Everyone in business is probably thinking about leading effective virtual teams right now, especially as the lockdown period seems to be looking like it’s going to be extended for another 3 weeks as least. For accountants, it’s no different. To grow their practice sustainably, they need to be leading effective virtual teams and managing their work remotely during this difficult period of having to work from home.
In the last 3 years, I have grown a virtual team of people and worked from my home office. I never thought that my expertise in leading a virtual team would be so in demand right now as COVID-19 causes a global lockdown, but as you can imagine, any tips and advice that I’ve been sharing have been greatly received. While I find that working from home is always a work in progress, there are 4 steps that, if you take them consistently, you can lead a virtual team successfully from anywhere.
Everything you need to know for leading effective virtual teams
The purpose of this guide is to outline the four steps that you need to take for leading effective virtual teams during the Coronavirus outbreak. You may only need help with just one of these areas or all four of them, whatever your needs, you can just use this article as a resource as and when you need it.
The four steps to lead a virtual team are: (Click on the links to go directly to the part of the article… this is a 3692-word article)
- Making sure that you are strong and positive
- Creating a ‘new normal’ for you and your team
- Keeping your employees motivated
- Controlling and managing workflow
Step 1 - Making sure you are strong and positive
Now you may be thinking, “I thought this was an article about leading and motivating virtual teams throughout the Coronavirus Crisis?” and it is, just bear with us. I just want to remind you of that flight safety speech that we’ve all heard countless times, the part where they say to “put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” In a situation where there’s an emergency, you need to be physically able to help and you can’t do that without prioritising your own health first. And it’s the same with being a leader; in order to be the strong leader your team needs you to be, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first.
As well as being strong and healthy for your team, a great leader also needs to be positive. This is especially important in such a time of immense uncertainty filled with so much fear and doubt, as everyone is looking for direction and meaning. To be able to do this well, again it comes down to prioritising your self-care and dealing with your own anxiety and fears at this time. Quite surprisingly, it also helps if you share these vulnerabilities with your team. The more you model that it is OK to not feel OK, the more your team will feel comfortable to share this with you and their team members. However tempted you are to ignore your feelings or how your team is feeling, don’t. Sharing vulnerability has been shown to foster greater creativity and innovation. According to Brené Brown, the go-to vulnerability expert, her research shows that “team members are more likely to take risks, to try something new, and to deal with the discomfort of failure being an option. Put simply, vulnerability can create space for “productive failure”.”
Put simply, sharing feelings increases morale and productivity so make sure to do this and then create a plan of action for how the team is going to work together to get through the crisis. To help you do this will, here are two steps that you need to be taking every day to put on your own oxygen mask first:
1. Find healthy ways to let go of your own anxiety, stress, and fear
Are you fretting about your practice? Do you have financial worries or health worries? Are you worried about the future...the health of your loved ones? All of us can probably say ‘yes’ to all of these questions right now as the future is so uncertain. The problem with “hypothetical worry,” however, is that this anxiety can be harder to deal with because you can’t logically work through them. To help kick these “What if..?” worries to the curb, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) studies have shown that you can retrain your brain so that, over time, you can tolerate your fears enough that they won’t impact your daily life anymore. To healthily deal with your fears, implement mindful techniques into your routine every day such as mediation, journaling, exercise, practising gratitude, and doing mindful hobbies. All of these activities serve to reduce stress and to enhance mood and sleep.
2. Prioritise your own self-care
Are you not sleeping well or eating well? Do you spend all day working but hardly get anything done? Again, this might be something that we can all say “yes” to but it’s important that we try and turn this around. In order to have the strongest immune system right now (which we all want with this nasty virus going around), we need to be prioritising our own health. This means keeping to a regular sleep schedule of at least 7 hours a night, exercising daily, eating as healthily as possible, and giving our brains time to properly switch off and relax. (Read our blog on How headspace can help with anxiety and growing your practice during a difficult time to see why ‘switching off’ is essential)
Step 2 - Creating a ‘new normal’ for you and your team
After making sure that you are as healthy as you can be, the next step to leading effective virtual teams is to create a new structure and routine for everyone. After all, we all need to adapt to this ‘new normal’ - as it looks like we are going to be working home for the foreseeable future - so we need a new plan in place to do so effectively. Accountants that have junior or inexperienced members of staff on their team who have never worked from home before need even more direction, so create a new routine for everyone and get them all on the same page. Here are 6 tips to implement and to share with your team:
Tip 1: Create a new office life at home, not the same as your work one
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to re-create your previous office life. It doesn’t need to be this way; what you do need to do is make a decision on how you will work, and also help your team to do the same. So, what do I mean by this? For example, if you are a morning person, does your day need to start at 09:00? Or can it start at 07:00? Can you block out times when you are normally at your least productive to go for a walk or to practice mindfulness?
Of course, if you are leading your team remotely, one of your key challenges is to help the team communicate together. There are going to be some non-negotiables here, such as when in the day does your team need to be online for a team meeting, but as the team leader, it is not just your responsibility to create your new normal working from home, it’s your responsibility to help your staff create their new normal as well.
It’s really easy when working from home to get sucked into the myriad of distractions available… laundry, Netflix, social media, kids …. therefore, you may need to have a 1:2:1 with each member of staff to help them think through how they are going to structure their workload, particularly if they now have the kids at home and need to spend time looking after them!
Tip 2: Create a new list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for your team
This tip sounds like common sense, but this may have been missed off the list in the rush to get everyone working remotely. Or you may find as you all adapt to this new way of working, then you may need to make some changes. For example, our clients have found that when running team meetings virtually they get much better interaction and social bonding when their team has their cameras on.
In these interesting times, many of your team members may have children at home with them. Therefore, you and your team need to agree on how this will work. It’s also really important to recognise and agree that it is OK to have to attend to children’s needs during a call or virtual team meeting. (I am still scarred by the memory of my 3-year-old son yelling very loudly when I was on the call with a very prestigious managing partner, “mummy I have done a poo!”).
Tip 3: Set up a ‘home office’ which is conducive to working
Working from a kitchen table may be your only option at the moment, but the reality is that it doesn’t take long before a poor workstation set up really starts to hurt your body. Even if you don’t feel immediate pain right now, it’s important to realise that this could lead to preventable injuries and long-term health faults. (See here for a guide on good workstation set up).
To avoid unnecessary damage, try to:
- Use a big screen rather than a laptop screen, and get it at the right height.
- Take regular breaks away from your screen.
- Raise your laptop to eye-height. A pile of books can act quite well as a way of raising your laptop.
- Don’t work from a sofa with your laptop or tablet on your lap, as it really doesn’t take long for a back problem or RSI to start up. (I speak from personal experience!)
- If you are working from communal rooms in your house then enforce a “tidy away at the end of the working day” policy. (You may have to if you are working from the dining room table!)
You may find that the broadband speed into your house isn’t enough for your work needs. This is the time to speak with your internet provider to see whether you can increase your line speed. I have personally found it very useful to have a router that allows me to prioritise certain electronic devices on the house wifi. (Although my teenage kids don’t appreciate it when their collaborative Minecraft sessions slow down significantly.) I personally use the Google Wifi set up to make sure there is enough coverage around the house to work from any room, but also to prioritise my own device when working.
Tip 4: Find a balance between work and home-life
Decide early on when you will be ‘at work’ at home and when you will be ‘at home’ and not doing work-stuff. This may seem like a strange tip but when you work from home, particularly if the kids are at home, it can become ever so easy for work to take over your home life and vice versa. If you don’t want your family to become jealous of your laptop, you will need to decide the best structure to the day with them. That way, everyone knows when you will be working and when you will not be working, and when you’re not, you can be truly present with them.
When deciding on the best structure for you, try out some variations first to see what works. Many people find it useful to go out of the house in the morning for a short walk, and then when they return to the house they are now ‘at work’. Others prefer to end their day with a walk to separate their work and personal time at home. Whatever you decide, just remember to include your family in this agreement of ‘when I’m working’ and ‘when I’m not working’, as it is best done as a group. (I still have memories of my kids, when they were much younger, coming into my study when I was on a call with the nanny in hot pursuit - cue facepalm here.)
Tip 5: Use technology to eliminate distractions and help you focus
Let’s be honest, there are a lot of distractions at home (distractions that take you 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus again!). Then, of course, you have those which test your willpower such as social media and TV box sets. To not get sucked into the bad technology void, I recommend using ‘good’ technology to help keep you on track.
I personally use these tools to help me stay focused:
- Brain.fm: This plays ‘functional’ music tailored to your personal requirements to help your brain transition into a super-productive state. Before you say, it does actually work! The creators of the app work with neuroscientists to develop music featuring rhythmic modulation to keep you from being either distracted or soothed by the music. It creates a state of neural phase locking, which helps your neurons work together to stay in focus. Here is a link which will get you a free month. (This is not an affiliate link, nor will you be asked to put in your payment details).
- Freedom: This literally blocks access to the key distractions on your computer and tablet, such as social media, apps, websites. I am not sure how well it works with devices which are running on your firm’s systems, but it is a godsend for me personally. Here is a link to get you started. (This is an affiliate link) It’s quite a good one to use if you want to block access to the news sites and social media to improve your mental health…
- Newsfeed eradicator for Facebook: I have to use Facebook for work, sadly (I know, bad idea for productivity), which is why this free Chrome extension is worth its weight in gold. It literally removes your newsfeed on Facebook. So, no more time lost spending ages scrolling through the newsfeed.
Tip 6: Accept that it’s okay to not be productive every day
You’re not always productive in the office, so don’t expect this at home. There are going to be days when you are amazingly productive and then days when, if you are honest, you would have been better off staying in bed and not logging on at all. If you are having an unproductive day then don’t beat yourself up. Just plan out your week and promise yourself that you’ll wake up tomorrow fresh and raring to go.
Remember that this is an incredibly tough time to for everyone. Your worries are always going to be there, running in the background, so this is bound to affect your productivity. Just do your best and accept that it’s okay to not be functioning at 100%.
Step 3 - Keeping your employees motivated
Whilst working remotely for a day or two is a welcome relief from the noise and distractions that come with the office environment, trust me when I say, this novelty will soon wear off. As sure as the sun rises in the morning, your employees will need to quickly learn how to self-motivate and the discipline of working from home.
To help them be as productive and effective as possible, which is your job as the leader, here are 14 tips for keeping your employees motivated during isolation.
Tip 1: Don’t talk about your employees as ‘remote’ ‘workers’
"Words are important," said Isaac Oates, CEO of Justworks, an HR, benefits and payroll platform. "It's through our words that we communicate our intentions. They are the main tools that we have for sharing our vision with our teams."
The words you use when talking about people working virtually really do matter. Using the term ‘remote’ or ‘remote workers’ can highlight to many people that they are isolated, making them feel like they aren’t part of the team at all. The words and phrases you use can have a very real impact on your team's morale and productivity, so try to use ‘virtual’ rather than ‘remote’ and ‘team’ rather than ‘workers.’ You’ll be surprised about the difference this makes.
Tip 2: Try to talk to employees on the phone regularly
When you’re in the office, do you try and circulate around to check in with your team? Think about all of those times that you stop for a brief chat. You might not think that this is important, but it’s surprising how each conversation serves to build those all-important relationships just a little bit more. Of course, with everyone working remotely, this just isn’t feasible to do in the same but it is something that you should try to re-create by picking up the phone often.
To keep everyone connected, check-in with a team member or two each day via phone call, just to see how they are. It’s amazing how good it makes you feel to have a conversation with someone else – particularly given how socially isolated many of us feel at the moment.
Tip 3: Keep an eye on team members who have gone quiet
In these uncertain times, many people process their fear and uncertainty by withdrawing internally. In other words, they will go quiet and not contribute much to any of the dialogue. If you have one of these members of staff, then make a point of giving them a phone call and asking them explicitly how they are feeling right now. If your instinct says they are not fine, even if they say they are “fine” in response to that question, ask more questions of them. They may just need more social interaction.
Download our free weekly workload report template to use with your team to see who is getting stuff done when working from home.
Tip 4: Create a group chat for each team and encourage both work and personal talk
As we said in one of the previous tips, you talk about personal stuff while at the office so do the same whilst working from home. It may take a while for the conversation to get going on the group chat, so make sure that you take the lead. See something that makes you laugh? Then share it. Getting annoyed by the kids being under your feet at home now? Then share this. Did you manage to see something beautiful outside when you went for a walk, then share a picture of this (You get the idea…).
Tip 5: Foster positive thinking
I know it doesn’t feel like much is very positive right now, but thinking positively and appreciating what we do have is a really effective way of overcoming all this doom and gloom and the constant underlying anxiety that we feel. Again, you will need to lead the ‘being positive’ attitude with your staff and before long, you’ll soon see that they will follow. For example, how about on the group chat ask everyone to tell them something good which has happened today? Or to share something that has made them laugh? In time, they’ll share without you even asking.
Tip 6: Schedule daily team calls
It depends on how many staff you have, whether you have all employee calls or individual team-based calls or a mixture of both. If you have young/inexperienced staff or staff who are struggling with working remotely, you may like to have two of these calls; one in the morning and one after lunch. Ideally, in these calls you want everyone to answer these questions:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What am I happy, grateful or positive about?
- What am I planning to get done today?
- What help do I need to get this done today?
Tip 7: Encourage exercise and getting outside every day
This isn’t the time or place to lecture about the benefits of exercise. But it is a great mood and immune system enhancer, and even more so when the sun is shining and we can get out into nature. (And we all need this right now!) Many of your employees may fall into the trap of working from their desk all day so encourage them to think about their own well-being and how they will look after their physical and mental health in this uncertain time. We are all allowed an hour outside every day for physical activity so ask them what they plan to do in theirs.
Tip 8: Be the strong leader your team needs
You need to be present for your staff; you need to be strong and healthy and ready to lead. Now is not the time to hide in a corner and stop talking to people. Your staff are looking to you to keep them calm, positive and motivated which you can’t do if you are bottling up your own fears and vulnerabilities (see step one!). If you’re feeling scared or anxious, this is the time to share it with your staff. Strong teams form when leaders are prepared to admit their vulnerabilities. You just have to follow this up with ways that you can all deal with this healthily and an action plan for taking back control.
Tip 9: Set clear agendas for your team
Morale is always better in a team when people know what their role is and what they are there to do. This is needed now more than ever with all this uncertainty – we all need meaning in our lives, particularly if your team’s workload is changing by the day. For example, I have heard of law firms starting to reskill their commercial property teams as wills and probate lawyers. (Slightly morbid, but that is the reality is the situation). This is definitely not the time to delay important decisions. Your staff need quick decisions AND strong leadership from you now.
Tip 10: Encourage staff to buddy-up
Remember that your business is not just you and we all need support during this difficult time to be functioning at our best. How about encouraging team members to buddy up and look out for each other? Our productivity depends heavily on our mental health and wellbeing so this should be a priority for you and your team during this time.
Tip 11: Praise your team and thank them more than normal
We often take our staff for granted, particularly for the stuff that they just do. While this is not great generally, it’s even worse now at a time where everyone is feeling so helpless. So make sure that you are showing each member of your team how much you appreciate their effort, no matter how big or small. A little bit of appreciation or an extra thank you can really lift someone’s mood when they have a continual backdrop of doom and gloom.
As a point of interest, 81% of respondents to Glassdoor's Employee Appreciation Survey said they're motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work. In contrast, only 38% said they work harder when their boss is demanding. Maybe this is something that you can prioritise when everyone is back to the office too?
Tip 12: Give everyone time to say their piece in meetings
It’s going to be hard to get everyone to contribute to meetings when everyone is working virtually, but this inclusiveness and feeling of community is really important to nurture right now. To lead your team effectively when working from home, start each virtual meeting with a document which everyone can access remotely and contribute to with agenda items for the meeting. In addition to this, start each meeting by asking everyone to answer some basic questions in the chatbox, such as “on a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 = very down and 10 = amazingly positive, where are you today?” This gives everyone a chance to at least speak without any disruptions so that they feel like a valuable member of the team.
Tip 13: Send employees surprise gifts through the post
Of course, this tip assumes you can get out to the postbox or that you’re comfortable with ordering online, but it is worth it as your team will love to receive an unexpected gift (especially during this time of isolation!).
I know when my son’s English teacher sends us a postcard when he has done something particularly well, it means a huge amount to him and us. It’s the same for your staff. A handwritten postcard or card sent through the post can be a huge morale booster. If you are able to send through a small gift, then get them to open it with everyone else at your next team meeting.
Tip 14: Don’t forget that you still need to be ‘relationship building’
When working virtually, it’s far too easy to shoot off emails to everyone explaining what you would like them to do and then marking that off as something that’s done. While this is efficient, it is now more important than ever to add in some relationship building stuff at the beginning of an email or some ‘temperature’ checks at the beginning of a team meeting. Stating the obvious, we humans are not just robots. We are perfectly flawed humans who are probably, while working from home for an extended period of time, craving social interaction.
Step 4 - Controlling and managing workflow
The last step that you need to take when leading effective virtual teams is to control and manage everyone’s workflow. Now I’m sure that you’ve already seen that this is a lot more difficult when everyone is working remotely, but it doesn’t have to be. With these 2 essential tips - which also apply if you’re all working together in the same location - this will become a lot easier.
Tip 1: Get everyone on the same project/task management app
Having everyone on a different system keeping track of their own tasks is a recipe for disaster so the first thing you need to do when it comes to project management is to get everyone on the same system. There are many excellent project and task management tools which can be used virtually. For example, Trello has an excellent free version. If you don’t want to use Trello, you can normally use Microsoft Teams or Google docs for a document to keep everyone on track with what they need to do. These systems are ideal for efficient and effective management from your end as you can track everybody’s’ progress from a glance.
Download our free weekly workload report template to use with your team to see who is getting stuff done when working from home.
Tip 2: Use the daily (or twice daily huddle) to keep up-to-date on workflow
Earlier in the article, we shared a simple routine for a daily or twice daily operational huddle with your team. These daily huddles are great for two reasons: they keep your team focused on the priorities and they give your peace of mind that progress is being made. Click here to download the agenda for a daily operational huddle (email required)
Start leading effective virtual teams
If you want to be leading effective virtual teams whilst working from home, you need to be sure that you are in the best mental and physical shape to do so first! That’s why making sure that you are as strong and as positive as possible is the first step. Only when you do this can you effectively implement the remaining 3 steps into your daily life - creating a new routine for everyone, keeping them motivated, and managing their workflow - all of which are essential pieces to the working-from-home-effectively-during-the-Coronavirus puzzle!
This template really saved us time when communicating with our smallest clients so we had more time for everyone else
What an amazing job, you and the rest of the AMC guys are doing"
Worth your weight in gold and you are part of our team in every shape and form and when this time passes we will celebrate together.
Add in a structure to your day
You are probably never going to be able to spend enough time with your clients and team right now. One way of dealing with overwhelm is actually accepting your reality and being aware of what you can or can not control. And this is just the reality of the moment. What can help you make sure the time you do spend is productive is by adding in a structure to your day.
- For the hours you are at your most productive, set these aside for your own client work, such as doing a cashflow forecast for a client. Do not allow yourself to get pulled into a client or staff meeting in these hours. Tell your team and any members of your household about these times, and that you are not to be disturbed.
- Use a meeting booking system such as Acuityscheduling (affiliate link) to set times when clients can book time in your diary. Allocate these times when you are not at your most productive and would welcome the distraction of a call with clients. Ensure that you use the ‘padding’ option so that for every meeting a client books via the automatic booking system you choose you have 5 - 10 mins between calls to write your notes, do any quick next steps, and get yourself in a position where you are mentally ready for the next call.
- Decide on the times when you will STOP working in the morning and the afternoon. When you are working from home it becomes all too easy to get welded into your desk chair and not get up for hours and hours. Your brain needs time to recharge to be at its best.
How to deal with clients all being desperate for your time
Our members are telling us that unlike in January where most clients leave them alone to get the tax returns done in peace, that they are spending all their time on the phone or in a video call to scared, anxious and sometimes highly distressed clients. And as a result, they don’t feel able to keep the phone calls short. In this scenario you need to lead your clients, rather than be led by them or you will spend all your time on the phone to them. Our blog post “5 ways small accountancy firm owners survive and thrive the tsunami of work brought by COVID-19” talked about triaging your clients. This is an essential exercise if you are going to be able to cope with the sheer volume of clients needing your time.
You need to lead your clients, rather than be led by them.
1. Call all your clients
It’s very much good practice now to phone all of your clients to see how they are doing. That way you and your team can validate who really needs the help of your firm and what help they need. Now, these phone calls need to be shared out between the team. For example, our members have personally called their top clients, but left the admin team or account managers to call the other clients to see how they are.
2. Set up virtual weekly question and answer sessions for your clients to join
Our members are having great success hosting virtual weekly sessions with their clients and local business owners. They suggest to their clients, particularly the smaller clients, to attend these sessions, to get all their questions answered. As many clients have exactly the same questions, these virtual surgery sessions are a great time saver. Many of our members are inviting non-clients to join these sessions. They are a great way of generating new business in this strange time. Some of our members are running these sessions more than weekly. For example, they may partner once a week with a client who is an employment lawyer to answer the many employment law questions their clients are having right now. In the club we’ve also made it easy for our members to host these sessions by providing a slide deck to cover off all the main points from the help announced by the government.
3. Send regular updates by email to your clients
One of the ways we have been helping our members is by writing email updates they can send to clients about the government announcements. Our members and their clients love these. These regular email updates can really help cut down the amount of queries your clients are sending you.
4. Tell your clients via email how they can help you
Many of our members were telling us that they were getting many clients ringing up and asking the same questions over and over again. Not particularly helpful as they were dealing with overwhelm as a result of their concerns about their own business, getting staff working efficiently from home etc... So, we wrote for them a polite email telling their clients to help us to help you by reading the following before getting in touch:
- Official government ‘COVID-19’ website pages
- The email updates that were sent out
The members who have used this email template have found it radically cut down on client calls and queries. If you would like this email template, click here to download (email address required).
If you want to send out a similar email, you also may like to consider setting up some dedicated email addresses for clients to use, e.g. email@example.com to help you and your team effectively handle the number of client queries. With these dedicated email addresses you and your team can handle the load of client queries much easier.
5. At the start of a call with clients set expectations for the call
You are on a call to a desperate client, it’s only natural that you will want to spend as much time as they need in order to help them. However, if you did this now for every single client, you’d not have time to eat or sleep. In our fortnightly group accountability call our members shared how they are managing to keep their client calls to time. For example:
- At the start of the call stating how long they have got for the call and why it needs to end on time, e.g. “I then have a call with another client in a similar difficult position to you”
- Ask clients at the start of the call to prioritise what they really want from the call
- Set an audible timer 5 mins before the end of the call to remind you to start to wind the call down
6. Aim to move the client to a logical and rational state quickly
There is a huge amount of emotion present right now. Most people are in a heightened state of fear and anxiety about the health of their family and friends, and also the health of their small business. This level of emotion doesn’t make it easy to quickly work out a plan of action for a client. In this scenario, with any client call, after you have understood the priorities for the call, it’s essential to check out their emotional state. Allow some time in the call to just listen and hear how they are feeling about things. The more you can allow someone to talk, rant or vent, the easier it will become to help them take rational and well-thought out decisions.