CPA INSIDER

Keeping a virtual team on track

Tips on how to manage -- and inspire -- a remote team from afar.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Being a manager with a remote workforce has its challenges.

It can be a struggle to figure out the mechanics of scheduling regular meetings across time zones and to measure how engaged your employees are. Even maintaining regular communications to ensure all team members are kept abreast of important updates takes extra effort when people are working in different locales.

That's why it's essential to have efficient processes and useful technology, said Sarah Taylor, CPA, the nonprofit accounting services manager at Altruic Advisors, a virtual accounting firm focused on the not-for-profit sector. From her home base in New Jersey, she manages a team of 10, all of whom are working in different locations.

"We really do rely on our tools," Taylor said. "We have to push and stretch what we have available to us."

Taylor and other CPAs experienced in working in virtual environments offered advice on ways to effectively manage remote teams while fostering office camaraderie from a distance.  

Communicate well with your team. Be clear upfront with team members reporting to you about how integral communication is when there's no physical office, said Katina Peters, CPA, CGMA, one of the three owners of Peters, Johnson, Staley & Co., a fully virtual accounting firm focused on business growth and profitability advisory services.

Of course, communication between colleagues is important in any work setting, but it takes on added importance in a virtual environment where you can't simply walk down a hallway and ask for clarification or pick up information casually as one routinely does in physical workplaces. It also is harder to tell if a worker is dissatisfied, and morale problems can quickly develop into a major issue if there's not a chance to address them early on.

"If you're a virtual firm or a virtual team member, the best thing you can do is to be really proactive communicating things," Peters said.

Peters addresses that by being very intentional about her interactions, reaching out by phone, with email, and through the messaging system Slack to touch base with the CPAs who work for her firm. She also sets the expectation from the start that she and her two co-owners will consistently reach out to the CPAs who work for them to ensure that people understand what's being asked of them and to make them feel comfortable asking questions or flagging issues.

On top of that, they have others in administrative and management roles do the same thing in case there's a reluctance to speak up if a project has hit a logjam or if there's an issue with firm operations that a worker may be hesitant to bring directly to the owners themselves.

Adapt tools to work for you. Taylor found that regular team check-ins via videoconferencing, where each person gave updates on their workloads, wasn't a good use of anyone's time.

Off-the-shelf practice management applications are available, but to keep costs down she decided to construct her own tool to help streamline the workflow. Through the easy-to-use code development program Quick Base, she created a dashboard that allows her and her team to quickly assess workflow challenges with overviews of team members' activity and open tasks available to the entire team.

Now she's able to spot issues and quickly jump in to reassign tasks or offer guidance on ways to help.

"I can see backflow. I can see when they're behind," she said.

Stay engaged. It's important to ensure that your team is interacting regularly with you, as well as with other colleagues, said Jamie Nau, CPA, who manages a team of 20-plus people for Summit CPA Group while working out of his home in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Summit keeps employees engaged through software called Sococo that mimics an office layout, complete with virtual private offices and icons to see whether colleagues are "in the office" and whether they are meeting with other people. The platform allows colleagues to virtually knock on people's office doors and have brief conversations, much as they would in a real work setting, but via videoconference. People are encouraged to keep their cameras on during those conversations and meetings so that visual cues aren't lost in the virtual chats.

Nau, a self-described extrovert, said Sococo has helped forge an office culture despite people working in different locations. It also prevents people from isolating themselves, which is easy to do when you're in a room by yourself for much of the workday. He and senior managers at the firm frequently reach out to employees if they've noticed interactions and engagement levels have decreased.

"You have to make a bit more of an intentional effort to talk to people," Nau said about working in a remote environment. "It can be easy to get cut off."

Find avenues for casual interactions. Though sharing personal anecdotes at work may seem a bit forced, or even uncomfortable, it's important to provide ways colleagues can connect with each other beyond the work itself. The opportunities for in-person interactions that physical offices offer — such as asking about weekend plans at the office coffee station — can be replaced through intentional efforts to get people to share about themselves when working virtually.

"That sort of camaraderie in a virtual environment isn't necessarily as easy," Taylor said. To help with that, Altruic created a shared virtual space for colleagues to share personal information, from announcing upcoming vacations to sharing photographs of pets dressed up for Halloween.

The firm also has an annual three-day retreat held in different locales each year. Employees often stay together, as they did when they rented a Michigan lake house, Taylor said. The retreats focus on continuing education and discussion about trends in the accounting world, but there's lots of time built in for team-building events, including a day spent volunteering in line with the not-for-profit sector the firm caters to.

"We all get to be in each other's presence," Taylor said.

Peters' firm hosts several channels on Slack, a cloud-based information sharing network, where team members can share milestones in their lives. It's also used for fun — one recent game involved firm workers sharing childhood photos and then letting everyone guess which of their colleagues had a toothless grin or regrettable haircut at a young age.

Keep an eye on workload. Working virtually means it can be difficult to assess an employee's productivity in real time, given that no one is in the same physical space. Taylor keeps a close eye on the hours her staff are maintaining to make sure people are keeping up with their workload but also not working around the clock.

"You don't have the built-in accountability of that physical presence," she said.

Managers need to track whether tasks are being completed and step in if someone is working too little or too much. Look for people sending emails around the clock as a sign they need to be urged to put some boundaries on their work hours, Taylor said. Similarly, keep an eye on whether people are slow to engage or aren't keeping up with the expected pace of work.

Seek feedback. Nau and others at his firm constantly evaluate whether the format and structure of their virtual meetings are working well. They do this in several ways, including making sure there are clear agendas and that meeting discussions are tailored to identify, discuss, and then solve problems.

Having that mindset "helps us stay on track," Nau said, a key need for virtual meetings, where it can be harder to read the room and observe engagement levels. After each meeting, participants are asked to rate the meeting on a scale of 1 to 5, with a firmwide focus on pushing meetings to be valuable and interactive.

Virtual meetings can be more productive than in-person work meetings many times, Nau said, because they limit distracting side conversations or discussions.

"Everyone is listening to the same topic," he said.

Having the right approach when managing a remote team can make all the difference, said Nau. As a remote worker himself, he's able to spend more time with his family and make sure he gets in exercise regularly, something that wasn't easy to do in his previous firm.

That, in turn, has fulfilled both the personal and professional aspects of his life, and makes the challenges of managing a remote team worth it.

"The flexibility for me is amazing," he said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a  JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

SPONSORED REPORT

Get your clients ready for tax season

These year-end tax planning strategies address recent tax law changes enacted to help taxpayers deal with the pandemic, such as tax credits for sick leave and family leave and new rules for retirement plan distributions, as well as techniques for putting your clients in the best possible tax position.

RESOURCES

Keeping you informed and prepared amid the coronavirus crisis

We’re gathering the latest news stories along with relevant columns, tips, podcasts, and videos on this page, along with curated items from our archives to help with uncertainty and disruption.