How to Communicate Well While Working Remotely
With a second wave of COVID-19 potentially looming, it has become evident to everybody that remote work is the new norm. But how are accountants and finance leaders adjusting for this? One way to ease the transition is to make sure you communicate effectively with team members and clients.
It’s no secret that your working relationship while being remote has been a challenge for many companies lately. As someone who has worked remotely for the past seven years, I’ve been the keen observer of which department has had the most challenges with this transition. Without a doubt, it’s accounting and finance.
Working papers, invoices, payroll files, and supporting documents have become a regular way of life for accountants. It’s no surprise that the loss of paper files has required new mindsets and brought on new frustrations.
With a second wave of COVID-19 potentially looming, it has become evident to everybody that remote work is the new norm. But how are accountants and finance leaders adjusting for this?
According to a recent PwC US CFO Pulse Survey conducted in mid-June, 54 percent of finance leaders have made remote work a permanent alternative to the workplace. This is an increase of 45 percent from March 2020.
The survey also indicates that finance leaders are becoming more comfortable with their teams being remote with just 26 percent of finance leaders saying they were concerned with their team’s productivity.
Productivity loss is the result of poor communication practices. With messages flooding communications channels like email inboxes and Slack, teams are having difficulty getting questions answered directly, meeting deadlines, and receiving empathy from the top. This has led to unanswered questions and lengthened processes like audits and month-end.
With more CFOs and accounting firms making remote work a permanent option, effective communication is becoming more important. I truly believe that bad communication creates more work. In the PwC survey, only 32 percent of teams said their leaders were open and communicated frequently with them. Open and frequent communication leads to more productive, empowered, and engaged remote employees. Here are my tips on how to build more of this into the workplace.
Tip 1: Never Assume Someone Understands What You Are Saying
People are naturally not good communicators. These skills are learned. However, communication training is rarely provided to CFOs, Partners, managers, and their teams. So often, messages such as emails and texts are misinterpreted without people realizing it.
Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me?, says that when people relay information to their teams virtually, they think others understand their messages 90 percent of the time. The reality is only 50 percent of messages are understood!
Often, people assume communication is the same online as it is face-to-face. However, while virtual communication allows us to “communicate faster, easier, and at our own convenience”, it lacks feedback, empathy, connection, control, and emotion. In a face-to-face interaction, “we speak content, and we signal emotions, attitudes, and intent through our body language.” This is difficult to achieve virtually, leaving most virtual communication misunderstood.
Tip 2: Always Make Your Intent Clear
When remote, people only communicate with content. If clear intent is made, there is no room for misperception. When assigning a task or giving directions to teams or clients, be clear and explain all the details.
As a leader, be crystal clear with your employees by answering these questions before sending any written communication:
- What is the employee expected to do? “Please complete the bank reconciliation for all the accounts in ABC bank.”
- When is the deadline including the time and date? “I’d like to review the reconciliation on Thursday by noon.”
- Who do they need to work with to complete this task? “Please speak to Jane to obtain all the bank statements and ask the client for any missing documents.”
- Why is this task important? “This is usually the first part of the audit that is completed which is why we need to make sure it’s prioritized.”
After writing your message, whether it’s an email, text, or on Slack, re-read it out loud and see if it makes sense.
Tip 3: Avoid Confusing and Vague Words
Using vague words confuses the receiver. This happens when you, as the messenger, assume the receiver or your employee understands the exact context you’re referring to. Confusing words to steer away from include:
For example, if you write a message such as: “I changed that to reflect what they said. But if we change this, we should change the other page too. I don’t agree with it right now.”
Confusing right? The above example lacks context in what the terms that, this, and it mean. With multiple clients and projects to juggle, employees are left confused and forced to ask themselves, “what exactly does my manager / the CFO mean?”. More specifically, “what task is the client referring to?”.
To make it clearer, try, “I changed the accounts receivable conclusion on the second page of the AR audit file. If you agree with this change, we should also change the conclusion in the summary section. Let’s discuss this in the morning after our status call.”
Tip 4: Provide the What, When, and How
CFO and managers should ensure tasks are accurately assigned by answering these questions for all of its team members:
- What is the context?
- When is the deadline?
- How am I supposed to complete the task?
Instead of saying, “Could you update that today?” which lacks context and a hard deadline, the CFO could change the message to, Could you update the memo by 3pm today so I can send it to our XYX client?” By providing this information to the employee, you are giving them the specific details to the task, leaving no room for miscommunication.
Tip 5: Create a Virtual Communication Policy
A virtual communication policy serves as a guide to how, what, where, why, and when teams communicate. This may seem restrictive, but the more standardized a process becomes, the clearer it is to understand how to communicate with each other.
- Write it out for tasks and to-dos
- Talk it out for clarification
- Meet it out for 1:1s, feelings and complex matters
Tip 6: Use the Right Tools
Remote work communication is made more effective with the right tools.
Slack allows teams to work together better by integrating other tools such as Outlook, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Trello, and Zoom. Decide which tools are most effective for your teams and document this in the policy.
Zapier is another great tool that allows teams to easily connect apps, automate their processes through Zaps and build automated workflows with no code required.
Tip 7: Define the Single Source of Truth
Does your team save working files in more than one area? Do you use multiple file types? If you’ve answered “yes” to both questions, it’s time to define where the single source of truth is. Having a single source allows for teams to access the most up-to-date information and avoid wasting time digging through multiple files.
The single source of truth could be a secured Google Drive, Dropbox, or the company intranet. Whichever your team chooses, ensure this information is in your virtual communication policy.
Tip 8: Reset Expectations for Colleagues and Clients with kids
In the PwC survey, an employee’s well-being was shown to be the key to productivity. However, many remote teams are still finding it challenging to adjust to work with kids at home, understandably. This has made the need to take care of everybody’s well-being more important. Clients face the same realities. By resetting expectations, CFOs and managers help employees better manage their mental health.
The new remote workplace also requires CFOs and managers to be more empathetic as their team finds a new balance. For example, if an employee struggles to consistently meet deadlines while working from one, the CFOs and managers schedule a 1:1 virtual meeting to discuss the matter together and possible solutions.
The Argument for Becoming a Better Communicator
With remote work becoming a more viable alternative to the workplace, better communication practices need to be in place. If not, finance and accounting teams will find that more work is created. By using some of the tips above, CFOs and managers create better communication practices in the workplace and avoid prolonged deadlines during busy periods amongst their teams.
Alice Ko, CPA, CA, is the Head of Content at Procurify, a spend management software platform that helps organizations proactively manage spend to drive operational efficiencies and long-term business growth. She launched her career in audit at KPMG...