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Art of Accounting: Training staff remotely

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Training staff effectively and properly is a major reason for a firm’s success. With the switch to remote work it is harder to train one-on-one so new methods need to be developed. Here are some things you can try.

  • Set up a lunch-hour staff meeting on Zoom and have three staff people each prepare and present a 10-minute presentation to summarize a webinar they attended or a topic they were working on. Limiting them to 10 minutes will relieve any pressure they might feel from speaking to a group, it will force them to be succinct and to focus on the essential information. The meeting will reinforce what they’ve learned and perhaps start them on the road to being an “expert” in something. It will also “teach” the others. You can have a Q&A session afterwards or inject your opinion on the topic.
  • Have another hour meeting, also at lunchtime, where you assign a specific topic and make a half hour presentation on it, asking questions as you cover the topic. What I do is distribute some reading material such as a financial statement, an article, a court case or a revenue ruling and tell them to read it beforehand and be prepared to participate in the discussion. This will not only be a training session, but can provide insights into who takes the opportunity seriously and who does not.
  • Staff shadowing is an effective method. I described it in my June 25 column.
  • Depending upon the experience level, you can have a once or twice a day check-in time to review staff progress. Either they should call you, or should expect your call around the designated times. This will provide oversight and a quick review by you. It will enable you to get a handle on their performance and indicate how well they are sticking to the budget.
  • Provisions should be made for a staff person reaching a stumbling block. I suggest assigning enough work so if they cannot proceed on something, they are given alternate work to do until they reach the prearranged check-in time. This eliminates multiple calls and keeps them moving forward with what they are doing. I also provide a half-hour limit on something they get stuck on, after which they should stop and work on something else.
  • You can have staff email a brief memo at the end of each day stating whether they worked on what they were supposed to and if it was completed or on budget, anything extra they did and why (e.g., the client asked them to, or the client or their staff made an error and they wanted to find it), and if the assigned work wasn’t finished, when they rescheduled themselves to complete it.
  • With regard to errors, the staff person should be required to correct all errors they have made, or to make any changes or updates if additional information comes up. This is more of a training exercise than a matter of getting the work done and out. I have found that having people fix their own errors is more effective at keeping them from repeating those and similar errors. You need to take the long view and spend the extra time now.
  • Your firm should have uniform systems to facilitate training. Many firms have separate systems for each partner, especially the older ones who do not want to bother to change their ways. That’s fine. Just don’t complain about staff turnover, staff not listening, work quality declining, and profits dropping. After all, sooner or later the older partners will be retiring, and should they waste what little time they have left trying to change something that “worked” their entire career? I suggest these people likely have the same complaints now that they had 20 years ago, and probably have not grown professionally or personally in that time either.
  • When a project a staff person has worked on is completed, they should be notified and should review the report, tax return or other deliverable. A partner should then explain the purpose of the project (if they haven’t already), the other aspects that they did not work on, any difficulties or research that was done, the value added by the firm, and any unusual issues encountered.
  • Be careful and deliberate with instructions. Vague, incomplete or unthought-out instructions will leave the staff person bewildered and probably unable to complete the assignment correctly on a timely basis. Think out what you will say beforehand and make sure your instructions are clear and precise. Your instructions are part of the training process; typically there will be similar projects the staff person will be working on, and this first one should lay the foundation. I suggest following up new projects with a second and third similar assignment so what the staff learned will be fixed in their minds.
  • Targeted webinars. Choose topics that are at the right level for the staff person and that cover subjects they are working on or will be. There are many one- or two-hour webinars and podcasts to choose from, and the choices should be deliberately made to offer the best training opportunity for the staff person and firm. They can even be scheduled during lunch time and the staff person could use the time for double duty.
  • We are in a technology-driven business. I suggest targeted training on all of your software. Either bring in a pro or find webinars that your staff should attend. I mean all of your software including Adobe, Excel, Word and internet searches. I am amazed at how little facility some staff have with the software they use throughout the day. I do not recommend having someone on your staff teach this. Find some short, properly organized courses to take.

The above suggestions are some things you can consider. I have done every one of these, and they’ve all worked well for my staff and me.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People list. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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