Remote working has become a reality for many accountancy and finance professionals. It has brought with it numerous challenges when compared to more traditional ways of working.

One of the most significant of these challenges is to manage staff effectively so that they can complete tasks and continue to develop. To help, below are some guidelines for both those managing and being managed, in the latter case particularly from the perspective of those who have graduated recently.

An earlier article, Tips for homeworking, looked at the approach to engaging teams when working remotely. The five recommendations provided a team-centric perspective on some of these challenges.

This article now extends the approach to look at an individual perspective and one particular issue; remote management.

Key points to remember:

  • Openness and trust between all parties is essential
  • Expectations need to be managed in a clear manner; milestones need to be more granular
  • Organisational culture needs to support success and learning from experiences
  • Experiences take longer to form remotely
  • Peer group learning, such as in professional examinations classes, plays an important role in reinforcement

Remote management challenge

In our workplace learning and development programmes, we place significant emphasis on the growth of leadership skills. Many of the techniques that individuals are encouraged to use rely upon the use of senses of sight and sound in ways that are not readily available in this distanced world.

No longer can we peer over the laptop and ask: ‘Are you OK?’. It is hard to suggest walking through a task together. The opportunities to shadow in meetings are fewer.

These are all mechanisms that we have readily used to develop and lead. The world of work has become dislocated; more regimented, time coded and calendar obsessed.

For many, especially those starting to manage individuals for the first time or facing the realities of managing those whose technical ability is just starting to grow, this presents greater challenges.

Where do I start? What do I do? How do I know that they are progressing it as I would like? Surely it is easier to do it myself. If we resort to this perception, then we potentially fail the generation entering the workplace.

We need to find tools. The reality may well be that this way of working is a norm that we need to adapt to rather than a passing phase that we can ignore.

Addressing the challenge

Addressing the challenge requires activity from both the manager and those being managed. For those who are studying for professional qualifications at the same time it also involves their tutors and the need to create a sense of a peer learning community. What we are seeking to address is augmenting an eco-system that we have lost, with more virtual ways of working.

Manager and managed

The relationship between these two individuals is fundamental. The first two fundamentals are openness and trust.

In the virtual world, the signals that we relied upon to understand the dynamics between these two parties have been removed. Thomas Harris in his book ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ explains the need to have mutual respect and openness between individuals and to ensure that the relationship is on an adult-to-adult level.

Establishing this level of communication at the outset is important as it is harder to judge where the individual is struggling and easier to mask where challenges are not being owned up to.

Trust between the two parties is also essential. David Maister et al in their book ‘The Trusted Advisor’ define the relationship of trust as one of being a combination of credibility, reliability and intimacy but one which can easily be destroyed by actions involving self-interest.

Intimacy in the remote world involves understanding the perceptions of others, their likes and dislikes, not only in the workplace but in the broader context of their lives. In the remote working world these two dimensions become ever more inter-twined. Having a level of intimacy helps avoid those situations that arise in remote working where the context is not understood.

The importance of being able to make mistakes develops from this openness and trust. Inevitably, as contact is less in the remote working scenario, mistakes will happen. Being open to explaining them and acceptance of them is important.

At the heart of any work activity is the contract between the manager and the individual being managed. In the traditional working world, we use this technique informally. We can judge progress by that quick check.

In the remote world we need to make this contract more formal and more granular. As managers, we need to set clear expectations at each step of the way. Our instructions need to be more definitive and success articulated, and celebrated, at each stage.

We need to appreciate that six 10-minute calls are worth more than one hour-long one at the end of the process. It is important to understand the balance of time-based billing and value created which may require an adjustment of work-based culture.

As with any learning scenario, the individual needs to learn by doing and to create their own rules that enable them to perform. This is best articulated by David Kolb in his Experiential Learning Cycle. Both managers and those being managed need to appreciate that it may well take longer to develop these internal rules in this distanced world. The task may need to be repeated more times.

Role of organisational leaders

While the practicalities of this working relationship are very much at the individual level, the importance of organisational leaders supporting a culture that underpins this is essential. While the difficulty may be in the time that tasks take and the consequent perceived impact on productivity, it is still to the organisational good. Leaders need to appreciate the working behaviours of the generation entering the workplace; how this might differ from their own experiences and aspirations.

Especially in those professions where the application of thought is the differentiator, leaders need to use techniques to understand how employees are feeling. Disengagement is more common in remote working scenarios. However, this needs to be combined with understanding communication preferences.

Virtual water cooler

The support networks of the more junior staff are many and varied. Some come from peer group contact that is based around the office community and some from their peers in their examination tutor groups. For a generation that is used to social contact and the use of social media to, in part, achieve this, it is important to realise that the absence of these networks can affect performance and learning.

Both employers and learning providers need to think how they promote the social aspect of their role by establishing the virtual water cooler, the unmoderated chat facility among the peer groups.

Clive Webb is senior insights manager at ACCA. Sharon Critchlow (ACCA Council), Keith Jones (Alchemy Worldwide), Nigel Spencer (Saïd Business School), Jane Daly (independent consultant) and Dmitry Milaschuk (Integral coach) also contributed to this article