Diversity Working Remotely
Diversity Working Remotely

Roundtable: Driving a culture of inclusivity and growth when team members are working remotely

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We live in a very different business marketplace than we did several years ago, and even if the pandemic had not happened, chances are our workplaces may have already evolved from “work at work” to “working remotely.”

While there have been quite a few articles about working remotely, the Intuit® Tax Pro Center has not tackled the topic of team member inclusivity and growth—or, in short, making remote team members feel they are part of the business, even though they are not physically present. Yet, the solutions vary greatly; while some tax and accounting firms are now returning to their workplaces, others choose to set up a hybrid model.

I talked with two of the members of the Intuit Tax Council: Minal Babaria, CPA, CTC, CTP, CCA, and Al-Nesha Jones, CPA, MBA, to get their feedback on a few of the hot issues firms are experiencing.Minal is founder and lead tax strategist at KB Tax Deviser CPAs, and Al-Nesha is founder of ASE Group.

Scott Cytron: What are several ways firms can do to increase inclusivity when employees work remotely?

Minal_BabariaMinal Babaria: Whether we work in the office, remote, or hybrid, the culture we want to create in our organization is in our hands. If we don’t make the culture work, it will still happen, but not everyone will like it. Having radical transparency creates openness across the organization, promoting a culture based on honesty and communication. Ultimately, everyone feels part of the big picture. And when your team feels part of the big picture, they are willing to take ownership of the work, which creates accountability.

In addition to our morning virtual standing huddles and weekly huddles, we introduced a theme this tax season called “Reaching for the Stars.” Every time a tax return is finished, we add it to a virtual tracker we created in PowerPoint where we add stars for accomplishments. We have set goals chosen by the team, and if we finish a certain number of returns, the team all get a specific dollar amount in rewards.

When the entire team sets up the plans, they take more responsibility. So far, things are moving fast and at a steady pace without anyone working overtime. In fact, we are on track to take the day off on tax day.

We also adventure together as one team. We have the same goals and share the same triumphs while having fun. As firm owners, we often have goals in our minds, but if we don’t communicate with the team in writing, we can’t blame them for not helping us achieve those goals. No one can read our ambiguous minds. When we collectively innovate and set goals, it creates a sense of ownership and trust. The result is a win-win for all.

Al-Nesha JonesAl-Nesha Jones: I have four recommendations:

  1. Talk to your team. Ask your team what would make them feel more connected. For some, it could be virtual lunches and happy hours. For others, virtual activities like online escape rooms or bingo via zoom are what they want. Asking the team for input will increase the impact of your efforts. All too often, we only consider our input—as  the firm owner—and could miss the mark if we aren’t soliciting feedback from the intended audience.
  2. Host an in-person event. Working remotely absent a global pandemic doesn’t mean you can never meet in person. In-person interaction is a breath of fresh air when you’re used to only seeing the top image of a person via videoconferencing software. Switch things up and host an in-person event, offsite gathering, retreat, or brunch to give your virtual team time to interact in person. Consider adding childcare to the event to maximize the number of team members who can attend.
  3. Take a vested interest in your whole team member. Every Monday, we have a 30-minute meeting where we discuss our weekly team goals, business updates, an inspirational quote, a 1-10 rating of your weekend, a 1-10 rating of your day so far, things you need to do personally and professionally to win for the week, and a recap of how you did with your “wins” from the previous week. This meeting has allowed us to achieve the watercooler vibe without being physically together in the office. It sparks additional conversation. We laugh, comfort, cheer, and hold one another accountable. These weekly meetings help us find additional commonalities, learn more about one another, and create genuine connections between the team.
  4. Take note of personal holidays, including birthdays, your team members celebrate—and celebrate them as a team. Our differences are our “razzle dazzle.” Instead of glossing over them, we use them as learning and bonding opportunities. If it’s a holiday that’s important to your team, make it important to your firm. We encourage team members to teach us more about the holidays they celebrate, share with us what it means to them and their family, and if appropriate, how we can also take part in the celebration.

Interested in serving on the Intuit Tax Council? Applications are now being accepted through April 25, 2022.

Scott Cytron: Those are some great ideas, but let’s talk the elephant in the room. Some firms are working in their offices, some are remote, and some have a hybrid model. What is your advice to firms where some employees still want to work remotely?

Al-Nesha Jones: Firm owners need to set clear expectations, regardless of work location. Team members need to check in often, comparing actual performance to expectations and pivot as needed. 

This pandemic has shown us that many of us can do our job seamlessly from home. So, if the goal is to get the job done with minimal interruption to the team’s overall workflow, then lay out expectations to ensure everyone is on the same page with the ultimate goal. If it’s “all hands on deck” for a certain period of the day, lay that out for all team members. If remote work is an option for some, make it an option for everyone so they can reasonably complete their job remotely.

You also have to ensure that you have the technology in place so that team members, regardless of location, feel included in meetings. If you require specific equipment for a team member to work from home, make it clear that it’s necessary, and supply or reimburse for the required items, such as additional monitors and headsets. Working remotely makes clear communication even more important. It’s imperative that you check in often to make sure that the remote work agreement isn’t impacting efficiency, and is the best solution for team members and the firm.  

Minal Babaria: I agree with Al-Nesha, but you also have to remember that unless a firm has cloud-based technology and proper internal communication channels, it could be challenging to work 100% remote or hybrid. By now, our firm has learned that working 100% remote has fewer distractions—at least in our case—and the team is more productive, provided all technology is in place. We also provide a home-office setup allowance so they can buy tech or décor that appeals to them.

By now, our firm has learned that working 100% remote has fewer distractions—at least in our case—and the team is more productive, provided all technology is in place.

Scott Cytron: Well, that leads me to my next question. If some teams are hybrid, how do you address the concerns, if they come up, of staff working onsite who may not believe it’s okay to work remotely?

Minal Babaria: I think you have to set expectations early and often, outline each member’s availability, and how to reach them when needed. Have a set daily huddle meeting to connect with everyone at a set time and check in on the Most Important Task (MIT) for the day. 

Emphasize more communication to keep the team apprised of deadlines, resources, work-related challenges, and expectations on deliverables, including work schedules. Provide the best way to collaborate and agree on acceptable behavior for virtual collaboration as a team.

Al-Nesha Jones: I would also remind them of the goal: to get the job done with minimal interruption to the team’s overall workflow. Solutions are rarely one-size-fits-all. If someone working onsite doesn’t believe working remotely is the optimal solution for them, it doesn’t mean it’s not for someone else. This is why documented expectations, timely feedback, and performance reviews are so important; you can be efficient or, unfortunately, inefficient from anywhere. We all must be rowing intentionally and in the same direction to get to our destination. Frequent informal check-ins and formal performance reviews will reveal whether intentional rowing in the right direction is happening. Regardless of the work location, if redirection is necessary, it will happen. That’s where the power of the pivot comes in!

Scott Cytron: So how would firms instill an environment of “trust” for remote employees?

Al-Nesha Jones: I believe in the motto of “trust until proven otherwise.” An environment of trust can’t just be for remote employees; it’s for all employees regardless of work location. Cultivating a team of professionals who accept accountability for their work and take pride in what they produce is key. To instill an environment of trust across your organization, clearly define expectations, deliverables, and deadlines, and pay attention to which team members produce quality work time and time again without having to be micromanaged.

Put less effort into tracking every keystroke or water break, and more effort into measuring productivity and accountability. Does it matter if they took a break to go to the doctor, take a walk, or toss in a load of laundry over the course of their day, if they adjust their schedule accordingly and the output is exceeding expectations?

Before starting my firm, I had a flexible work arrangement at a large company, and I worked overtime to make sure my team knew I was working as hard as they were when I worked remotely. But on days when I was in the office, I watched people sometimes get absolutely nothing done. They walked back and forth for coffee and tea, took long lunch breaks, and chatted with their cubicle neighbors. They weren’t more productive simply because they were in the office. If you aren’t going to track the efficiency of employees in the office, then doing it for remote employees is unfair and does not solve the overall issue. Instead of measuring team members based on “face time,” start measuring them based on their productivity, progress, and their contributions to the overall goals of the firm.

Minal Babaria: Sure, every firm is different, but having radical transparency at all levels is the most important thing to build trust. Set clear expectations from the beginning, emphasize employee well-being, be open to vulnerability, and most importantly, avoid micromanagement. Measure based on deliverables and productivity instead of hours worked, carve out some time for team bonding activities virtually, or just to be together. Our whole team has been remote since day one way before the pandemic started, and I am proud to say that we have the best team culture and a team of high achievers.

Scott Cytron: This has been great, and I have one more question. Firms, of course, are experiencing the “Great Resignation” among employees, whether they are working remotely or onsite. What do you think firms can offer to help keep their best employees from leaving and going to work elsewhere?

Al-Nesha Jones: Employees are looking for opportunities that don’t make them feel like a number. They want their pay to match their contributions to an organization. They want time for the “nouns” that bring them joy. They want the freedom to explore other passions outside of work. They want to feel appreciated. They crave authenticity and permission to be their authentic selves. They want opportunities to grow. And they don’t want to sacrifice their mental or physical health, or commute several hours roundtrip to get it.

Our firm offers more frequent bonuses directly tied to achievements to increase motivation. Raises are awarded as responsibilities and contributions increase, versus annual cost of living increases. All employees earn vacation time and can work flexibly as needed to help them meet their personal and professional obligations. We offer health insurance, so that employees can prioritize their health and the health of their household. We support our team members’ passion projects and side hustles. For example, if a team member is a baker outside of work, that’s where we order our holiday cakes. If they make clothing, they are our vendor when we need company sweatshirts.

Remember to be kind; you don’t know all of what they’re dealing with outside of work. They are not just your employees; they are humans.

We also support unconventional roles to ensure team members work on things that bring them joy. For example, some may not have skills in just one thing. Ask them what they enjoy. Who says your insanely creative bookkeeper can’t also help with a new campaign that needs great copywriting? Take a company-wide mental health day once per quarter. Overall, be your authentic self. It will encourage them to be their authentic selves, too. And remember to be kind; you don’t know all of what they’re dealing with outside of work. They are not just your employees; they are humans.

Minal Babaria: Those are some great points, Al-Nesha. To understand why employees leave, dig into the reasons, or what your employee really wants to improve employee satisfaction and retention. Have an open conversation to learn more about team members’ personal and professional goals. While team members help you achieve your goals, show them what’s in it for them.

It all starts with positive leadership, empowering culture, and competitive benefits. Create an employee retention policy to boost work environment standards, pathways for employee development, employee appreciation, or recognition programs that really speak to your team. Most tax and accounting firms don’t spend much time on this and do not value this as much as they value other parts of the business. Yet, it’s an essential part for growth for any business.

Scott Cytron: Many thanks to both of you for your excellent feedback and advice!

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