The big mistake being made by newly remote accounting firms

In a very short period, accounting firms everywhere have been thrust into the world of remote work. There has been a scramble to create remote-work practices and help employees set up makeshift offices in their dining rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms.

Even the most traditional firms are being forced to confront any squeamishness that they held towards remote work. Unsurprisingly, new challenges have emerged and existing challenges are being exacerbated.

There is one all-too-common mistake that firms are making right now: trying to replicate their existing communication practices across their newly distributed team.

When you are under one roof, passing a colleague in the corridor or tapping them on the shoulder to clarify something is an everyday occurrence. This does not happen when you are remote.

A video conferencing solution such as Zoom is brilliant for replacing in-person meetings, and instant messaging tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams can be useful for hashing something out quickly or as a virtual ‘water-cooler’. But these tools alone do not equip your firm to work remotely. Particularly when they are used ineffectively.

If this is what your firm is relying on, it is extremely likely that you are now:

  • Sending and receiving more email than ever

  • Facing communication blindspots

  • Dealing with siloed client and internal data

  • Having more meetings than ever

  • Being constantly disrupted by notifications

  • More stressed

  • Worried about things slipping through the cracks

  • Working longer hours just to keep up

To work effectively as a distributed firm without creating more stress and work for everyone, you need fewer tools, no siloing of communication, and better team behavior.

Communication is at the core of remote work

For all the discussion about changes and the right tools for working remotely, your primary focus needs to be on how you communicate.

You’ve likely already been using cloud tools for account reconciliation and email which have not changed. You are also likely already using video chat on occasion. 

The crucial challenge in remote work for your accounting firm is effective collaboration within your team. 

How do you make sure the team isn’t duplicating efforts?

How do employees stay accountable to tasks while out of the office?

How do you maintain team culture and keep staff motivated without the office chatter?

Instant messaging and the illusion of communication

An instant messaging app such as Slack or Microsoft Teams makes a lot of sense at first glance. In theory, it can keep everyone accessible just like it did at the office. And everyone uses some sort of messaging in their normal life outside of work, so it should be easy to implement.

Just shoot a quick message and be done with it, right?

And this is true in practice, but only some of the time. In reality, most of the time, messaging is not the best communication tool. Here are some of its pitfalls.

  • Constant interrupting. The constant blink of notifications can be disruptive to say the least. Most simply can't ignore a new notification and look into it immediately. This leads to decreased productivity as well as confusion when it comes to priorities. Chances are that what your team was working on before getting that notification was what they were supposed to be working on in the first place.

  • It’s out of context from the actual work. Instant chat is a whole new system, completely separate from the tools your team uses to get their work done. It's tough to discuss something when the critical details aren’t front-of-mind. Or to talk about the response to a difficult client email when that email isn’t right there. Or to draw on a colleague’s comment from last week that you just can’t locate right now.

  • It's exhausting. Following a group conversation with no clear direction is tiring, inefficiency and stressful. Instead of using all your focus to get work done, you end up splitting it up with a conversation that, although probably important, wasn’t urgent. 

  • Chopped‑up thoughts. Just because everyone is typing a lot and multiple messages are being sent doesn't mean that everyone is communicating or even on the same page. The nature of instant messaging isn’t conducive to sharing complete thoughts.

As you may be already experiencing,  the effect of relying too much on instant messaging is a distracted, stressed, and inefficient team.

A better way to work together when you’re apart

If instant messaging is not the answer, what is? How can you keep your team aligned when they are distributed?

Firstly, you need to increase your use of asynchronous communication.

Asynchronous communication is when you communicate without the expectation of an immediate response. An example would be answering an email a couple of hours after receiving it, or even a full day after, without it affecting the work. This is opposed to a direct message on a collaborative platform. There’s a decent difference and a bit of a gap between the two.

The shift to a more asynchronous type of communication results in employees having control over when they reply back. This allows them more time for uninterrupted deep work—where work of the highest quality gets done. And it allows people more time to take action and reflect.

Context is critical for collaboration

Even with all the fundamental elements to communicate, no one can function at 100% without the proper context. Imagine attempting to put together a puzzle (as a team) in different locations. Someone has a couple hundred pieces, a teammate has several dozen, and so on. But only you have the completed image of the puzzle.

This illustration shows the value of context when remote teams collaborate on a project. Each bit of communication; an email, phone call, or even deliverables are pieces to the overall project or “puzzle”.

Using multiple tools and forms of communication must be easily organized and seen in the context of the broad plans and projects of your company.

Communicating about work on the same platform your team does the work is exactly how remote teams gain context. For instance, Karbon allows your remote team to collaborate on projects, work with clients, and communicate, in-context, with one another in a single place.

The right tool for the job

Now that we’ve established that asynchronous work makes sense, choosing the right tool to make it happen for your firm is the next logical step.

Workstream collaboration tools are designed to structure, organize, and keep track of work progress where high‑level teamwork is needed to finish all the key aspects of tasks.

You could try and make it work with email, spreadsheets, or a generic workflow tool but the reality is that these aren’t tailored to the unique needs of accounting firms. And it probably means adding more apps to your existing tech stack.

When you give it a go with generic collaboration tools, you risk:

  • Investing in tools that have features that you don’t need

  • Finding yourself adding unnecessary clutter to your already‑existing processes

  • Ending up using tools that don't have the essential features you actually need

This is why choosing a workstream collaboration tool designed specifically for accounting firms makes sense. Get everything you do need, and none of what you don’t.

No band-aid solutions

The COVID-19 crisis has changed what's "normal", both in the workplace and on how you live your day‑to‑day lives.

We do not know how long the current situation will last, but all indications show that this is going to be the new normal for some time. Don’t introduce tools or practices as a stopgap. 

The smartest firms will be treating this period as an opportunity.

Use this as an impetus to make some proper change. Add the right systems that will benefit you in the long term. Introduce positive work habits. Keep your staff happy. And allow them to do their best work.