Greenback Expat Tax Services Remote Company Q&A
Carrie McKeegan, Co-Founder - Interview with Remote.co
Greenback specializes in the preparation of US expat tax returns for Americans living overseas. We offer a full range of expat tax services for US expats, including US expat tax return preparation, small business tax returns, foreign bank account reporting and individual consultations. Our expat-expert accountants work directly with customers to provide exceptional service at an honest, fair price.
From the very beginning, Greenback has been a 100% virtual company. We are all a highly energetic, positive, resourceful team working virtually across the globe. For our accountants, they have ultimate flexibility to decide where to work from and when to work. If they want to spend a tax season in their home office and in the slower season work a lighter load from Mexico or Bali or the coast of Spain, then great! Many on our accountant team does just that.
A remote business structure is critical to our business model, as it allows us to recruit the very best team possible—regardless of their physical location. We operate in a niche market- US accountants who specialize in expat tax preparation- and operating remotely allows us to recruit accountants who live anywhere in the world. If we limited ourselves to hiring only those who could commute to a city location, it would seriously hamper our ability to find the kind of highly skilled (and specialized) talent we need to offer our customers the very best service.
The biggest benefits are for our customers! With our ability to hire the best talent from around the world, our customers get the highest level of expertise and the very best expat tax advice available. That allows us to exceed our customers’ expectations, which has been the key to our rapid growth.
With the explosion of technological advances, we don’t believe that businesses today need a physical location to operate successfully. So we don’t view our structure as “integrating remote work”, but rather ensuring we create a business structure that focuses on supporting the initiatives that most benefit our clients. It is our responsibility and desire to have the best talent from around the globe, to have team members who understand the expat life from personal experience and to focus our business spent on the areas that generate the most value for the client. We truly don’t believe that an office environment would allow us to do that.
We look for people who have shown initiative and ability to work independently and place a high value on those who have previously worked remotely. Success in a remote position is one of our priorities, as we understand that as attractive as it is to work from home, it is not for everyone. We also look for those who have an extreme focus on customer care and attention and are organized and disciplined. The discipline trait is obviously critical since there is no day-to-day monitoring of their activities. We have to trust that they are doing their job and that distractions are minimized during working hours—and that takes discipline.
Our interview process takes place primarily on Skype. The candidate speaks to HR first, who fully vets them as qualified, desirable potential team members before arranging a call with us, the owners. In some cases we will even take it a step further and have the candidate interview with other team members they would be working closely with to ensure a ‘good fit’.
Once we bring someone onboard, they immediately enter into a 60-day probationary period. During this time, they are assigned several key projects that they are responsible for completing during the trial and will only work with some key team members on their introductory projects. This gives us a chance to see how they interact with others, how productive they are and the quality of their work before we fully integrate them to the team.
During this time we offer a lot of support, because most new team members want to do well—they just don’t always know how. So we work closely with them to carefully evaluate their abilities, but also give them the tools to be successful at our company. At the end of the 60 days, if we aren’t 100% sure it is the right fit, we will cancel their agreement. This has saved us an extremely large amount of time, as we avoid spending months integrating someone into the company, only to find out they were never really the right fit all along.
We design prescreen assessments for all candidates as part of the interview process using a 3rd party platform to host the forms. In addition, we use a 3rd party background check service for all new team members and unlike some companies, we actually call all of the candidate’s references. While they are obviously likely to give references who will recommend them, we ask specific questions about their performance which gives us the insight we need about their potential success at Greenback.
Our accountants also go through an evaluative period where they are given faux tax returns to prepare and our most experienced accountants review those for accuracy. We make sure that every accountant can prepare the returns accurately, ask the right questions about the individual’s situation and communicate effectively before placing a customer’s return in their hands.
Our process is thorough and time-consuming for both HR and the candidate, but finding the right team member is critical to our success.
We don’t set communication rules for the team, but we rely on a collaborative approach to accomplish the company’s goals. Rarely is one team member working alone on a project, so communication is a must. They rely on each other so heavily to do their jobs that there really isn’t a need to specify the terms of communication.
We use a project management system, Podio, exclusively for all communication. By eliminating email and keeping all conversations within Podio, we have made communication between team members and projects seamless. There is a ‘live-chat’ function in Podio that the team uses constantly for quick questions and conversations so they are free to talk there about their different projects. This has worked extremely well for our team.
Weekly updates are detailed reports we receive every Friday that outline what each team member accomplished during the week and their focus for next week. This is also the place for team members to let us know what specific input they need from us to push projects forward, explain any delays or issues they encountered, and address any concerns they have.
Quarterly goals, which are developed primarily by the team members themselves, exist to keep team members focused, productive and accountable. While everyone has projects to work on that must be completed regularly, the quarterly goals speak more to the success of the business overall. Each team member has very detailed goals tied to specific metrics to evaluate success.
We measure success based on contribution, not on number of hours worked. While some companies’ worry that remote workers won’t work their required number of hours since no one is there to watch, we have the opposite problem—our team members generally work too much! This is also a problem, as it leads to burnout. So we encourage our team to take time off and enjoy a proper work-life balance because it benefits everyone in the end.
- Communication – In the absence of face-to-face conversations, communicating thoroughly, effectively and with respect is the key to working well remotely.
- Trust – We have a multitude of project management tools we use every day to ensure all projects are moving ahead and positively impacting the business’ overall goals. But we do have to trust that the team members are doing their job each day, and they have to trust that as the owners, we are there to support them. It’s that mutual trust that allows us to be respectful of each other’s workloads, ideas and ways of approaching everyday tasks. Ultimately job performance is measured on productivity, but if you can’t trust that your team is doing their job each day without you watching over them closely, no one will be successful.
- Building a culture – Creating a company culture is extraordinarily important, especially in a service-based business. Just because your company has a remote workforce, operating in scattered regions of the world, doesn’t mean they don’t want to feel appreciated as individuals and as a team. Work hard to create a professional but fun environment where team members feel comfortable because the camaraderie you build will make them happier and more productive.
Our team members span the globe, from Mexico to South Carolina, from California to Indonesia. Our biggest challenge is accommodating the different time zones and ensuring consistent, productive communication. Skype calls are difficult to schedule. It forces team members to be flexible and accommodate the different time zones. For example, our monthly management meetings are generally at 6:30pm EST, which is 6:30am in Indonesia! Once again, it goes back to hiring the right people who are committed to making it work, even when it’s less than convenient.
- Provide strategy document annually to keep the team focused. We also use this document to assist team members in shaping quarterly goals which show team members work /roles contribute to the overall strategy
- Monthly team meetings used to provide updates on different areas of the business
We focus on the outcomes of work, not on specifics of time off. As mentioned above, we generally have people working too many hours, not too few. So we do encourage time off, and because we have built trust with our team members, we don’t really ‘track’ the time and accept or deny requests based on a set number of days. Our team limits vacation requests during our busy season and because they typically work a lot of extra hours during that time, we are more liberal with time off requests in the slower months. As long as someone coordinates with other team members to ensure their job is ‘covered’ while they are out and the time off doesn’t negatively impact the business (which it rarely does), we are happy to give them time to ‘recharge their batteries’.
Greenback has been 100% remote since the beginning. We have learned so much over the years about how to manage a remote workforce and feel that we have created a successful, positive and productive environment in which our team members can thrive. Our hiring process is very stringent and in-depth to ensure that the team members we hire have the right skillset, as well as the outstanding communication and technological skills to be productive in a remote environment.
The key to a successful remote workforce is in the hiring. You must recruit highly skilled, professional team members who have demonstrated that they can operate independently (preferably in a remote position). In addition, establish set working hours for your team members—while some people say they work best at night, the lack of continuity and communication during more traditional working hours can seriously impact the team’s productivity. Remember that a high performing business is one that operates predictably, consistently and where all work is done with the same quality standard, regardless of who is executing. So we highly suggest that all of your day to day processes are documented in detailed, fail-proof standard operating procedures (SOPs). Consistency is harder to establish in a remote environment, so these SOPs have made all the difference for our company.
My husband and I run Greenback together and we have three small children (ages 5, 2 and 11 months), so it’s always a bit of a juggling act. I have a few rules that I try to follow: I don’t work on weekends unless its required (i.e. I take weekend days off to spend with my family unless there is a genuine business emergency); we take family vacations (so many entrepreneurs and small business owners skip that important ability to take a step back!); and I never miss a school play/sporting event/etc. regardless of the business need. I recently started using a co-working space in Bali and it’s been really helpful in completely separating work and life, even though I also have an office in a separate building in our house as well. It really just helps to keep the work and family parts of my life separate by being in completely separate places when working.
Worst place: a house in Mas, outside of Ubud, several years ago. The internet line was weak and would go down every time it rained (and we moved into the house in the rainy season). I remember painstakingly scheduling meetings that would overlap with California/Bali/NY and then 50% of the time, having my internet connection go out midway through the call. We lasted only about a month in that house until we moved to the south of Bali where internet was more reliable.
Best place: I like working out of our co-working space in Bali. But I also love the buzz of coffee shops and the feeling of being immersed in my own (working) world while listening to the buzz and hum of life around me. There are 2 or 3 coffee shops near me that I frequent and find I’m really productive. Where I work definitely depends on what I am working on. A strategy document is a great thing to work on in a coffee shop but a financial model requires me to be in the office with a big screen and space to stretch out.