people there because the firm does not allow people to get there via public transportation, “so our suburban offices are more populated than our urban office.” Despite this, he said, “We have been very fortunate to bring in a lot of new business, which brings about opportunities. And every time we bring in an opportunity, there’s a whole pursuit team that is involved, so we’re constantly getting our people in everything, and not just partners, but staff people.” While productivity did drop off a little after Memorial Day—Grassi assumed that the weather got nicer and people wanted to go out more—he said that, as the summer went by, there was an uptick in productivity, predominantly because there were two tax deadlines.

“I think our people are great. They’re firm first.” he said.

Robert R. Ritz, managing partner of D’Arcangelo & Co., LLP, was similarly unconcerned about how the shift to remote work would affect promotions, saying that the criteria are still the same. This year, he said, management might focus a little more on production output by looking at the firm’s time and billing system, so “we’ll be able to tell if people are still being as productive as they were in the past, working from home versus working in the office.” But overall, Ritz said, there wouldn’t be any impact.

“We’re still going to be looking at the same metrics we looked at in the past, and even without face time with some people that have been working from home, I don’t think that will impact them positively or negatively,” he said.

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