Onboarding in a Virtual Environment
In a recent column, we talked about the relationship between onboarding and recruiting. That discussion relates to all firms. Virtual firms face onboarding/recruiting issues, too, but with components traditional brick-and-mortar firms don’t encounter. We spoke with Jason Blumer, managing partner of Blumer CPAs, to talk about how onboarding works in a firm like his. “The process is entirely different,” he said. “For one thing, it is impossible for us to hire interns or entry-level people. At least at this point. We’ve been virtual for a while now (four and one-half years) and we still can’t get a handle on how we would be able to do the training that would be needed.”
Instead, Blumer looks for people leaving the corporate sector or small businesses. He’s found that hiring people who’ve had experience at other firms have a harder time adjusting to a workplace that is both virtual and based on value billing rather than hourly billing.
If you have the right personality, working at a virtual firm can offer big rewards in terms of lifestyle. For the most part, work habits don’t matter (you can work in your pjs or at 2 AM) as long as you satisfy your clients and follow the firm’s the processes and procedures. For Blumer’s firm, which value bills, that includes sticking to the scope of work outlined in the client’s contract since the firm doesn’t get paid more if you do extra work.
The virtual aspect of Blumer’s firm starts with the interview process. Technology has helped greatly since there are a number of products that allow people to see each other and interact (e.g., SitePoint and Capterra). “It would be better to meet in person, but that’s difficult. It comes down to asking the right questions and forming some sort of bond during the interview. We’ve been fairly successful in our hires; one person stayed with us 10 years and another 8 years. We’ve also had to let two people go because they weren’t the right fit.”
Training occurs through screen sharing at scheduled times. Topics include technical software, just like at brick-and-mortar firms, and project management/workflow software. It is the latter that allows Blumer to track how the work is proceeding. Critical issues are handled immediately and weekly meetings define how the work is going and whether any questions have arisen.
This carries forward to the firm’s weekly meetings, which are designed to help build a sticky firm culture that encourages employee retention. The meetings focus on team building. They usually begin with a question like “what are your unknown superpowers and what’s your kryptonite?” Someone is assigned to start the conversation. Firm news and celebrations are noted. From there, conversation flows freely and, as Blumer says, “the meeting goes where it’s supposed to go that day.”
And, even in a virtual firm, nothing takes the place of in-person meetings. That’s why Blumer initiated an annual retreat lasting for one and one-half days. The meeting is casual; the goal is to help develop a team feeling in a virtual environment.
If you buy-in to the idea that onboarding morphs into keep-boarding, as we do, the process is ongoing.