Jul 13, 2020

Leadership Skills in the Era of Remote Work

The emergency necessity of embracing remote work brought about by the coronavirus has shown businesses that it is possible to operate not only from a board room table, but also from a dining room table. As a result, what had been viewed as a temporary fix could eventually evolve into a regular mode of operation. This means leadership will have to continue refining their ability to engage their staff remotely. We spoke to Erin Daiber, professional certified coach and chief executive officer of Well Balanced Accountants LLC, to get more on best practices in this area.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

For a great deal of businesses, the coronavirus pandemic forced them to move their operations onto the home front. While this certainly created initial complications, it also allowed organizations to find out that it is possible to conduct everyday business while the staff is at home if the workforce is properly engaged. With remote working likely to grow in popularity due to this success and perhaps out of necessity should the pandemic flare up down the line, as has been speculated, it remains a good time to stress work-from-home engagement best practices. To discuss these best practices, we are with Erin Daiber, professional certified coach and chief executive officer for Well Balanced Accountants, LLC.

One of the things you mentioned in a CPA Now blog that we are basing this discussion on: Everything that works for leading a team in the office applies for an at-home team, only it needs to be stepped up a little. Also, it's going to amplify any leadership gaps. Can you tell us why this is?

[Daiber] If we take communication as an example, if we're working together in an office and, as a leader, I'm a poor communicator, my team can give me a lot more leeway. In other words, I can get away with a lot more in terms of poor communication in an office. That is because if I've delivered or delegated a task, for example, but it wasn't clear what my expectations were or what I wanted from my team, I have an opportunity to pop into their office and check in on their progress or walk by their desk and observe that they're not doing exactly what I thought or what I had expected. I can catch those errors that I've made. I've got a lot of opportunities to do that.

Also, from a receiver standpoint, if my communication is ineffective and it doesn't work for one of my team members, they also have the opportunity to see me every day. They respect me as a human. They see my humanity and they give me a little bit more leeway. They actually do some of the work in filling in any of the gaps that I haven't clearly articulated to them. We get away with a lot more because we're there together, because we have those opportunities to catch errors or correct ourselves, course-correct pretty quickly, and our team is doing a lot of the work also to decipher what we mean and give us a free pass for things.

When we take ourselves out of that in-person environment and now go to a remote environment, I don't have as many opportunities like that to course-correct. I send something out to my team in the form of communication and they run with it. I have to intentionally check in, right? I have to do a lot more work to make sure that that message has gotten across clearly and that things are moving the way that I wanted it to.

The longer you're apart, and we've been apart for quite a while in this scenario, and, again, if that's going to continue, this is just going to be an ongoing issue, but the longer we're apart, the more I become just a face on the screen or even worse-case scenario of an email coming through.

They start to lose my humanity and I start to lose that leeway that I had with them. So those gaps, whether it's communication or just leadership in general or giving feedback, anything that was there before is now amplified. I'm just not getting away with it the way I was before.

You say that well-conducted remote engagement activities can create new opportunities for business. How is this?

[Daiber] Studies have shown that engaged teams are more productive and more profitable than their disengaged or less engaged counterparts. If we just stopped at that, we've already won.

We've got more productivity, which is going to lead to more profitability. That's absolutely an opportunity. But if you think about yourself when you're engaged with a project versus doing a project that you're not engaged with, the work product is going to be better if I'm engaged. I'm just doing higher quality work and likely working much more efficiently as well. If I'm engaged with my team, I'm bringing them up also. Across the board, our capacity for either volume of work and also our capacity for higher-level work increases. That gives you an opportunity to be doing higher level, higher billing, working with bigger and more profitable clients, which is a huge opportunity for the company.

I think the other thing about that is that engagement also has people being more creative. If you find yourself in a situation where you're constantly giving people work and then they do the work and they give it back to you, but you're really driving the bus in a way, what you're going to see with a more engaged team is they may actually come to you and say, "Hey, I think we should do this to improve our process." Or, "I think we should go talk to this client because here's some ways I see that we could help them." Where you don't have to be the one constantly driving, but they actually take ownership and responsibility for things in a whole new way and free you up to do other things.

What would you say the worst-case scenario is for employees and businesses if there just isn't the proper level of engagement in a work-from-home environment? What's going to take place there?

[Daiber] A lot of the firms and companies that I've been working with, their big fear in sending people home full-time was that they're going to be essentially paying their employees to be doing their laundry and organizing their cabinets and watching Netflix, right?

And we're billing the client in the meantime. From a profitability standpoint, that's obviously not good. That's a pretty bad-case scenario, but I think, even worse, if you've got some people on your team who are still engaged, who maybe are enjoying working from home, and then we've got someone who is sliding further and further away in terms of disengagement, like they say, that one rotten apple can spoil the bunch. They may be actively disengaging other people on your team who otherwise were still engaged and still productive and still wanting to be part of the team. You could also have that where someone could be pulling other people away or just planting seeds that this is not the place that they want to be. They might also be searching for a new job on your dime.

You sum up your approach in the blog to team engagement as “Be. Do. Have.” Walk us through those steps, if you can. How can a leader be more effective?

[Daiber] Well, I actually think, if it's okay with you, I think it makes a little bit more sense to actually start with “Have.”
When I'm walking through this process, and this is something that I use for everything, anytime a leader or an emerging leader comes to me and says, "This is what I want to create in my organization," this is the process that we walk through. In terms of engagement, we have to first start with “Have.” “Have” is the end in mind, right? What is it that we want? Because engagement is sort of a subjective term, it means different things to different people. As an organization and as a leader, you have to start by defining what that means to you. So, what is engagement? What does an engaged team look like for us? And if we were successful at engaging our team, what would we see?

Because engagement itself, like we said, it's subjective, so it's really easy to just look at a day-to-day scenario and say, "Oh, I don't know. I guess we're more engaged or maybe we're not. I don't know." We have to tie it to something tangible. Maybe there are activities you would see people doing or actions they would be taking or not taking, things they'd be doing or not doing that would signal to you that, in fact, they are more engaged. That's the first step. We have to set a clear and measurable target so we know what we want. Then we can work backwards. Once we are clear what we want, then it's a process of what do we need to do and who do we need to be about it?

Let's talk about the “Do” aspect. The impulse might be to jump right in and start instilling engagement steps immediately, but how important is it to have a clear idea of what you would like to do before beginning?

[Daiber] It's really important to have that clear outcome in mind, because this is one of the places where I see engagement initiatives fail. If we aren't clear about what our intended outcome is, then we go in and throw money at some initiatives and we have no way of measuring whether or not they're working. One of two things happens: either we think it's working, but it's not actually working so we continue to put money into these initiatives that aren't actually improving our team engagement at all, we're not getting any ROI from it; or it is working and it's just a longer process, but because we don't have a way to measure it, we think, "Well, it's not working. We still have people leaving. Let's pull the plug on that one and stop investing in something that is working." Either way, without that tangible, measurable outcome and a way to track its progress along the way, you run the risk of quitting on something that is or may not be working.

So we can cycle back here to “Be.” Again, the approach is “Be. Do. Have.” What are the steps that can help a leader be more effective?

[Daiber] Again, we've got our target, we know what we want to create in terms of engagement, then we look at what's missing. What are those things that we need to do? What sorts of initiatives could we put in place? I've got some ideas that I can share with you and with your audience for that. Then we map out what exactly we are going to do. The being part is the part that often throws these initiatives off track. We're really good at doing, especially as accountants … we're task-oriented people, we're deadline-driven people. So, the doing, implementing a program, no problem. Executing on that program, no worries. We've got it.

But, for example, recently I've been working with a lot of people on having authentic conversations with their team members about how they're doing. Not just that surface level, "Hey, how are you?" "Good, I'm great. Everything's fine," sort of conversation, but really how are you doing with being home and in the pandemic and just everything in our environment going on right now? If I'm a leader, I could go and do that, right? I can go and sit with someone virtually and ask the right questions, but if I don't do it in a way that has them trust me as their leader and as their colleague, or if they're questioning why I'm asking or what I might be using that information for, they're likely not going to be really open and honest with me as their leader.

So that's an example of, yes, I'm doing the right thing, but how I'm showing up as a leader or who I'm being is not conducive to getting the results that I want. It really has to be both. We've got to be mindful, yes, of the actions that we're taking, but it's just as much about what you do as it is how you do it.

What are some of the engagement ideas that you've found to be effective and that seem to be working for people?

[Daiber] If we think about what keeps people engaged, there's two things that come to mind. First, feeling a part of something bigger. We've really got to make sure that our team members feel that they are a part of a team or that there's a bigger purpose, a bigger reason for them to be in this organization. That's especially critical now that we have sent them away from their team members. They're not getting that day-to-day interaction. We've got to find a way to continue to create that team environment where they get to collaborate and support each other and get supported by their team members versus becoming a number of individuals. I've seen people do virtual happy hours, even socially distant get-togethers in the parking lot of their organizations, and get creative that way to bring people back together, either virtually or in a safe environment so that we can continue that.

It's also, I think, about getting to know each other on a personal level. Not having every interaction be strictly business, but understanding what challenges they have or getting to know their kids and what they've got going on at home and being genuinely curious about that. People will stay in an organization where they feel they've got family, where they've got people that have their back. They'll stay for the people longer than they will stay for the organization.

The other part of that is for ourselves as individuals, we've got to be able to see an experienced forward movement in our careers, especially young people really want to be able to make forward progress and see themselves developing and growing into their careers. One of the key things as an organization is we want to have our employees see us as a vehicle to get them where they want to go. That's obviously something as an organization we can do, but ultimately that is executed by the leaders at all levels of the organization.

One of the things that is really critical is when you go through those annual goal-setting meetings or progress-feedback meetings, when your employees set goals, we want to be actively looking for ways to support them in achieving those goals. Whether that's providing training or seeking out development opportunities, pairing them with a coach or a mentor, or when an opportunity comes up to help them develop a certain skill, make sure they get on that project. If they start to see or continue to see your organization as the place where they're going to be able to meet their personal and professional goals, that's absolutely going to increase engagement as well and keep them there for the long haul.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.