In the past, employers may have considered the option of remote work but were unsure whether the benefits would outweigh the costs. Right now, many employers are using remote work but still look for ways to improve remote employees’ efficiency and effectiveness. This article will discuss the key challenges of managing remote work. The tools discussed here represent one way remote work can be set up. There may be multiple variations of such arrangements for each team or company.
Remote Work and its Key Challenges
The key two challenges presented by remote work are the physical and psychological (emotional) distance it presents and the technology needed to bridge this gap.
Virtual work increases not only physical distance among employees; it also creates emotional distance, whereby employees feel less attached to their work and colleagues. This distance also increases the time it takes remote employees to build trust with others in the organization. Employee disengagement and distrust can negatively affect both individual and organizational performance, as employees are less likely to share their ideas and help each other. Likewise, remote work arrangements require an organization to invest in technology and training. Although technology allows remote work, it also increases the physical and psychological distance and impacts how employees feel about their performance.
To address the challenges presented by remote work arrangement and improve employee engagement and performance, organizations can use the following tools and approaches:
- Build an authentic culture
- Use both synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication
- Provide the necessary resources (e.g., technology, training, support).
A critical part of remote work arrangements is ensuring that people come first. Technology and tools are also important, but they will undoubtedly fail if appropriate culture and employee engagement do not exist.
Remote employees often work from their home. This reduced separation allows employees to be more authentic “at work,” if the organizational culture allows and encourages authenticity.
Authenticity may be important not only to employees but also to employers. Unauthenticity is emotionally draining and internally perceived as immoral, because it is inconsistent with an employee’s internal self-image. When people have inconsistent (segmented) identities at home and work and hence feel unauthentic at work, they are more likely to engage in unethical behavior such as dishonesty, cheating, slacking, and hostile behavior (Ebrahimi, Kouchaki, and Patrick, “Juggling work and home selves: Low identity integration feels less authentic and increases unethicality.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 158, pp. 101–111, 2020). Unauthenticity can also result in job dissatisfaction, reduced work engagement and creativity, and burnout.
To encourage authenticity at work, whether in-person or remote, organizational leaders can use various approaches that signal the value of authenticity:
- Provide necessary resources
- Express confidence in, and virtually recognize, others
- Show solidarity
- Proactively share relevant information
- Signal availability and responsiveness (e.g., inclusive meetings, feedback, surveys)
- Provide extra support for employees who face higher pressure to use impression management (i.e., self-presentation that aims to control others’ perceptions of the person) at work in order to be “accepted” by others and hence keep their job or get promoted. This may include—
- Employees with less power (e.g., lower level jobs)
- Employees with unequal power distribution (e.g., minority groups)
- Employees facing job insecurity
- Employees whose job requires conformity to rules
- Establish common goals and visions—
- Use high but achievable targets
- Set clear expectations
- Ask for employee input (e.g., participative budgeting) and accept ideas
- Lead by example—
- Be an authentic leader
- Share personal struggles and failures
- Admit and forgive mistakes
- Signal integrity, benevolence, and ability.
Organizations can also use direct and indirect peer mentoring to encourage a positive remote work culture. Direct peer mentoring is useful for multiple purposes: reporting (e.g., job-related performance), advisory (e.g., praising, training), and observational (e.g., noticing peer behavior). For example, peer mentoring can be used to identify employees who feel anxious or who avoid certain behavior to comply with expectations (e.g., avoid speaking up to avoid conflict). Both anxiety and avoidance can decrease authenticity at work. Indirect peer mentoring often takes the form of gossip and avoidance or rejection of disliked co-workers. Negative gossip can decrease team morale and productivity. To discourage negative gossiping, organizations should maintain the confidentiality of certain employee information. To encourage positive gossiping, organizations can share positive stories about employees, customers, company culture, or work in general.
In addition to organizational culture, the use of communication tools can affect employee engagement and hence performance in a remote work arrangement. When employees work in the office, they have face-to-face meetings and water cooler conversations. In-person communication is interactive and rich in information, because people exchange both verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expressions, body position, hand gestures, voice tone, touch). By default, remote work doesn’t allow in-person contact, and online communication varies in the level of nonverbal cues.
Online communication can asynchronous and synchronous. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and as such are for different purposes.
Asynchronous communication is a transmission of information without an immediate response (e.g., emails, chat, forum discussions). The lack of immediate response results in the feeling of disconnect. In addition, the lack of nonverbal cues in asynchronous communication reduces information richness and increases uncertainty. As such, asynchronous communication is best suited for less ambiguous tasks (e.g., standardized tasks). Asynchronous communication is also well-suited to convey large amounts of information that people can process at their own pace. For example, an email can be used to share a set of documents that employees need to read before a meeting.
Synchronous communication is a transmission of information with an immediate response (e.g., video conference meetings, phone calls). Synchronous communication is interactive and hence more engaging. Synchronous communication can be used for ambiguous tasks (e.g., novel or nonstandardized tasks). It can also be used to discuss and converge the meaning behind different interpretations of information (e.g., updates, initiatives, organizational changes, new tasks and processes, new hires). Synchronous online communication may be very important during the transition to remote work or in its early adoption stages when the level of uncertainly is high among employees working remotely. Over time, however, if uncertainty decreases and tasks performed remotely are standardized, relatively lower levels of synchronous communication may be needed.
For example, the use of synchronous communication for finance teams might include the following:
- Team calls to discuss specific projects or activities. These calls can involve all team members or a subgroup of the finance team. For example, a finance team may have daily 30-minute calls to discuss the progress of a month-end close. Such calls, especially if they are accompanied by a review of open tasks and issues, are a great way for the team to get aligned.
- One-on-one calls (also called regulars or check-ins). There are various formats for these calls, but they usually involve an employee and a supervisor discussing progress of projects, career or training questions, and so forth.
To encourage authenticity during synchronous online meetings, organizational leaders can do the following:
- Start meetings with short informal conversations. For example, a host and participants can join an online meeting a few minutes before its scheduled start-time and discuss information external to the organization (e.g., concerns about children going back to school, kitchen remodeling ideas, recent hobby or travel experiences). Sharing personal struggles that are likely experienced by others (e.g., social distancing during COVID-19) can create a sense of “normality” and shared journey.
- Share positive stories and appreciate others.
- Co-create norms for virtual meetings and rules for engagement in various type of online meetings.
- Provide opportunities for collaboration that encourages engagement, reduces uncertainty, and increases productivity (e.g., use shared documents, online whiteboards, shared screens).
- Provide opportunities for an input (e.g., chart, surveys, polls). In a meeting with many participants, consider designating a person to be in charge of monitoring “raised hands” and chat discussions.
Remote work arrangements may have a hybrid format whereby employees spend some time in the office and some time working remotely. In this case, it is best to schedule most meetings (synchronous communication) to be conducted in person, when employees are in the office, with appropriate attention given to COVID-related safety measures.
Investments in Technology
Remote work arrangements require an “investment” in technological resources, as well as employee training and support. Without a technology infrastructure, working remotely is hardly possible. Each organization, department, or team will have their own preferences for what technology products or services to use. In general, there are several pieces that need to be in place to make remote work possible.
For finance teams, the technology infrastructure likely includes a cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a centralized file depository management system, video conferencing software, and various financial and project management products.
- Cloud ERP system. Most contemporary accounting systems can be accessed remotely; many are cloud based. The entire discussion of on-premises versus cloud-based ERP systems is beyond the scope of this article, but it is critical for remote finance teams to be able to access their ERP system from various locations. (Some examples of such systems are QuickBooks Online, NetSuite, and Microsoft Dynamics 365.) Security of such access is also very important because these systems have a vast amount of sensitive information.
- Centralized file depository. Team members need to have access to files created by other team members. For example, one team member prepares a file with data, and another team member needs to review the data. Emailing files is inefficient, and a surefire way to create version control issues. One way to solve this concern is to use a centralized file depository. Several examples are Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive. Files are saved on a local computer but periodically synchronized to (and from) a central depository. This ensures all users have access to the most recent versions of documents almost in real time. Such depositories also serve as a backup of all files in case something happens to a local copy on an employee’s computer.
- Video conferencing. Working remotely means team members don’t get to meet in person for discussions, presentations, and working sessions. Luckily, many products (e.g., Skype, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom) enable video conferencing and remote presentations. In most cases, one can turn on (or off) video and connect audio (either via a computer or a dial-in number). There are also options to share one’s desktop or specific applications, which is helpful during presentations.
- Project management. Finance teams may not use project management automation tools often; however, there still are reasons to consider them. The work of finance teams revolves around distinct sets of tasks and dependences with due dates and assignees. These characteristics are perfect for project management automation, which can be even more helpful in a remote work arrangement. For example, any month-end close is a project in itself. Project management tools may have valuable features to tackle such projects. Depending on a chosen tool, features including building a list of tasks, establishing due dates and adding assignees, collaborating (each task may have a chat-type page for updates and discussions), reporting of project progress, and adding file attachments may be available. Usually, it is possible to create templates for such projects (e.g., a template for month-end close) that can be re-used for each month end that saves time on maintaining such systems. There are many options for project management automation and most of them are suitable for remote access.
Other Financial and Related Systems
Finance teams also rely on an array of other systems. Similar to online access for an ERP system, it is important for finance teams to be able to access such other systems remotely as well. A few critical applications are discussed below.
- Electronic signatures. These systems are useful when documents need to be signed remotely; one example of such service is DocuSign. Note, however, that in some instances electronically signed documents may not be accepted by third parties (e.g., some banks may still require a wet signature on a document that has to be scanned and emailed or mailed via regular mail).
- HR, payroll, and benefits. These include payroll processing, benefits processing [insurance changes, 401(k) plans] and overall HR management (when a finance team needs to have access to HR systems). Many vendors in this market offer systems that can be accessed remotely.
- Banking and treasury. These systems represent another major component that must be available remotely. Online banking (with the appropriate security and segregation of duties) and the ability to initiate and receive payments electronically [e.g., automated clearing house (ACH)] are examples of why these systems are important. It may not be possible to completely eliminate paper documents (e.g., printing checks to vendors or receiving check payments from customers), but it may be possible to reduce their number to a minimum.
Remote Work and Location Setup
When employees transition to work virtually, an appropriate setup at the remote location (e.g., the employee’s home) is important. Consider these as a starting point: a dedicated space (desk or office) with a table and a chair, availability of internet and cellphone connection, and appropriate hardware (e.g., a dual monitor stand and docking station). An organization may need to sponsor some of the items for their employees (e.g., monitor, camera, headphone set, printer, router).
Technical support also plays an essential role. Until employees get settled with their equipment at home for the first time, they will need assistance with any issues. Having somebody they can reach out to will be helpful and reduce any stress associated with setting up remote work locations.
Aside from a remote office setup, employees benefit from engaging in an established routine. When employees work in the office, they usually have certain things they do regularly—including that first cup of coffee in the morning, checking emails, taking time for lunch, and so forth. An established routine at home will help employees see it as a regular workday.
One more consideration is separating work from home life. Remote workers sometimes struggle with disconnecting from work during off-business hours, which can lead to burnout in the long run. Even when employees work in the office, it may be hard to skip checking email after work. It may be even harder to completely disconnect when employees work from home, because their computers are likely open and available at all times. In this case, it is worth establishing a cut-off time after which employees decide for themselves that they won’t check emails or continue working. Of course, this is not always possible, and remote workers may need to work in the evening to catch up or get ready for the next day. Nevertheless, it is important to establish a culture where remote employees are not expected to be available 24/7.
Finally, employees should continue engaging in their regular activities outside of work. It may be tempting to skip taking a walk outside, going to a gym, or working on a hobby, but in order for a person to have a fulfilling and productive life (including work life), it is best to disengage from work and engage in other activities after work. Remote work arrangements allow flexibility, whereby employees can choose to work when they have the most energy to accomplish tasks and can take frequent breaks to recharge.
Asking the Hard Questions
Employers today need to ask themselves some hard questions: Does your organizational culture cultivate employee authenticity? Do you frequently communicate with remote workers to align their personal and organizational goals, and what kind of communication approach do you take? Do your remote workers have necessary resources and support? The PricewaterhouseCoopers survey mentioned above lists a number of areas important to both employers and employees: greater flexibility in work hours, reliable equipment for employees at the remote work location, clear rules indicating when employees are expected to be available, and help managing employees’ workloads. These are some of the important questions that should be answered when a finance team transitions to remote work.