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Accounting and finance teams are more distributed than ever. Remote-friendly work has become the norm. For managers, it’s been challenging to foster team engagement and collaboration. 

I manage a distributed accounting team in big tech. Here are three tips to effectively lead a distributed or remote team. 

  1. Focus on visibility
  1. Become an expert facilitator
  1. Incorporate a digital whiteboard to your team meetings

Why is visibility so important when managing a virtual team?

In a virtual environment, there’s a risk that good work may go unnoticed. There’s even evidence that shows that remote workers get promoted 31% less frequently than their in-office counterparts. For remote workers, being visible to leadership is key. 

To add to the challenge, accounting and finance professionals tend to be a humble bunch. Self-promotion may not come naturally. The day-to-day responsibilities also consist of a high concentration of solo work. That means managers need to make pointed efforts to highlight the work being done by their remote team and provide the right opportunities.  

Here are a few ways remote workers can boost their visibility:

  • Book a virtual meeting to share project outcomes
  • Present at a team-wide meeting
  • Circulate a team newsletter (here’s a template to get you started) 
  • Volunteer for team committees 
  • Be vocal during meetings with leadership

With the right approach, managers can ensure their team overcomes any shortcomings that come with less face time in the office. 

Why do managers need to be expert facilitators?

Compared to teams that work in a physical setting, remote teams can suffer from lower team engagement. According to Gallup, team engagement is four times harder for a manager to achieve in a virtual setting compared to a physical one. 

Managers of remote teams will need to become expert facilitators to address the issue. 

As far as formal training, there isn’t any. Managers aren't trained on how to effectively lead a team in a remote environment. 

If you think of a typical Zoom meeting, most of the team stays on mute unless directly spoken to. Collaboration is clunky. In an office setting, engagement and collaboration happen naturally.  

A research study from Nature concluded that remote teams are less likely to result in breakthrough ideas compared to teams that collaborate in the office. Managers can address this issue by growing their facilitation skills.

What does it mean to be an expert facilitator?

Facilitation requires managers to exercise intentional communication strategies. Here are five characteristics of a skilled facilitator:

  1. Guide the conversation with a purpose
  2. Act as a mediator rather than a primary participant
  3. Extract thoughts and opinions from the group
  4. Create a safe space for dialogue 
  5. Ensure all voices are heard

Accounting and finance teams are full of analytical thinkers. Play to their strengths by asking them to compare two options or highlight the pros and cons of a potential solution. Make it easy for the introverts on the team and cue them in when the discussion touches on an area they’re familiar with.

Learn to read body language from a screen and understand that it’s often the quietest person in the meeting who has the best insights. Ultimately it’s the manager’s responsibility to get the whole team contributing to the discussion.

For managers leading a remote or distributed team, growing your facilitation skills will be a worthwhile investment of your time. 

What’s so special about using a digital whiteboard?

The digital whiteboard is a productivity tool built for distributed teams. It’s centered around virtual collaboration but remains largely unused by remote accounting and finance teams. 

The job site Indeed highlights the following benefits:

  • Promotes collaboration
  • Makes meetings more interesting
  • Improves convenience 

With a digital whiteboard, every team member can contribute in real-time from their respective locations. Compared to a slide deck presentation over Zoom, a digital whiteboard is much more interactive. 

Words, images, and docs are all consolidated on a single board for all to see. The fluid nature of the board spurs ideation and makes it easier for teammates to connect the dots.  The visual representation of all activities leads to engaging, collaborative and productive discussions. 

Here are some meeting topics where accounting and finance teams may benefit from utilizing a digital whiteboard:

  • Outlining a project plan
  • Brainstorming alternative procedures 
  • Flow charts and process improvement
  • Identifying areas of risk 
  • Prioritization exercises

While the Nature study referenced earlier concluded that remote teams are less likely to derive breakthrough ideas, a follow-up study found remote teams that use tools like a digital whiteboard actually had an advantage compared to in-office teams.  

If you’re managing a team in today’s remote-friendly work environment, a digital whiteboard should be one of the tools in your toolkit. 

How can managers incorporate a digital whiteboard? 

Before adding a virtual whiteboard to your meetings, get familiar with the features. Miro and Figjam are popular standalone applications, but Microsoft, Slack and Zoom all have digital whiteboards built right into their platforms.

Using Miro’s feature set as an example, here are five common ways to use a digital whiteboard:

  1. Insert virtual sticky notes 
  2. Add flow charts
  3. Include images 
  4. Embed Google docs, slides and spreadsheets
  5. Add Youtube videos

If you have a touchscreen laptop or a tablet you can even use the drawing function to sketch out your team's ideas. It's about as close to gathering your team in a conference room as it gets. 

Here’s an example board of a project outline with many of these features on full display.

As you can tell it’s a versatile tool that is capable of fostering collaboration in whatever way you feel comfortable. 

When you’re ready to incorporate the digital whiteboard into your team meetings:

  • Share a link with your team beforehand
  • Communicate the agenda and topic to be discussed
  • Request that each member add a sticky note with their thoughts before the meeting 

During the meeting pull up the whiteboard and share your screen. Dive into the topic and go through the sticky notes that your team provided. 

Use your facilitation skills and the features of the digital whiteboard to guide a dynamic, engaging and collaborative discussion. You’ll witness the meeting come to life in a way not easily done with Zoom and slides alone.

Leveraging a digital whiteboard will not only help you become an effective leader in a virtual environment, you’ll stand out among your manager group. 

Putting it all together

With remote and distributed accounting and finance teams being more common than ever, managers need to evolve the way they manage. That means learning new skills, leveraging virtual tools and taking new approaches to address the shortcomings associated with remote work.

Here’s a recap of the three tips we covered to effectively manage a team in today’s virtual work environment. 

 

  1. Ensure your remote team members and the impact of their work are visible to leadership

  1. Learn to be a better facilitator and create a safe space for your team to share

  1. Incorporate a digital whiteboard into your meetings to promote active participation and collaboration

Managers willing to learn new skills and adopt new tools will be well-positioned to thrive in today’s virtual work environment. 

See how Ramp helps your remote team proactively control spend

With advanced card functionality, successful remote (and in person) finance teams can proactively rein in out-of-policy spend, save valuable time, and achieve greater operational efficiency.

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Business Finance Accounting Manager, Google
Mike is a CPA with experience at top accounting firms and industry-leading Fortune 500’s. He's spent his 15+ year career living and working across the East coast, West coast and Midwest. He's a half-glass full millennial and a visual thinker who brings a unique brand of creativity to the business world. Connect with Mike on LinkedIn and check out his illustrations, articles and podcast episodes at www.MikeFromAccounting.com.
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