Technology and the modern flexible firm
Automation is often presented as something that destroys industries and jobs, but Jessica Pillow looks at it in a different way.
For many women accountants like Jessica Pillow, the profession offers an unforgiving choice between career or family.
But the founder of Pillow May Accountants in Chippenham is committed to putting her family first and sustaining her professional career. When asked, “mother or accountant?”, Pillow can resoundingly answer “both” - and credits technology for making this scenario possible.
Despite leading a growing business, she’s not anchored to her office. Her family-first strategy has its challenges, but she is free to move and work as she wishes, allowing her to combine the role of mother and accountant with much greater fluency.
Technology will also support her next big leap. In five months, she plans to move to the south of France for a year with her children. “I want to expose them to the culture,” she tells AccountingWEB. “My parents have a house down there. I’m going to work at being a single mum, without my English support network.”
This decision isn’t made at the expense of Pillow May; the firm will run much like before. She’ll return to the UK one week a month for client visits, but otherwise her parents’ home in the South of France will be her base. “All I need is a desk and an internet connection,” she says.
In the past, Pillow would have faced a dilemma. Looking across Pillow May’s office, the feminine composition of the workforce is noticeable. “It’s not that we won’t hire a bloke,” explains Pillow. “But my ethos is giving working mums a chance.”
Achievements not hours
Pillow May employees don’t work to a strict hourly schedule, but it isn’t a free-for-all, either. The firm tracks tasks using Salesforce.com to assign and measure what has been achieved. “Salesforce holds it all together,” says Pillow, gesturing at the CRM software interface open on her computer screen.
During the interview with Pillow, a few employees leave to fetch their kids from school. It’s not an issue, says Pillow, who only notices their exit after it’s pointed out to her. She trusts them and they repay her faith with loyalty, frequently finishing their work after the kids have gone to bed.
Employees can access every facet of Pillow May’s operation remotely. Some of her software – like Moneysoft – isn’t cloud-based, but Pillow remedies this with a hosted desktop set-up. “Anything that isn’t on the cloud, we effectively make it on the cloud by using Hosted Desktop,” she says.
Pillow uses RingCentral, a cloud-based unified communications solution that frees employees' work numbers from the physical workplace. Again, this system is integrated into Salesforce.com, allowing Pillow to view how frequently clients are being contacted. The technology has made her client relationships much more tactile, she says.
The firm also outsources its accounts production – but not to where you would expect. “It’s a working mum in New Zealand,” says Pillow. “The 12-hour gap is perfect; when we sleep she works.” According to Pillow, there's a whole network of mothers who would be very keen to take on freelance work. “Even if the woman in New Zealand falls ill, I'll be fine.”
It’s a fact of post-industrial life that women work. The concept of a stay-at-home mother is as old fashioned as black and white TV.
But it’s proven to be a difficult notion to dispel. Workers are expected to keep their home and professional lives apart, but when both parents work – or if they’re simply a single parent – this division becomes much trickier.
Women like Jessica Pillow have moved past this social impediment mostly through determination and professional expertise - but technology and automation have helped make new ways of working possible.
Daniel and Richard Susskind’s recent book The Future of the Professions explained that different kinds of institutions and organisations are appearing, often driven by people responding to problems in new ways - like Pillow and her troupe of working mums.
The American writer Alvin Toffler coined the term “future shock” to describe the stress and disorientation of rapid technological and social change. Toffler’s term seems more apt than ever, all of this can be dizzying.
And as much there are many concerns that come with increasing influence of technology, there have also been some success stories. “There’s no reason why working mums can’t have a career in accountancy. It’s still a quite acute stigma in accountancy,” Pillow says.
The profession can learn a lot from women like Pillow, gracefully balancing responsibilities. John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine, noted in the Harvard Business Review: [P]eople have grown cold on male-dominated structures and leadership…Two-thirds of survey respondents felt that ‘The world would be a better place if men thought more like women’.”
Pillow uses technology, sure, but what really makes the difference is how she uses it. She makes her firm vulnerable by trusting her employees, she makes lifestyle choices like moving to France, gives a working mother in New Zealand a chance. And the result is a firm that is at full capacity, on the brink of implementing a fee hike because client demand is too high.
Pillow admits there have been times where she struggled to maintain her work-life balance, running a growing practice will do that. But she is determined, she says, to make Pillow May into a lifestyle practice, one where success doesn’t come at the expense of family.
“A lot of women who go see an employment agent are told, especially if they want to work in practice, ‘Well, unless you’re willing to work full time crazy hours’.” Pillow pauses briefly before adding, “That’s nonsense.”
You can find out more about Jessica Pillow's thoughts on mobile and cloud technology at her talk with Thomson Reuters on Technology changes - why keeping up is so important at Accountex on 11-12 May.