As accounting firms refine their business strategies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely that paraprofessionals will loom large in their plans. There are few things more important today than an adaptable workforce — and paraprofessionals fit the bill. They can be full- or part-time, depending on your needs. They can work on-site, as remote employees and as contractors, giving you multiple options as part of a flexible staffing strategy.
Common specialties for paraprofessionals in accounting include:
- Accounting clerk
- Accounts payable/receivable
- Billing specialist
- Payroll specialist
While these are essential and often demanding roles, paraprofessionals don’t require the same level of accreditation and licensing as a certified public accountant. Adding paraprofessionals to your staff, therefore, can streamline your firm’s processes and reduce costs. Here are some thoughts on how to build and manage a successful team of paraprofessionals.
Attracting the right candidates
The hiring process for accounting paraprofessionals begins before you post a job. Spend time asking yourself and colleagues the following questions:
- What do we need? Are you looking for a full-time employee to work on major client accounts? Or do you have a short-term project an interim professional might be the right fit for?
- What kind of experience will our hire need? Most firms prefer paraprofessionals with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, or those with equivalent work experience — usually a minimum of three years in a finance or accountancy position. Depending on your requirements, you may also need someone with a Certified Accounting Paraprofessional (CAP) certification, which is the industry standard. It validates a candidate’s knowledge of accounting functions such as bookkeeping, payroll and tax services.
- What skills should candidates bring to the table? Paraprofessionals should have experience working with financial software such as Microsoft Office, Excel, QuickBooks and QuickBooks Online. Candidates will also need soft skills and to fit with your organizational culture. At a time when many employees are working either remotely or in offices redesigned for social distancing, qualities such as a flexible mindset and the ability to work independently should be near the top of your list for personal attributes.
Interviews — remote or in person
After you’ve narrowed your list of candidates based on resume reviews, set aside time for interviews. Due to COVID-19, this is much trickier now than it was a few months ago, and there’s every chance you’ll be interacting with candidates remotely via video calls.
This is challenging in one sense but advantageous in another: You’ll get the chance to assess first-hand how candidates handle themselves in a remote setting, which is especially important if your new hire will be starting the job remotely. During the call, watch for signs of politeness and mastery of video technology. For example, do candidates know to look at the camera, not the screen? Do their facial expressions and body movements show they are comfortable with the process? Do they quickly establish a rapport with you?
As well as asking them about their work experience and technical skills, give candidates the chance to speak in more personal terms about what they enjoy most about working in accounting and what they think they can bring to this particular role. There are no right or wrong answers to questions like: “What do you consider the top three skills of a great bookkeeper?” — but the way a candidate responds can tell you a lot about them. Do they seem passionate about their work? Do they communicate their thoughts clearly?
Managing your team
Adding to your paraprofessional team is only part of your role as a manger, of course. You’ve also got to ensure the full group remains productive and satisfied with their work. Keep these tips in mind, whether your team is in-house, working remotely or some of both.
- Set clear expectations — but don’t be rigid. Clearly communicate to your staff how you will evaluate their performance and ability to satisfy clients. They’ll appreciate knowing what’s expected of them, and in the current circumstances, they’ll hope for some flexibility from you in return. Be sure to provide this, particularly to people who work from home. For example, while many remote workers prefer to work “normal” hours, others will need a more fluid schedule if they’re to maintain their work-life balance in a topsy-turvy world.
- Put the right technology in place. Make sure your employees have access to the programs and platforms they need to do their jobs. This includes financial software such as QuickBooks and the latest work-at-home equipment and communications apps, such as Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Basecamp and Slack. Additionally, consider reimbursement for Wi-Fi at home to ensure seamless connection to your workplace.
- Keep in regular touch. Your employees could begin to falter if they stop communicating with you and each other as often as they did when all of you were co-located. Schedule regular check-in video meetings to catch up on key projects and share updates as well as compare personal experiences, as appropriate.
- Show appreciation and support. Whether your team is in-house or remote, it’s important all members feel valued and appreciated. Share positive feedback and plan some activities to help your employees unwind, especially after busy times of the year. Schedule one-to-ones to check in to see how people are doing, and be sure to offer constructive support if they seem overworked.
With thoughtful recruitment and smart, flexible management, paraprofessionals can be the lifeblood of any accounting team — not just in the future, but right now.
Paul McDonald is senior executive director at Robert Half, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm. He writes and speaks frequently on hiring, workplace and career-management topics. Over the course of more than 35 years in the recruiting field, McDonald has advised thousands of company leaders and job seekers on how to hire and get hired.
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