ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

The four skills remote managers should focus on

10 June: Coronavirus has highlighted the challenge of managing individuals and teams that cannot meet face-to-face. Leadership coach Oliver Deacon argues that to succeed managers need to dedicate more time on communication, context, clarity and culture.

The four skills remote managers should focus on - communication, context, clarity and cultureWhile COVID has understandably brought remote management techniques to attention, for many years finance teams have been evolving to include individuals and functions in other offices or locations. This means there are tried and tested methods managers can deploy.

Oliver Deacon, a former finance director at Microsoft, has many years of experience of running virtual teams and believes the key to working seamlessly and successfully is for managers to invest more of their time in four key areas: communication; context; clarity; and culture – which he has named “The 4 Cs”.

The 4 Cs are the foundation of Deacon’s ‘Leading Remote Finance Teams’ series of online training courses, which he is running over the summer for ICAEW. “A leader’s role is to provide direction, energise teams and connect the dots,” he explains. “While the 4 Cs are important to achieve this in the office, they are absolutely critical for teams that are working remotely.”

1. Communicate effectively

Constant communication is critical when leading remote teams. If staff feel out of the loop, they can become despondent and alienated from the team. “Communicating is often the best way to boost morale and productivity and to drive success,” says Deacon.

However, there is a danger that communication can become scattergun and overwhelming, which is equally unhelpful. A communication strategy will ensure that messages remain disciplined and methodical. The strategy should outline what is being communicated and how often. For example, weekly meetings for goal setting and daily stand-ups where team members can highlight immediate tasks where they need support.

The communication strategy must also clarify what communication channels are available to share messages, but also for team members to provide feedback. This will provide more opportunities to keep everyone on the right path.

COVID highlights the importance of communication within a rapidly evolving situation. In such situations it can be easy to get caught up in the hype, so it is worth stepping back and thinking critically about the source of the information before acting on it.

At the other extreme, it is tempting to hold off on saying anything until you are absolutely sure something is right or plans won’t change, but this can leave your team wondering what is happening. The solution is to create a summary of facts and implications that is updated and shared regularly. Create a living document, with a time-stamped “best current view,” and update it regularly, highlighting critical changes. “This way everyone is on the same page,” says Deacon.

One thing you can do today: Create a communication strategy.

2. Provide context

In a work environment a lack of context creates confusion, withdrawal and demotivation, which leads to mistakes and poor output. “Everyone is effectively working out of their own little bubble. It’s therefore our responsibility as leaders to set context for the team - to provide the bigger picture and how their role or a project fits in,” explains Deacon.

This is particularly important for remote teams where it can be easy for individuals to focus on the tasks they have been assigned and lose sight of the bigger picture, potentially duplicating work.

Providing a clear context means that everyone is working towards the same goal and understands their contribution. Clarity of purpose and team alignment means increased motivation and productivity.

One thing you can do today: Talk to your team. Is anyone unclear of how their current priorities fit into the bigger picture? If so, help them understand the importance of their work. 

3. Create clarity

Providing clarity underpins managers’ ability to communicate effectively and offer context. The best communication strategy in the world will fail if messages can be interpreted in different ways. Goals can be questioned if there is a lack of clarity on why they have been set.

  • Managers of remote teams need to maximise transparency to avoid confusion and anxiety. Key actions to take include:
  • Ensure there are clear decision and escalation paths that everyone understands.
  • Include stage or quality-gates in processes and projects.
  • Provide documented workflows with roles and responsibilities to facilitate handovers.

"To help keep teams on track and motivated in a distributed, chaotic environment, leaders should deliver simple, clear and consistent messages repeatedly,” confirms Deacon.

One thing you can do today: Ensure workflows are documented and shared.

4. Focus on culture

When managing a remote team, it is vitally important to consider culture both at the individual level and as a group. Use informal socialising moments to create a sense of community and that in turn will help to drive performance. Try a quiz over Teams, a coffee over Zoom or a Slack channel where everyone shares their Desert Island Discs choices, for example.

Meanwhile, leaders must not forget that their behaviour will have a long-lasting impact. In good times, leaders lead from the back. In times of crisis, leaders lead from the front. Crises like our current one are emotional situations, with teams dealing with sudden and drastic change. A level of vulnerability as opposed to distanced aloofness will help the team relate.

“Alongside vision and purpose, create a level of optimism,” says Deacon. “Be creative and compassionate. You need to ensure a level of understanding of the team’s own context and challenges and get insight into others’ perspectives.”

One thing you can do today: As a leader, are your behaviours matching the culture and values you are asking your team to commit to?

Learn more:

If you’ve found this article useful and want to know more about how you can build on the 4 Cs to improve productivity, core processes and business partnering in your team, you might be interested in ICAEW’s Leading Remote Finance Teams training. The next course starts on 15 June at a discounted rate of £75.00. Find out more.