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ARTICLE: 7 critical tips for leading teams from home

The global jump to working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic will test leadership, communication skills and empathy.

The world is beginning the largest teleworking experiment in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. So how can you make the new normal of toiling from home work for you and your team?

First, it’s important to realise that many firms will be using remote systems at large scale for the first time. A study by Les Jones CA in 2018 found just 8% of 243 New Zealand accounting firms had staff working from home.

Second, teleworking is not always easy. At Nexia Australia’s Brisbane office, senior adviser Victor Koh CA says his firm is well set up for team members to work from home. They can access practice management and collaboration systems, and the firm’s audit team has led the way.

Nevertheless, he says, “I expect there to be a lot of challenges ahead, not just for our firm, but for really anyone that hasn’t had a lot of experience with working remotely.”

Yvette Blount, an associate professor in the Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance at Macquarie University, has studied remote working for many years and says Koh is right to be cautious: telework has the potential to go wrong, and it needs leadership and management skills.

Here are seven critical factors to be aware of to help make the working from home transition easier to manage.

1. Leadership is critical.

Blount says that in this environment, “leadership is about saying to your employees: OK, this is the team, and this is the environment we’re working with. We still have customers that we need to service.”

2. IT is paramount.

Consult with your IT staff about how best to reliably institute large-scale teleworking. Don’t assume that existing systems can deal with it; IT staff may need extra resources. Issues may include networking capacity, software licensing, hardware provision, bandwidth to team members’ homes, video-conferencing problems, and providing IT support to staff to help them get on top of these challenges. Beyond that, notes Blount, telework creates a slew of new cybersecurity issues.

3. The need for communication shouldn’t be ignored.

Communicate confidently and consistently what your business expects of teleworking staff.

“Leadership is about making sure that the team works,” says Blount. “So communication is critical here – making sure that people know when they’re supposed to be available, when they’re supposed to be logged in, who’s supposed to do what, how all that’s going to work.”

Koh notes that junior staff, still feeling their way in an organisation, may face special problems communicating upwards and sideways.

4. It’s important to understand each individual’s circumstances.

Koh notes that some of his team members will be teleworking for the first time. Most teams will face the same challenge. Blount warns that while some team members will love it, others will encounter problems: they may lack private workspaces, encounter technology problems, be distracted by family duties, or just miss the office’s face-to-face contact.

5. Empathy and flexibility should be adopted.

Managers should “make sure that they’re checking in with people to make sure that they’re OK”, says Blount. And staff with less developed time management skills and self-discipline may need more support and contact.

6. Understand teams will act differently when remote.

Koh is very conscious that team cohesion can ebb when members don’t see each other face to face. Blount notes that teams who have worked together for years will understand each other’s electronic communications style better than new teams, where a terse email may be interpreted as hostile when its sender is simply overstretched. We’re all social beings, notes Blount; when you take away our social interaction, problems like customer complaints can blow up more quickly.

7. Be aware that new practices can go off the rails.

In the chaos of such a crisis, “execution failure is a constant risk”, note McKinsey & Company’s Mihir Mysore and Ophelia Usher in their article on managing through the crisis. Seemingly minor problems “can cause larger failures of the most well-thought-out plans”. You should expect bumps in the road and aim to manage them.

“It’s moving so fast,” Blount reflects. “People are adapting quickly and doing what they have to do when they need to do it … We’re not going to really know the impact until a little bit further down the track.”

 

This article was first published in Acuity Magazine – read it online here.