It seems hard to believe right now, but just a few months ago, people were arguing that remote work couldn’t be efficient or effective in an accounting firm. Recent events put that theory to the test, and many of those naysayers have changed their tune. Still, it’s essential to consider that even as states and offices reopen, we won’t be going back to “business as usual.”
The nature of work has changed, so now is the time to make remote work the norm!
Why remote work works
Engaged employees are the name of the game if your firm wants to hold on to talent and keep them happy and productive. A study from Stanford University found that compared to employees who came into the office, remote workers were more content, more likely to stay with their employer, and more productive.
Of course, it’s not just about keeping your current team happy. We all know how difficult it has been to recruit talent for the past several years. With remote work, your firm can start building bridges to candidates in other cities and hire the best people without geography standing in the way.
It also allows you to tap into talent beyond the traditional employer/employee paradigm. The number of self-employed people, independent contractors and gig workers is soaring. For many talented, driven individuals, the idea of answering to a boss and working on someone else’s schedule just doesn’t appeal. They want more flexibility and control over what they do, when they do it, and who they do it for.
This actually benefits forward-thinking firms that need professionals with very specific skill sets and talents, but don’t have enough work to justify bringing someone on full-time. This includes accountants as well as other professionals such as wealth management, marketing, human resources, and other niche professionals who will make up consulting teams moving forward.
Supporting a distributed workforce
As many firms have learned over the past couple of months, working with remote teams isn’t as simple as handing everyone a laptop. If having your employees working from home recently was challenging, the problem was likely a failure to set expectations rather than remote work itself.
With a remote team, you’re forced to set objectives and establish key performance indicators and communication frameworks. You can’t measure an employee’s productivity by the fact that you’ve seen them working long hours in the office. It’s easy to feel like your on-site team has accountability for just showing up, but directions are less tangible when people are working off-site.
Here are some strategies and tools you should consider when establishing your remote work policies.
Decide how you’ll measure productivity. Some people are incredibly disciplined when working remotely. Others need the accountability of “clocking in” and making sure they avoid distractions. Whether you track billable hours or the number of engagements or tasks completed, it’s crucial to set expectations and have a method for holding people accountable. What are the key indicators of success for each engagement or project? Get transparency around this, so you’ll know quickly whether individuals are productive or not.
Standard processes. Without processes, work can easily fall through the cracks. When everyone is in the office, you can compensate to some degree for not having standardized processes simply because people can talk in person and look over each other’s shoulders. In a distributed team, people might develop their own processes and procedures that don’t mesh with the way other people work, which leads to inefficiency and errors. Have a documented, standardized way of working that everyone follows.
Flexibility with consistency. One of the perks of remote work is being able to work anytime, anywhere, and integrate work and life. An early riser might enjoy sitting down to work at 5 a.m. when they’re most productive. A parent might log off at 5 p.m. but get back online to work for a couple of hours after the children go to bed. It’s important to allow a degree of flexibility, but you also need some consistency. Many firms establish “core hours” that require their team members to be available between, say 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. but allow flexibility outside of that timeframe. This gives you a shared collaboration window when all of your team is online at the same time and available for meetings or quick questions.
Promote “water cooler chat.” One of the problems some people face with remote work is feeling lonely or isolated. You need to compensate for the fact that team members aren’t bumping into each other in the breakroom and having casual conversations that help them get to know each other and feel like a part of the team. If you’re not intentional about this, people tend to live in their own world. Use communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams and create opportunities for team members to chat formally and informally. You might schedule “coworking hours,” where remote employees spend an hour or so on a Zoom meeting talking while they work. You could have weekly Microsoft Teams chats about weekend plans, what people are reading or watching and other topics.
Choose the right communication channel. With a distributed team, you need to make sure everyone is communicating enough without it becoming distracting and overwhelming. Having policies for when to use each communication channel helps. For example, you might decide:
Email is for sharing information that doesn’t need an answer, or warrants a
response, but not right away.
Chat programs are great for quick questions and informal chats.
Video conferencing is for longer back-and-forth conversations or potentially
difficult conversations like addressing performance problems.
Project management and workflow tools are for assigning work and delivering
feedback. This keeps the conversation organized so you can reference and
refer to it later on.
Set regular meetings. Set weekly video conference meetings within each team to help people feel connected. These regular meetings also help minimize back and forth emails during the week, as people can store up non-urgent questions and handle them all at once. It also helps to hold in-person “all hands” meetings at least once a year.
Remote work is here to stay, so the better you understand the needs and challenges of remote employees, the better prepared you’ll be for the future. I’ve found that building in these remote strategies tends to keep people on the team, and there’s nothing better for productivity than a team that sticks together.
About the Author
Sandra Wiley, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., has been lauded for her industry expertise in human resources and training. She is often called the “go-to person” for solutions to the profession’s staffing crisis, citing her wise advice on hiring – and keeping – employees for the rest of their careers.