Tax & Accounting Blog

Remote Working – Practical Tips

Accountancy Practices April 6, 2020

As an accounting firm you may have had to rush to implement remote working in the last week or so, without having had the time to plan for the practicalities of how your team will cope and function. 

You’ve probably now got systems in place to support remote working, but now what?  How should teams manage their day to day tasks in a remote environment? 

At Thomson Reuters, we remote work to a large extent – we have staff who are 100% remote, and most office-based employees split their time between office and home on a frequent basis. 

Working with remote teams offers a new set of challenges over a co-located team, managing and maintaining workload and morale is vital. 

Remote working currently is not a choice, it is necessary for business continuity.  But once we are past these uncertain times, it’s likely that staff (and hopefully Managers) will have seen benefits to having the option of structured remote working, and a full work from home strategy can be implemented.  It will be necessary for each firm to determine what best practices they want to adopt in the future, but for the immediacy of now – how is the best way to start a team working remotely? 

As part of our software development process, we work with a methodology called Agile – bear with me, this won’t be technical, but is best explained with a worked example.   

Each development team has a Backlog (to do list) which is managed by the Product Owner.  Although the team is well aware they are working towards a software release in (say) six months from now, they work in small sprints, usually 2-3 weeks.   

At the start of each sprint, the Product Owner will have scoped out the detail of the work needed and prioritized the Product Backlog.  The team determine what work they feel they can achieve in the sprint, and commit to do that work, self-managing who is best placed to deliver on each task. 

Each day of the sprint, there is a daily catch up call (usually only 15 minutes), where each team member answers three basic questions: What did I do yesterday? What will I do today?  Is there anything getting in my way? 

At the end of the sprint, the team confirm what work has been achieved, but equally as important is to ask themselves some further questions: What went well?  What went badly?  What would we do differently next time? 

Two important concepts of working Agile is that the team self-manage, and are responsible for learning and self-improvement. 

So, how could this example work in an accounting firm? 

It is likely the Tax Manager (Product Owner) is aware of what work needs to be done over the coming months.  Give the team of Seniors and Assistants exposure to the most important items and set a time frame of maybe initially a week or two (the sprint) and ask the team to commit to what is achievable in that timeframe. 

Daily calls between the team and manager on progress take place, where each team member answers: What did I do yesterday? What will I do today?  Is there anything getting in my way?  An important point to note here is that the team owns this call – they are telling the manager what has been done, rather than the manager asking (a small but important distinction for the self-managed team).  At the end of the “sprint”, the team highlight what they have done, discuss improvements, and then commit to what tasks will be done in the next sprint. 

It is likely that your teams current productivity is quite low – with the ongoing disruption and uncertainty, that is expected and understandable.  Implementing any new work process like that outlined above is disruptive in the short-term until the team gain an understanding.  One view may be that with productivity at a low already, it is the perfect time to try new ways of working, as the disruption will be kept to a minimum. 

What about staff morale? 

Frequent communication, not just work related, is key when a team is working remotely.  Set up regular calls with no topic or agenda – it is a timeslot for teams to meet to discuss whatever is troubling them. 

The Social aspects of the workplace are more important than ever, even if this is now in a virtual world.  When in the office, we have an active social scene with various lunchtime clubs (film, book group, keep fit, board games, etc.).  These still run, but virtually.  There is a Daily Plank get together (so I’m told), and a lot of the other groups are using tech to achieve the same results – there is a weekly virtual Chess get together for example. 

A new idea we have started at Thomson Reuters, is the weekly virtual quiz at the end of the day on a Friday, and there are various free tools to help run a virtual quiz.  Last week the quiz was followed by a virtual pub meet up, BYO beer for a virtual chat. 

Whilst productivity is suffering, it is understandable to focus on the work aspects of maintaining productivity.  At these uncertain times, keeping the team motivated with the social aspects of team working is just as important.