At a glance
When COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in the early months of last year, “business as usual” took on a whole new meaning. For Perth-based practice Aspen Corporate, this meant hitting the accelerator on operational changes that had been in the pipeline for years.
Some Aspen Corporate staff were already set up to work from home. Laptops had been slowly replacing desktop computers in the office, and most business functions had already moved to the cloud.
“We knew that getting our accountants mobilised to work from home was going to be fairly simple,” says Bernadette Smith FCPA, director at Aspen Corporate.
“The biggest challenge was adjusting the role of our admin team, because a lot of their work, like scanning, for instance, can’t really be done from home.”
Aspen Corporate’s team of about 35 included six administration staff prior to the pandemic, and some of them were retrained to take on client-facing roles or bookkeeping.
“We still needed our people, but we’ve just had to look at how we run the business better,” Smith says.
Refining remote leadership
For many practices like Aspen Corporate, the pandemic changed the way teams are structured and managed.
Remote working presented challenges for even the most tech-savvy practices. While cloud-based technology and videoconferencing enabled teams to collaborate virtually, communication required more structure.
“At the start, we were probably having too many meetings,” says Smith.
“We had to bring in some structure and ensure we got to the point quickly during Zoom calls. Overall, we think the remote working experience improved the connection between directors and our teams. Traditionally, they would come to us when they needed us. During COVID-19, we were checking in every day.”
Lisa Younger is director of consultancy Evolving Doors, which works with businesses looking to grow or improve operations. She says remote working presented valuable leadership lessons that will enhance long-term business success.
“When you have any kind of change in the market, it’s important to be attuned to what your customer wants, and you really have to look at your employees as part of that,” she says. “If your employees aren’t happy, that’s going to reflect on how you can deliver your services. Your employees are your internal customers.”
Younger says the disruption of COVID-19 caused more practice leaders to consider how their teams were feeling as well as what they were doing.
“If you dismiss the fact that people have enjoyed this work–life balance, you’re going to have a very disgruntled workforce,” she says.
“You need to be having conversations with your staff, ideally once a month, that go beyond operational matters – How are they doing and how can you improve on their role? What are the micro-goals you can set together, as well as the bigger picture goals?”
This shift in leadership style is happening, says Younger, and more workers are expecting it.
“I’m seeing a real change, particularly in the accounting industry,” says Younger.
“For so long, people have been promoted on technical merit. As a result, soft skills are not necessarily highly developed.
“I think that is something that needs to completely flip, and I do see it changing. Skills like communication and collaboration are more valued than ever.”
Defining team values
With more teams working apart, clearly defined values can also help them work together. Mike McHenry, director at Seamless SMSF, says values underpin culture and provide a reference point for how you do business.
“If everyone understands your values and they’re part of the induction process, it strips out any grey area,” he says. “The expected behaviours become very clear – ask everyone to sign off on the values, and then you’re all accountable to them.”
McHenry adds that values support the overall mission of an accounting practice and that training is required to support them. “At Seamless SMSF, our mission is to be outstanding, and one of the values that supports that is that we are precise. And the only way we can be precise is to have training.”
McHenry’s team is divided into three groups for training purposes – juniors, intermediate and seniors.
“If juniors are learning about the rules around contributions, for example, they learn it every day for two weeks. At the end of the second week, they present the topic to the next group that’s starting the training.”
With teams working remotely, processes also need to be clearly documented.
“Every task needs a clear, documented process behind it,” says McHenry. “I recommend having two or three people who know how to do a specific function, but you still need to document every step of the process and test it.”
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Flexible for the future
Most of the team at Aspen Corporate have returned to the office, but Smith says ways of working have changed as a result of the lockdown.
“People want flexibility, and they want to be able to work from home where they can,” she says. “I don’t see that they can do that full time with the kind of work we do, so we’ll look at things like a split week.
“I can also see us rolling out different hours down the track,” adds Smith. “Some people work really well in the morning, for example, so they might want to start at 6am and finish early. As long as the clients’ needs are being met across the board, I can’t see why that couldn’t work.”
Do's and don'ts for team building in 2021
“Setting an agenda before a meeting means everyone’s time is used efficiently and you work smarter.” Lisa Younger
DO: Define what you stand for
“Values shape the way everyone in a business behaves, how they work with clients and how they work together.” Mike McHenry
DO: Be flexible
“There still need to be checks and balances around deliverables and accountability, but if you have an accountant who can deliver something in five hours working from home that would take them eight hours in the office, allowing them to work at home once or twice a week is a smart business decision.” Lisa Younger
DON'T: Ignore the value of training
“Don’t assume that everyone knows exactly how to do things. You need training around skills and training around processes.” Mike McHenry