FlexCPAs Spotlight – James Lensing, The Expat Audit Manager

Remote Audit Manager

Today we shed a bright light on an accountant who has found a way to balance his love of travel with his professional career as an audit manager. James Lensing, audit manager at Patke & Associates, spends half of his year living in the countryside of Ecuador with the other half based in Iowa.

James travel arrangements are possible due to Patke & Associates forward thinking remote culture & willingness to invest in technology that allows this type of flexibility.

Let’s dive into James’ interview on his insight into what it’s like to be a remote audit manager.

Q: What is the best part about working remote?

A: The first word that comes to mind is “Freedom”. With freedom comes the ability to spend more time where and with whom you want to be with. As much as I love Chicago, for family and financial reasons it was not where I really needed to be.

For me, I like the freedom to make a decision on where I want to be, without affecting my career as an audit manager. I joke with my boss that I have yet to “settle down” and I love every aspect of that. There are certain places I need to be, with regards to my personal life (family, etc) and I like the overall freedom I have to make that choice.

The second best part, which competes heavily with my first choice, is the dress code. Usually jeans and a t-shirt but I have made a habit of working a couple hours early in the cold morning in pajamas to get a head start on the day. And I always have a pair of slippers or crocs (sometimes with socks, don’t judge me) so no dress shoes. The comfort makes a world of a difference when working in accounting!

Q: What is the biggest struggle you face as a remote worker?

A: The biggest struggle I have found when working remotely is learning how to deal with distractions. Not having effective time management skills can kill your productivity. In order to work efficiently, I have found that having a designated workspace is the best way I can manage my time. For me, it is important that the workspace has a door, and it is understood that when my door is closed I am busy. This way, I can stay focused, without any interruptions.

I do believe I am getting better at managing my time with my designated workspace. But also because I have learned how to stick to a schedule. Before moving away from Chicago, I had hour commutes each way. Now that I have control of those 2 hours, I have implemented ways to integrate “breaks” throughout my day to keep me focused on what needs to get done, and when to take my well deserved break.

Q: How did you hear about Patke’s Flex Options?

A: I first heard about Patke’s Flex Options when I started full time with Patke & Associates in 2008. As I lived 35 miles from the office (with Chicago traffic) I started by working sometimes at home, and sometimes in the office, but without a set schedule. After a year or so, we hired new employees in the office who needed supervision and training.

My boss and I decided that it would be best to work a compressed schedule (Monday-Thursday, 10+ hours each) and take off Fridays. This took out an extra day of commuting, plus I was able to avoid the rush hour traffic by coming in early and leaving late, but still be in the office for business hours four days a week. As the team began to be trained and work more independently, it no longer seemed necessary for me to come to the office, so we started to think about working remotely again.

Around that time (late 2011) for family health issues I needed to move down to Ecuador, so, I requested the option of changing to a part-time remote position. By that time, I already showed my value to the firm, and they happily allowed me to cut back my hours and jump on a plane to Ecuador (without missing a beat). Since then I have been splitting my time between Ecuador and Iowa, but always spending several months at a time in one place and never switching during busy season.

Q: How was the transition from moving outside of the US?

A: Since this was my second time living outside the US for an extended period of time (over 6 months), I knew pretty much what I was getting into. I spent a good portion of my high school & college experience in Ecuador so I fortunately did not have the culture shock, that is common for many newbie expats.

Q: What are your backup internet procedures?

A: Ah, the internet! Fortunately, Ecuador has vastly improved the internet infrastructure where I live in the last few years, making life as a remote worker, way easier.

I currently have two internet service providers so in case there are issues with one I have a backup. I also have two separate VOIP phone lines, one on each. So you can say, I’m pretty prepared for anything when it comes to internet outages!

Q: Do you ever become overwhelmed with your workload? If so, what are some tactics you have put in place to reduce the workload/stress?

A: One of the advantages of working from home is it is easy to step away for a minute and do something else (I.e. tend to the garden, unload the dishwasher, feed the chickens, etc.)

In the past, when the stress would get to me, I knew I needed to step away from work, and take my eyes off of the computer screen, even if it was just for a few minutes. In Chicago, I implemented a strategy of visiting Walgreens, as there was always one within a couple blocks. I would just walk the aisles for a few minutes and maybe pick up a snack, which allowed me to take my mind off of work.

Now in the Ecuadorian countryside, I still take these breaks, just in a different form. When I want to get away. I can walk out onto my terrace or around the property, take in the incredible views and remember that it’s nothing more than stress. With this tiny break of pulling in fresh air, I can relieve the overwhelming feeling and get back to work with a clear head. Works every time.

Q: When is the best time of day for you to be most productive?

A: In the past I used to be more productive in the afternoon or evening hours. Now living in the campo of Ecuador, it is early to bed, early to rise. So to answer your question, I am most productive early in the morning before anyone else is even working

Q: Do you miss the in-person communication with your team members? If not, what are some tactics you put in place to help you stay connected with your team?

It is really nice and special when we get together or a holiday party or some other event, but I have been working remotely for so long that I am used to being connected only by phone. I think many of my coworkers feel the same way. Due to the nature of our work, we all seem to call each other to discuss various client or firm matters on a weekly, if not daily basis. On occasion we chat a bit about personal lives, kids, pets, etc. just to keep up with each other. The great part about our firm is that we all get along very well, both professionally and personally. We really have a great team.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would recommend to future remote workers?

A: My first response to this question is to tell future remote workers that it is important to know what you are getting into. As much as you like the idea of working from home, remote working does not jive with all accountants.

You need to make sure that you manage expectations between you and your employer. Are they supportive of you working remote? Do they resent the fact that you get the chance to work from home? Is there any hostility from other coworkers that would cause you to be uncomfortable taking on this flexible work option?

Plus, you have to remember that you, yourself, might not be the best remote worker. It is imperative that designate a work area, learn time management skills, and remember that you are in charge of managing your schedule. If you can nail all three of these items, I think you have a good chance at being a successful remote worker.

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