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How to create a high-performing virtual finance team

1 May 2020: with the extended lockdown causing businesses a series of fresh and unprecedented challenges, how should finance leaders react to ensure their finance team and their business survive and thrive?

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the primary goal of finance leaders is to keep the business afloat and manage cashflow. However, competing with this is the significant task rapidly adapting their processes to the ‘new normal’ of working from home.

A key element of this new challenge will be the creation of high-performing virtual teams in an environment that is conducive to the team and the business, where they can both survive and thrive.

Oliver Deacon, an executive coach and former finance director at Microsoft’s Windows Commercial division, has extensive experience of managing virtual teams. Here he shares some of his key insights and tips that can help make the current scenario both less daunting and more successful. Deacon will also be sharing his expertise via an ICAEW virtual workshop series on how to effectively lead remote teams - for more details click here

Pre-empt, check-in and communicate

“With so much chaos and changing deadlines, people can get overworked at home and spend all day working on the wrong thing, so leaders need to help prioritise the work of their teams,” Deacon told ICAEW Insights. 

“Finance leaders should spend more time thinking about how they can help their team by pre-empting what it is their team may be struggling with and put in more time to help remove those blockers.”

In the current lockdown, he stresses, leaders should check in with their teams more regularly and ensure everyone is aligned on what the organisation’s goals are, and what their roles are in helping to deliver them.

They should also highlight what “high-impact work” their team should focus on and what software tools should be employed by the group – such as Teams or OneNote – to best communicate and deliver those goals.

To help achieve this, “finance leaders should expect to spend three-four hours a week more communicating than they did in the past” as they are now “a central point of information for the business”. And to facilitate freeing up that time, finance directors should “be thinking about putting their best talent onto their biggest issues”.

Context is all

Part of the difficulty for those being compelled to work from home under lockdown is how hard it is for people to get context, argues Deacon.

“Leaders need to think about providing much more context,” says Deacon. “The problem when everyone is working from home is that they’re effectively operating in their own little bubble. They’re thinking I don’t know what is going on, I’m worried about my job, I have to deal with all the distractions of home life and I’ve no idea what is happening at the top level. 

“If leaders want to run great, effective teams, they need to be thinking all the time about whether their team has the context they need to do their job.”

Team leaders should be clear about how their teams meet and how regularly, said Deacon.

How they set the cultural tone of working remotely is also key as there is a danger that without such clarity, a team risks becoming prone to being “demotivated, unengaged, producing bad work with loads of misunderstandings, a lack of direction and miscommunication”.

Priorities and deadlines

While finance directors will be relentlessly focused on the “real-time analytics of their top three or four metrics and regular reforecasting of their P&L and balance sheet to understand cashflow” they also need to ensure the rest of the team is more broadly aligned in thinking about cash.

“Explain what the company’s priorities for cash are,” says Deacon and “ask for ideas about how to reduce debtor balance and ways to find X number of days’ worth of cash. Provide that environment and guidance where everyone feels like a hero on their own journey.” 

Deacon is acutely aware that “with so much chaos and changing deadlines people can get overworked at home and spend all day working on the wrong thing,” so clarity of purpose and plenty of communication is paramount.

Using cloud versions of software tools that automatically back up work is another key tip, as is using collaborative programs that allow every single team member to work out of one document. The team leader can then set the priorities with everyone literally working on the same page, ensuring everyone knows exactly what is going on in the wider team with no duplication of effort. 

Finance leaders should also be supporting their business partners or customers with regular updates on core priorities.

But Deacon’s biggest takeaway for busy finance leaders in these unprecedented times is simple. “Communication is key”.

To find out more about ICAEW’s virtual workshop series on how to effectively lead remote teams, led by Oliver Deacon, click here

Guidance and insights from ICAEW, regulators and other resources on how the financial services sector is responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.