Do you suddenly need to manage a remote team of accountants? You’ve probably realized it’s not quite the same as managing a team in-office.
With the unique challenges that working from home– particularly amidst a pandemic– provides, even the most seasoned managers are struggling to keep tabs on their team and maintain productivity.
If you’re not a fan of remote work, you might be holding out for the pandemic to end and things to get back to “normal”. But as more time goes by, we’re all beginning to realize that “normal” is getting a face-lift. While workers may return to the office, without a vaccine that return is likely to be gradual, partial, or even temporary.
Like it or hate it, remote work isn’t going anywhere. It’s in your and your firm’s best interest to adapt to and optimize the remote work experience– starting with how to manage a remote team of accountants.
Set Expectations Immediately
Sure, your staff may know what’s typically expected of them. But the pandemic has scrambled processes, shifted priorities, and brought new responsibilities. It’s also likely your staff are dealing with their own personal readjustments– having to homeschool their kids, take care of aging parents, or just figure out their own new routine.
As a result, it’s helpful to take a step back and set expectations for your team. This might require a reconsideration of those expectations– and perhaps even compromises that will enable your team to thrive.
Some areas in which you may want to set expectations:
- Working hours: Is your team expected to maintain a strict 9-5, or is there flexibility to work earlier/later? What about work breaks such as lunch– should employees communicate when they are “away from computer” for more than a bathroom break?
- Productivity: How many hours of time are your employees expected to clock each week? Have there been changes to client relationships or contracts that will require more/less hours with that client?
- Priorities: Are certain items, projects, or clients higher or lower priority as a result of the pandemic? For example, reaching out to clients to inform them of tax relief might be moved to the high-priority list.
- Communication response time: Is it okay to respond to emails every 2 hours, every hour, or does it need to be under 30 minutes? Many employees perform best when they can focus on work in isolated chunks, and check email only once every hour or so.
- Communication format: When should your employees set a meeting rather than send an email? When is a phone call or “instant message” appropriate? With so many communication tools, it’s helpful to set standards for when to use one versus another.
Have the Right Infrastructure
You can’t manage a remote team of accountants without the proper tools in place. In a perfect world, we would have all had a remote-friendly infrastructure established before the pandemic hit. Fortunately, it’s not too late to put those tools in place.
A cloud-based practice management software like TPS Cloud Axis is a good place to start. You can track time and billing, manage client communications, and create and optimize workflow that keeps your team more productive. A good practice management software can also automate redundant tasks, saving your team time on non-chargeable work.
Naturally, these things are important on their own, and it’s likely your firm has some system in place already. But ask yourself– is that system sufficient for these new remote working conditions?
As a manager, you’ll need to keep an extra-close eye on your employees’ productivity and client communications during this time. The right software will provide you with both a high-level and a granular view of your practice.
Be Proactive about Communication
The social isolation that comes with working remotely can be debilitating or downright depressing. It’s important to have frequent and regular meetings scheduled on both a group and one-on-one basis. This helps people feel like part of a team and keeps them accountable.
- Regular team/group meetings: Helps staff feel like part of a team and keep them accountable
- One-on-one meetings: Helps managers check in with employees individually and see how they’re doing and what challenges they may have
- Larger staff meetings: Share changes happening at the company level, pandemic responses, big client news
Encourage Employees to Step Up
The pandemic has brought added stress and responsibility for many people. Some of your staff may be struggling with having their school-age children home or helping their aging parents.
There are also those fortunate individuals whose daily lives and responsibilities haven’t changed all that much (other than working remotely, that is). Some of your staff– particularly younger employees or those without children– might actually be in a position to take on new challenges or more responsibility in the firm. They would likely be excited for the opportunity to prove themselves.
This isn’t to say that childless employees should have the work piled on, or that parents should be overlooked for potential promotions or areas of growth. But if you know of an employee who is proactive and enjoys a new challenge, ask if they have the bandwidth to take on another project, or to help manage others. It’s a great way to nurture your employees’ professional development while getting a few tasks off your plate.
When you do get staff stepping up and doing more for the firm– publicly acknowledge and thank them. It could be a quick mention in an all-staff meeting or a monthly internal email for the purpose of thanking staff. This will help to foster a culture of encouragement and inspire others to broaden their own impact at the firm.
We all know these are challenging times. When we’re worried about our loved ones or stressed about the world as a whole, it’s just more difficult to focus or perform at peak efficiency.
While the pandemic is no excuse to not get your work done, managers should understand that employees are people, too. They have an entire life outside of work that can’t always be paused, particularly if they are juggling new responsibilities or less-than-ideal work conditions.
One thing your employees are sure to appreciate is flexibility. You can still mandate general “working hours” at your firm, but if an employee needs to swap an evening hour to make up for taking 1-2 pm for themselves, there’s no real harm in allowing it.
On a similar note, be sure to respect the boundaries of those employees who do prefer sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule. It’s important to have the ability to disconnect from work entirely, and if your staff feel pressured to reply to an email at 8 p.m. that can lead to burnout in the long run.
Another part of being human is being understanding. Try to have a sense of humor if kids pop up during a conference call, or pets are barking in the background. Your employees are likely to be anxious about these interruptions too but there is often little to be done.
Find Ways to Connect
Working from home can be incredibly isolating. Video meetings help, but those are work-oriented. They don’t tend to offer the same level of chit-chat and connection that an in-person meeting or event does.
Let’s be honest, there’s no real way to replace the camaraderie that comes with a spontaneous happy hour after work with colleagues. But we can try.
Consider hosting a bi-weekly, virtual “Team Happy Hours.” Try to keep these to small groups of 4-5; this will reduce the social overwhelm and make for easier conversation. If you actually want people to attend, be smart and schedule it at 4:30 PM on a Friday. You might even get the introverts to join.
If you don’t want to center team bonding around drinking, get creative. There is a burgeoning industry around virtual team events and platforms that support team-building activities– you can probably guess why. Here are a few of our favorites:
Virtual Team-Building Activities:
- Virtual Games: Trivia, murder mysteries, chess tournaments. Some healthy competition can help build common ground for future conversations
- Weekly Watch nights: Invite your team to join a “group watch” of a movie, TV show, or documentary.
- Fitness or Health Competitions: Challenge staff to compete against one another for a common goal– weight loss, steps taken, miles walked/ran, etc. Offer a prize to top contenders.
- Local Scavenger Hunts: Hide a small stuffed animal (bonus if it’s your firm mascot) around local landmarks and offer employees clues to find it (and a prize if they do)
Team-building activities might seem silly, and they are. That’s the whole point. It’s beneficial for employees to be able to connect and talk about things other than work. It brings colleagues closer together and ultimately makes for a stronger team.
We know, we know– accounting firms usually aren’t the first to want to spend money. But showing your employees they are valued is an investment that will pay off. Give them the tools they need to work more efficiently. Surprise and delight them with small but thoughtful perks. Over time, this kind of generosity results in happier, harder-worker employees and less turnover.
Many companies are offering their employees “stipends” to help improve their remote working experience. That could be for a computer monitor, an ergonomic desk chair or keyboard, a printer, or other office supplies. This will boost both employee satisfaction and performance, as these items can actually help employees better do their job.
Food gifts are timeless, practical, and typically affordable. You could send your staff healthy snack boxes, decadent gift baskets, or gift cards to local restaurants. (Bonus points if those restaurants are clients.)
Chances are, your employees miss being able to leave the office and grab some tasty takeout for lunch. Providing them with snack boxes, meal delivery, or a gift card to a local restaurant lets them shake things up and can even spark local business relationships.
How to Manage a Remote Team of Accountants
In the end, you’re going to need a certain degree of trust in your employees. You can’t casually stroll by their desk to ensure they’re on the job. Fortunately, most employees want to do their jobs well. If you treat them with respect and provide the tools and support they need, they will.