Effectively managing remote employees requires additional steps and considerations that might not be necessary when leading an in-person team. The key is balancing your employees' needs with the needs of your organization and clients. Here are a few strategies to help you strike that balance:
Preserve culture and connections. One of the biggest challenges of managing remote workers is creating and maintaining a sense of company culture and engagement among those in the office and at home.
"What we've found is that keeping remote employees up to date on technical issues seems to be the easier part of the process," said Erin Roche, CPA, CGMA, team leader/shareholder at the Elliott CPA Group in Santa Rosa, Calif. "What's more difficult is keeping up the level of engagement, keeping up the feeling of community. That requires the entire team and requires more intention and more energy."
At Roche's firm, tools like the messaging app Slack, as well as Zoom, help employees stay connected throughout the workday.
"[Slack] has been a huge help to make sure conversations continue," Roche said. "We also use Zoom heavily to make sure we have some face time with the remote folks — even if it's virtual, it's good to see the people you're having a conversation with."
And those tools aren't just for work conversations. Many companies use Slack, Zoom, Teams, and similar software to re-create the social aspect of being in a physical office.
"We do an all-team huddle each week, and once a month instead of doing the weekly huddle, we break into different groups, and we have topics like board games and crafting," said Andrew Jordan, CPA, the COO of FinancePal, an accounting and tax firm that was founded as a remote workplace. "You have to be a lot more intentional."
While Zoom and other tech tools can be helpful, it's important to not overuse them, causing burnout. Some firms have cut back on virtual meetings or allow attendees to turn off their camera if they're not feeling up to being on screen.
Incorporating more tangible means of staying connected can help fight virtual meeting burnout, as well.
"We've found a better balance, and we're not necessarily asking our team members to participate in happy hours on Zoom," Roche said. "Instead of doing that, we try to do a group order on Door Dash for lunch or make sure we're sending [food] to our team members in other areas."
Provide recognition. Recognition is another important component of effectively managing remote staff. Making sure employees feel appreciated and praised for good work has to become more deliberate since it's not possible to thank or praise employees in person. Weekly or monthly recognition emails can highlight top-performing employees, as can periodic all-team recognition meetings via Zoom. Some organizations create a Slack channel specifically for sharing employee wins, and other virtual tools can help recognizing outstanding work.
Honolulu-based CPA firm IntrapriseTechKnowlogies uses a tool called 15Five that allows managers and even fellow employees to call out others for exceptional performance.
"So [a staff member] thanked someone for their help on XYZ project, not just the two employees involved see it — everyone does," said Donny C. Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, founder and managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies.
The tool allows managers to conduct "pulse checks" with all employees, as well as to give them the opportunity to raise concerns, set goals, and maintain a regular, open line of communication with management.
"It lets the employee say, on a scale of one to five, how well they think the week went," Shimamoto said. "It does some simple goal setting with them, so it forces them to ask themselves, 'What do you want to accomplish this week? And then what do you want to accomplish next week?'"
Help with boundaries. Helping employees set boundaries is another important component of managing remote workers, particularly those new to working at home.
"The biggest thing that we find with new employees is that they need to know how to draw boundaries," Shimamoto said. "There's this sense that you have to respond quickly to everything, but we tell everyone our acceptable response time, in general, is one business day."
Boundary setting also includes being cognizant that some remote employees may be in different time zones, so being respectful of that means adjusting expectations of response times or meeting schedules.
"With time zones, it's making sure we have communication channels open so that if [an employee] is three hours ahead of us, we're not scheduling things so she has to get on a call at 7 p.m., and asking her to not ping us at 8 o'clock in the morning her time," Roche said.
For employees who struggle with separating their work and home life, boundary building is even more important. Encouraging employees to create a designated office space can help them better separate their work responsibilities from their home duties.
"Having a designated workspace with doors that close, as opposed to working in a common area, makes you more efficient," said Jessica Robinson, CPA, senior, tax, at DMJPS PLLC in Greensboro, N.C. "I have three young children, and when they see mommy, they want to be with me. When you work from home, you have to train your family to respect your workspace and make that work time sacred."
Robinson also suggests having employees keep records of their time on their own to ensure they stay on task.
"Keeping detailed time records is helpful because you don't have the accountability of being in the office," she said.
Ultimately, flexibility and rethinking the structure of how employees work is the key to making remote workers successful.
— Jennifer Bringle is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.