Prior studies have shown a positive relationship between perceived organizational support (i.e., the degree to which employees feel that their employer cares about their welfare) and organizational commitment (i.e., an employee’s emotional attachment to the employer). CPA firm employees who feel supported by their firm, supervisors, and co-workers may feel obligated to reciprocate that support in the form of firm commitment and enhanced productivity.
Examples of organizational support include alternative work arrangements to mitigate stress and help employees balance work and personal obligations. Many CPA firms have already implemented these types of initiatives, including part-time status, flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, or work-from-home options. Such opportunities have shown to lead to increased job satisfaction, higher productivity levels, and reduced turnover.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the work from home “option” into a requirement for most professionals, as firms adhered to local guidelines to protect their employees. This shift in the work environment forced professionals to complete work duties from home, remote from their firm offices, supervisors, co-workers, and clients. CPA firms, researchers, and regulators have worked to provide guidance in addressing the technical challenges that professionals are encountering as a result. However, are these professionals still feeling supported by their firms and co-workers during this period of “disconnect?” To address this question, this survey focuses on the impact of COVID-19 remote working arrangements on accountants’ perceptions of firm and co-worker support and provides suggestions to both professionals and firms to address these issues in this ever-changing work environment.
This survey was developed and administered in Qualtrics and sent to invited participants via e-mail in November 2020. Participants were accountants working in audit, tax, and consulting services at U.S. public accounting firms. The survey contained six sets of questions adapted from previous research used to assess perceived support at both the firm and co-worker levels. Participants were asked to assess each question set based on their experiences with their current accounting firm both “before the start of remote working arrangements due to COVID-19” and “since the start of remote working arrangements due to COVID-19.” Responses were measured with a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). Demographic information was also collected from respondents with regard to gender, age, years with current firm, title, service line, professional certifications, highest degree level, and firm size.
The analysis included 172 complete responses. Senior-level employees made up the largest group of the sample (33%), followed by staff (27%), managers (18%), partners/directors (12%), and senior managers (10%). The sample consisted of an even number of female (49%) and male (51%) respondents. A majority (59%) of respondents work in the audit service line, 33% in tax, and 8% in advisory. Most (53%) of the respondents work at Big Four firms (53%), followed by national/mid-size (37%), and regional/local (10%). Three out of four respondents (73%) hold at least one professional certification (i.e., CPA, CMA, CFE).
The survey included three general statements about perceived firm support and three general statements about perceived co-worker support. Participants were asked to respond to the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements twice: first, based on their experience with before the start of remote working arrangements due to COVID-19 and second, based on their experience afterward. The Exhibit presents a summary of the survey results discussed below.
Perceived firm support.
The first statement was: “My firm strongly considers my goals and values.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 72% of respondents agreed with this statement, 15% disagreed, and 13% were neutral. Since COVID-19, agreement has decreased to 60%, while disagreement has increased to 28%, with neutral consistent at 12%.
The second statement was: “My firm really cares about my well-being.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 70% of respondents agreed with this statement, 22% disagreed, and 8% were neutral. Since COVID-19, agreement has decreased to 60%, while disagreement has increased to 28%, with neutral similar at 12%.
The third statement was: “My firm shows very little concern for me.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 71% of respondents disagreed with this statement, 19% agreed, and 10% were neutral. Since COVID-19, disagreement has decreased to 64%, while agreement has increased to 26%, with neutral consistent at 10%.
The results for these statements suggest that, overall, CPAs have experienced a decreasing sense of firm support for remote working arrangements since COVID-19 began.
Perceived co-worker support.
The first statement was: “My co-workers strongly consider my goals and values.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 73% of respondents agreed with this statement, 15% disagreed, and 12% were neutral. Since COVID-19, agreement has decreased to 68%, while disagreement has remained steady at 16%, with neutral increasing to 16%.
The second statement was: “My co-workers really care about my well-being.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 81% of respondents agreed with this statement, 11% disagreed, and 8% were neutral. Since COVID-19, agreement has decreased to 76%, while disagreement has remained steady at 12%, with neutral increasing to 12%.
The third statement was: “My co-workers show very little concern for me.” CPAs’ experience before COVID-19 indicates that 81% of respondents disagreed with this statement, 11% agreed, and 8% were neutral. Since COVID-19, disagreement has decreased to 73%, while agreement has increased to 16%, with neutral increasing to 11%.
The results suggest that, overall, CPAs have experienced a decreasing sense of co-worker support for remote working arrangements since COVID-19 began, but not to the extent of the decrease expressed for firm support.
The survey concluded with an open-ended question for participants to volunteer additional thoughts on remote working arrangements due to COVID-19.
Upper-level employees were frustrated by the lack of firm support:
“Some firms approached layoffs/compensation freezes differently, but regardless, the impact felt was that employees were just numbers and not people.”
—Manager, Tax, Big Four
“The hardest part is that my firm let people go, but our workload did not decrease; instead if anything, it increased, so we are now expected to do the same amount of work or more with fewer people.”
—Senior Manager, Audit, National/Mid-Size
“Many auxiliary benefits have been cut as a result of working from home. Outside of the firm sponsored happy hours and connectivity; we are also losing out on expensing meals, supplies, etc., which are no longer reimbursable while working remote.”
—Manager, Audit, Big Four
These sentiments were shared by seniors and staff, who expressed feeling a lack of gratitude and a mismatch between stated firm policy and the actual remote working situation:
“Generally, pre–COVID-19 the firm I work for specifically was much better about rewarding hard work by providing incentives such as monetary gifts from co-workers, team lunches to celebrate the end of a big deadline, monetary rewards for maintaining well-being, etc. With the post–COVID-19 environment, the work has gotten to be even more significant without the rewards that were previously offered, creating an environment for auditor burnout.”
—Senior, Audit, Big Four
“The firm as a whole has showed zero gratitude towards us. They gave us one emotional day [for] social issues in our country, but we have had zero knowledge about raises/promotions.”
—Senior, IT Audit, Big Four
“Communication from the firm is lacking and they provide mixed messages. My firm recently started a health and wellness program to help employees manage their stress by creating a separation between home time and work time, but then the same day sent out an announcement about downloading an app to get the audit software onto our phones so that we could get notifications about the status of workpapers.”
—Senior, Audit, Big Four
“The problem with firms is they put so much emphasis on work life flexibility and well-being, but it does basically nothing in the individual audit team level, especially since there isn’t enough staff to go around…at the firm level it all looks perfect, and that we have a great balance.”
—Staff, Audit, Big Four
“Firm-wide messages have been centered on values and taking breaks when needed, but the engagement level communication is far different and much more concerned with getting the work done for the clients than taking care of firm employees.”
—Staff, Audit, Big Four
Lastly, the importance of co-worker support in the profession was highlighted:
“One of the biggest advantages of working in public accounting is the ability to work with great people that are often close to your age. Often times, going into the office and actually seeing and talking to my co-workers is the highlight of my day. In the current work environment, as in-person social interactions are impossible, one of the main, if not the biggest, advantages of this job no longer exists.”
—Senior, Audit, Big Four
“I also think [remote work] has emphasized the need for teams to be in person to maintain our culture. The people you work with really make or break the job, so I think a balance of remote and in person in the future is ideal.”
—Senior, Tax, Big Four
The results of this survey suggest that, overall, since remote working began as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, CPAs’ perceptions of their firm’s support and their coworkers’ support have decreased. This has several practical implications. Some firms have considered the effects of remote working on their employees and how these could lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, burnout, and other mental health issues (“Recovery Starts with Safety and Confidence,” https://pwc.to/3brlYqk; “COVID-19: The New Reality of Work and the Virtual Workforce,” https://bit.ly/3ujgR4q). This survey corroborates these concerns and demonstrates that CPAs perceive reduced support from co-workers and firms. As revealed by the comments from participants, CPAs feel that they are missing out on some of the perks or advantages of the profession, and are overwhelmed with the added responsibilities and burdens of working remotely.
Given these results, CPA firms should look for ways to mitigate these issues. Several academic studies have shown a link between organizational support (which includes perceived firm and co-worker support) with turnover. For example, in “The Auditor-Audit Firm Relationship and Its Effect on Burnout and Turnover Intention,” David N. Herda and James J. Lavelle reported that perceived organizational support ultimately reduces turnover intention (Accounting Horizons, December 2012, pp. 707–723, https://doi.org/10.2308/acch-50181). As a result, firms should continue to closely monitor the well-being of their employees. Offering various firm-wide wellness resources and work-life balance initiatives is important, but as the findings indicate, actual implementation at the office or engagement level is also necessary. In addition, firms should consider which elements of working in the office are missed most by employees and how they can be safely replicated during the pandemic. Similarly, CPA firms should seek feedback from their employees on their perceptions of work-life balance and how it could be improved. Losing quality employees can be avoided through engaging with employees during this time of disconnection from their firms and coworkers.
It should be noted that this survey provides a brief overview of the status of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. It does not necessarily represent the view of all public accountants, but the trends and findings of this survey should make firms aware of how their employees are coping.
This research was supported by a Summer Research Grant from the Zarb School of Business at Hofstra University.