Leading a 100-percent remote workforce during coronavirus

Register now

For years, my CPA firm has had the ability to work remotely, as I’m sure yours did. Never, though, did I consider a scenario where everyone would be working from home for weeks on end. Yet, here we are in another unprecedented scenario stemming from public policy aiming to stop the spread of COVID-19.

This puts leaders of accounting firms in an uncomfortable situation as we have to figure how to lead a remote team, keeping everyone productive and engaged. To help us figure out what this will take, I recently interviewed Gretchen Pisano, CEO of pLink Leadership, as she always has a wealth of information. She talked about trust, communication, bravery and culture being fundamental to making this work.

The first issue you will face leading staff is that question you’ve probably already asked yourself: “Are they really working?” Well, when they were sitting at their desks in the office, how did you know they were working? It was because they turned out a work product — the tax return was complete or it wasn’t. Now is the time for us to manage outcomes. Share the outcomes with the team and get them to agree to completing them in a certain timeframe. You can do this daily or weekly. In the past, you may have established outcomes monthly, but we’re not there yet! Now, if you still bill by the hour, you will need to manage this daily. (And, seriously, this is another reason we need to get rid of timesheets, but that’s a topic for another day.)

You’ll need to provide a lot of grace and flexibility the first few weeks as people adjust to working from home. If there are kids at home, it will take time for your team member to put new norms into place.

Also consider setting up intentional work agreements. To Gretchen, this looks like normal work hours and primary communications methods. She suggests you say something like, "Normal working hours are between 10 and 3. Communications happen via Slack [or whatever technology your firm uses]. However, should you need immediate guidance, you can 'breakthrough' by texting." This will help spur collaboration, as people won’t feel like they are interrupting someone. Of course, set these boundaries firm-wide or they will not work.

Pay attention to your culture. In my firm, team members regularly eat lunch together, so we set up a Zoom lunch to continue that. Gretchen shared that she’s seen this done for happy hour too. She’s also seen some firms play a game, like Bingo, or do a short sing-a-long. She’s also seen open working hours — in this scenario, a Zoom room is set up for people to join and simply work together. There are set times for breaks, so it’s not for talking. It’s a way for them to work side-by-side with the people they work with every day.

Successful remote leadership also relies heavily on communication. How frequently you communicate depends on your firm size, but people should hear from you daily, if not a couple times a day. Your team will want to know that you’re there guiding the ship, and they’ll want you to share what the firm is doing to address the latest issue, whatever that may be.

You also need to watch what you say. Oftentimes written communication is misunderstood. Then you have people reaching out to one another to figure out what you meant. Gretchen suggests adding parentheses with your intended tone in the message to help with clarity. Since people put things in writing they never would say out loud, she also suggests you use that threshold to check yourself. It’s simple: If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t write it or change the way you are writing it.

You’ll need to communicate more than you have before. Oftentimes, remote workers of the past have felt left out, and you’ll need to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is a good thing! And be sure you use more words as team members can’t see the nods, shrugs and other nonverbal cues you’ve used in the past.

If all this seems too much for you, you may need to shift your mindset. If you are someone who leads by command and control, you’ll need to adapt. Think about ways to distribute leadership, increase regular communications and ask your team what they think. If you have a hard time letting go, consider some coaching. The last thing you want to do is push anxiety and negative energy back into your firm.

You also need to be trusting, vulnerable and brave. Gretchen explains that there is a difference between physical vulnerability and relational vulnerability. You need to be relationally vulnerable, which is that sense of risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure you feel when you have a point of view, or take action when you aren’t sure you have everyone on board or you question if it’s the right thing to do. There is a sense of discomfort that comes from being brave that we need to become accustomed to. Courage and comfort do not coexist.

Trust and vulnerability layer in together. Make sure your team knows “I get you and I’ve got you.” It’s how you build trust. More importantly, it’s that trust that will last for years. People will remember when you were there for them. It mattered to them that you showed up and they won’t forget it. This also applies to your clients.

Use this as an opportunity to increase your competencies. As humans, we like to feel competent, but we’re in a situation that has us questioning what we’re doing. We’ve been pushed into what Gretchen calls "conscious incompetence." It’s not a comfortable place to be. As soon as we can build new competencies, we’ll move back into a more comfortable space. We’re in an immersive learning curve and it doesn’t feel great but, in the end, we’ll be stronger for it.

Be sure to keep your positive mindset, as it’s what will keep you getting up every day to figure out what’s going on in the world now.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Coronavirus Work from home Practice management