At a time when many accounting firms are struggling to find and retain qualified staff, San Francisco’s Navolio & Tallman has added a robot to its team.
The machine, called the Beam mobile presence system, is more of a mobile video conferencing setup, rather than an artificially intelligent computer. It moves on wheels and has a “face” much like a tablet, and any employee can access the robot via an app on their smartphone to control its movement and have their face appear on its screen, so they can interact with other employees from remote locations.
With all those capabilities, it offers tremendous potential as a recruiting and retention tool for the firm.
A FOCUS ON THE TEAM
Navolio & Tallman was founded in 2007 with a vision of entrepreneurial accounting. “We wanted to do something different,” managing and founding partner John Navolio recalled. “It started with a vision of how important it was to have a dynamic, entrepreneurial, hard-charging, smart group of people and how to keep them motivated and engaged so that ultimately the client experience would be as good as it could possibly be. We started at the ground floor with the importance of the team.”
That focus on staff satisfaction created a natural path for the partners to bring on Beam. Navolio explained that the robot was added in response to an employee needing to work remotely. Staff accountant Diana Brooks was moving to San Diego – 500 miles from the firm’s home in San Francisco – for personal reasons, and planned to resign. Navolio saw no reason to lose a good employee to geography, so he sought a solution.
“We’re really big on leveraging technology to provide flexibility on where and when people work,” he said. “Most of us work from home at least 50 days a year.”
The firm’s work-from-home culture is robust. Another “home run” initiative that Navolio & Tallman rolled out a year ago was the compressed work week. After April 15, employees work nine hours a day Monday through Thursday, and work from home Friday with the day ending at noon. During the tax season, staff members do work on Saturdays, but they can do that from home as well.
“We noticed our staff looked and showed that they were more rested,” Navolio said. “That little change on Saturdays of not having to get dressed and commute made a big difference in the quality and productivity of people.”
Navolio takes the idea of the “virtual office” seriously, and wants to establish an effective one for his firm. When the robot was introduced to the firm’s employees, it was during a meeting, and Brooks rolled into the conference room via her app. “Everyone thought it was incredible and were anxious to use it,” Navolio said.
“Everything I’ve read and seminars I’ve attended on virtual offices stress the importance of having face time with employees working remotely,” he said. “It’s really critical. So we’ve been trying to come up with ways for Brooks to feel like she’s not isolated and that she’s part of the team. We were looking into video conferencing equipment, and then we started brainstorming ways to include her not just in team meetings but also birthday cake celebrations in the kitchen. The robot became a pretty obvious and good solution because it’s mobile.”
For her part, Brooks said that the robot “has added a human element” by allowing her to travel around the office, interact with her colleagues and attend meetings “seamlessly” as though she is physically present.
THE LURE OF TECHNOLOGY
Adding robotics to the firm’s environment, in Navolio’s eyes, is directly tied to recruiting and retention. With a price tag of $2,000, the robot, made by Suitable Technologies, is not prohibitively expensive. Navolio said that he definitely can see adding more robots in the future as the need arises, and observed that the next generation of accountants graduating from school and looking for firms to join “knows it makes their job and life easier if you invest in technology.”
“I think it’s a recruiting tool,” he explained. “People coming out of school ask about technology; they want to know if you are current and that you invest in technology, because they know it makes their job and life easier if you do. This is directly tied to recruiting and retention.”
The dive into employee satisfaction goes even deeper: Navolio & Tallman uses an organizational management system, an HR assessment tool to help identify what motivates individual people. For instance, one accountant may need variety to stay motivated; another may need strict deadlines. According to Navolio, his staff understands that the results of this assessment are not used to penalize them, but rather to create a bespoke work environment for each person.
The firm also pays for each staff member to go through Toastmasters. “We want to ensure people have the confidence for oral communication,” Navolio explained. “We spend a lot of money on training. With the sophistication of our clientele, people have to learn the technical side of things on a very high level.”
Staff happiness has another benefit, outside of simply eliciting better work: It helps the firm’s accountants connect with its exclusive clientele. The firm serves high-net-worth individuals, many of whom are Silicon Valley executives. Navolio described working with these clients as extremely gratifying, partly because over time he and his employees get to know these clients in an intimate way. In working with them on tax minimization, entity structuring and so on, the accountants get to know their clients’ personal lives, their victories and challenges, and even their families.
“Working with individuals is much more personal than working with organizations,” Navolio said. “In order to be a top advisor, you have to know them on a personal level. These kinds of clients are interesting, smart, and have a lot going on. They trust and rely on us a lot, and relationships with them become not just business relationships but personal friendships over the years. It’s really excellent in terms of gratification.”