How can accountants improve virtual communication when working remotely?
There are eight ways that accountants and CFOs can improve remote communicate practices:
- Never assume someone understands what you are saying
- Always make your intent clear
- Avoid confusing and vague words
- Provide the what, when, and how
- Create a virtual communication policy
- Use the right tools
- Define the single source of truth
- Reset expectations for colleagues with kids
It’s no secret that remote work and remote communication 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.
Why does good remote communication matter?
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 team members by answering these questions before sending any written communication:
- What is the team member expected to do? “Please update the AP subledger reconciliation for all companies.”
- When is the deadline including the time and date? “I’d like to review the reconciliations 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 use Procurify to check for any missing invoices.”
- Why is this task important? “We need to make sure all missing invoices are accrued for before we update the balance sheet.”
- 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 team member 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 updated that to reflect what they said. But if we change this, we should change the other report 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 tasks and projects to juggle, team members are left confused and forced to ask themselves, “what exactly does my manager mean?”. More specifically, “what task is my manager referring to?”.
To make it clearer, try, “I updated the missing invoice accrual on the second page of the month-end report. If you agree with this change, we should also change the conclusion in the CFO’s summary. 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 Board of Directors?” By providing this information to the team member, 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.
Need a virtual communication policy? Check out Procurify’s Remote Work Guide Template for inspiration.
All-remote teams such as GitLab and Basecamp have created their own virtual communication policies. For instance, Basecamp’s hierarchy of communication dictates the following structure:
- 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.
In the case of purchase order approvals and tracking spend, Procurify’s spend management software streamlines digital approvals and messaging directly in the platform (and even integrates with Slack!) Individuals never have to worry about long email threads or following up with approval requests.
Looking for the best digital tools for finance and operations teams? Check out Procurify’s master list of 100+ digital tools recommended by CFOs and CPAs.
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 remote communication policy.
Tip 8: Reset Expectations for Colleagues 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. Colleagues 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.
Better Remote Communication Creates Less Work
With remote work becoming a more viable alternative to the workplace, stronger remote 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.
Looking for remote work best practices? We don’t blame you. The struggle is real. Check out:
- 8 (our lucky number!) tips for running a successful virtual month-end close
- Our remote work guide template
A version of this article originally appeared on AccountingWEB.