Five Tips to Better Manage Your Remote Staff

Kristen Rampe, CPA / Mar 11, 2020

With COVID-19 spreading, many firms are allowing or requiring more remote work than they may have in the past. Whether it’s a move to protect the health of your community or a longer-term strategy for recruiting, retention and profitability, here are five key practices that can help you manage remote workers.

Remote work options are an important advantage for CPA firm professionals. They provide flexibility, reduce costs, and are an attractive benefit to many employees.

One of the biggest hurdles for CPA firms in adopting or more widely implementing a remote work environment is that managing remote employees feels very different from managing on-site employees. But often the skills that make someone a great manager or supervisor in-house make them effective with remote workers, and vice-versa.

Similarly, team members who are on-task and productive in the office are also likely on-task and productive out of the office. But we all know some who aren’t, and they’re even more challenging to manage remotely.

In the office, you notice that someone is struggling or not on task because you overhear them talking, walk by their desk or see them in the kitchen. This visibility is all but eliminated when team members work from home or their favorite neighborhood café.

What to do? Here are five ways you can better manage your remote workers:

Define work products to be completed each day.

Especially during busy season, being clear on what will be done at the beginning of each day is powerful. This communication can take place in any format, as long as it’s effective for everyone involved. Some people may prefer a quick 10-minute call to discuss their plan for the day, others might want to write an email detailing the 5-10 returns they believe they can complete. Then it’s your job to review and communicate back with them.

Specify communication protocols.

How often and when do you want to be contacted if someone has questions? Alternatively, what if a team member prefers not to ask any questions? Both can be managed well by setting expectations. Each team member-supervisor dynamic will be different and it’s important to balance what you need with what the team member needs to be productive. One effective tool for this is to plan when you’ll be in touch each day or week, as outlined below.

Plan check-in times.

This is one of THE most productive ways to actively monitor work. You’ll not only to keep up to date on progress but also to create an efficient review. When you identify problems upfront and understand how the team member got to where they are, you’ll find later reviews to be much quicker.

For each remote team member, determine how often and when you will check in with them. For newer team members, or those working on a new or challenging client, this may need to be relatively frequent (e.g. multiple times per day). Don’t worry about micro-managing, what you’re aiming to do is right-level manage. Put these check-in meetings on your calendars and honor them.

For team members you’ve worked with before and who consistently produce higher-quality work, you can trust them to operate for longer periods without calendared check-ins (e.g. 2 – 4 check-ins per week instead of per day). Avoid leaving them alone for too much longer though, because they too benefit from your guidance and wisdom, and you will benefit from making sure there are no surprises coming down the pike.

Conduct check-ins effectively.

With screen sharing to see actual work products being generated, use these statements and questions to understand their progress in a meaningful way:

  • Walk me through what you’ve done so far.
  • What are you least certain about in this section/return/engagement?
  • How did you determine which treatment/standard/guidance to apply in this situation?
  • Did you consider ___________ (alternative approach you’d like to suggest)?

Delegate check-ins to up-and-coming supervisors and managers.

Tasking someone else with the responsibility for the work of others frees you up to manage a smaller headcount. It has the added benefit of building trust with and skills for the future leaders of your firm.

Remote work is here to stay, and many firms are using it to their advantage. There are still many benefits to keeping in-person work environments, but adding in more flexibility for remote work (and executing it effectively) may give your firm a new edge when it comes to recruiting, retention and efficiency.

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