This week I am going to address a topic idea that came in a few weeks ago.
I am going to focus on building trust for remote teams. Everything in this newsletter is also applicable for in-person teams.
Erosion of Trust
The general trust between business leaders/ managers and employees is at an all-time low.
Everyone is feeling the decreasing security of employment, and employees are weary of how safe their job is and their expendability.
Whether or not your team members mention it, these events impact their trust in you.
Employers have trust issues as well. Managers mitigate trust issues by keeping ‘keep tabs’ on employees by physically watching them.
Historically, employers have held more information and power in the employment dynamic.
However, this decades-long dynamic is changing quickly, especially in the accounting space.
- Tech has removed any geographical barriers for job seekers. Good employees have 10X their job prospects.
- Pathways to entrepreneurship are at an all-time high.
- Blind loyalty to a firm or business is non-existent.
The trust and commitment employees needed to display in the past are no longer needed. Employees have options.
For some firms, remote work has ratcheted up the trust tension.
Firm leadership’s trust is seemingly dropping off a cliff. Owners and Managers can’t see employees at their desks anymore, and videos of people working two remote jobs at the same time expose the loopholes in remote work.
Building trust is a two-way street. If you can’t trust your employees, the problem is mutual.
Over the last decade, I have managed remote team members in the same city and from across the world.
I’ve learned that mitigating trust issues is not as simple as ‘getting over it.’ It takes three things:
- Expectations + Policies
In 2014, I left public accounting for the first time and joined a manufacturing company. It had a fully remote 2-person accounting team.
The company was a mid-sized business, and I managed about $700k in monthly sales. The business had about 1000 products (half were customizable) and an ERP that I had no experience with.
I came from a position where facetime was important and tracking hours was the lifeblood of efficiency. The level of trust my new boss showed in me and the accounting team blew my mind.
But then I saw his operational dashboard. His trust wasn’t blind. He was very well informed about everyone’s performance.
Before I arrived at the company, he had pushed the team for two years to make the manufacturing environment entirely paperless.
The system connected everything and tracked tasks from one place.
It wasn’t a big brother surveillance bubble but a situation where efficiency and flexibility could co-exist. If an employee’s tasks were done, they were done.
Tasks and projects were tracked against deadlines instead of hours and mins against budgets.
I learned that Presence ≠ Productivity. And that prescriptive schedules led to suboptimal efficiency levels.
It’s impossible to verify how many hours remote teams work. So the question will always hang in the air: “Did they actually work those eight hours?’
When you try to track unverifiable hours, you create asymmetrical information – you become dependent on the employee’s word.
To remove the asymmetrical information, you need a mechanism or process that can be verified independently.
You have to switch from verifying hours to verifying complete tasks and projects.
Verifying tasks will require a practice management tool to assign and track tasks easily.
If you want a shortcut to see how tracking tasks could look in your firm, I created a template for a fixed cost model. It breaks down engagements into smaller tasks and then plots those tasks and associated costs to team members.
The model won’t replace a practice management tool, but it will give you a high-level view of task tracking.
When you and the team know what they are accountable for, and both parties can verify whether or not it was done, mistrust is eased.
Expectations + Policies
My high school yearbook quote from 2001 was more profound than I probably knew.
“You know what sucks when you pour yourself a big bowl of cereal, and then there’s no freaking milk….”
If you can get over the weird 17-year-old lingo and poor sentence structure, there is something deeper.
I was talking about unmet expectations. Our expectations (i.e. our mindset) heading into a situation entirely dictates our experience of that situation.
Expectations need to be clear when working with remote team members.
You need to decide what are realistic expectations that you want. Then ask your team about the expectations they have.
Write the agreed-upon expectations down in a policy.
Trust will be lost quickly when expectations are not met. The lost trust is not a function of what happened but rather what we thought should have happened.
Key items to outline with remote teams:
1. What hours the team has to be online together. Some projects get done faster when people work together in real-time. It is necessary, as well, that teams meet either for weekly meetings, daily huddles or client meetings.
Set times that teams work at the same time. Expecting everyone to be online from 9 to 5 undermines the greatest benefits of working from home: personal efficiency schedules.
Some people are night owls and can crush a full day’s work from 11pm to 3am. Others, like myself, have incredible focus from 5am to 8am.
A recurring four to five-hour daily window that everyone’s online together is a win.
2. Respond times for internal and external inquiries. The luxury of popping into a team member’s remote office is gone. So response time expectations need to be clear. For internal responses, you could set 2 – 4 work hours (ie between the workday time of 9 – 5) and for external responses, 6 – 8 hours.
You can also restrict specific communication channels for urgent comms. Use SMS or Whatsapp for required immediate responses only. It should not be the go-to for every question.
3. Status updates and task tracking. Ensure your team updates their tasks in the above-mentioned practice management tool in real-time. This is key for the manager to track deadlines and priorities.
If you’re constantly asking team members for status updates, you’ll be annoyed for wasting time. You’ll also feel like you need to check on their work and question what they are doing.
Set expectations for doing AND reporting on the work (i.e. updating the task tracker). Let them know that they are also accountable for identifying issues or anomalies. It is not enough to do the work and move on. Issues tend to get swept under the rug more with remote teams.
If an unexpected project has a tight deadline, you must reset expectations temporarily. Don’t assume that the team can sense the urgency of the work.
They may not know that the client is your second largest client or that this project will lead the firm to an additional $20,000 of recurring annual revenue.
Communicate. Don’t assume.
The trust cheat code is building a personal relationship with every member of your team.
It doesn’t take much. It can be as simple as remembering your junior accountant’s dog’s name. Or following up on the daughter’s graduation of your tax specialist. The ROI for those items is the highest as a leader.
Another great ROI is asking them their opinion on decisions. That includes even asking the newest and youngest team members.
Asking them, ‘What do you think we should do?‘ is a formal demonstration of your trust.
The most impactful leaders give away as much of their leadership burden as they can. By hoarding the responsibility, you tell your team you don’t trust them.
It may be a clique, but trust is earned. It doesn’t appear when you start paying someone a paycheck.
I know things can get busy, and making yourself care about your team might be low on the priority list. So schedule it.
It could be a quarterly catch-up where you send them a Doordash gift card for lunch or a monthly 15 min walking meeting on the phone. Just get it on the calendar.
Finally, another great ROI on building trust remotely is by getting together in person. That stuff is powerful. At least for part of the visit, leave the laptops closed and just hang out.
It is harder to fly to India or the Philippines to be in person, but I know firm owners that do that. They have large teams overseas, and being there in person is a priority for them.
If you don’t remember anything else from this week’s newsletter, remember this:
If you can’t make your team feel like they’re a priority, you won’t get the trust you need.
Newsletters and blogs should be a part of your marketing system. It is the only way to own your audience.
Followers on Twitter and LinkedIn are rented audiences, and they’re exposed to algorithmic blips that can restrict or change your access to them.
Newsletters let you get into their inbox every week or every other week. However, creating newsletters is hard and time-consuming. I am always looking for ways to speed up the process and improve the quality of my newsletters.
Graphics and images are one of the best ways to improve your newsletter. Pictures can explain things much faster in many instances.
One tool that I love to capture pictures is Screely. It helps you create quick and clean screenshots from your browser.
It removes all the noise in your browser window, including bookmark bars, open tabs and the URL search bar.
It’s free. It’s easy, and it lives in your browser for either Chrome or MS Edge.
Build The Firm You Want.