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Taking an Intentional Approach to Remote Collaboration

By Samantha Mansfield

Prior to COVID-19, accountants generally didn’t put enough attention on optimizing collaboration with colleagues who were working outside the office. Unfortunately, many firms would muddle through situations where someone was out in the field or in another office. Over the last two years, we were forced to test technology tools that enabled collaboration. 

With remote, hybrid work environments here to stay, it is time to work out any kinks and make this the new norm. 

Taking a Digital-first Approach

Gartner’s Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021 Report states that the model for anywhere operations is ‘Digital first, remote first.” Rather than prioritizing synergy between people, processes and technology that are all in the same location, we need to build processes and implement technology that connect people regardless of their location. By focusing on digital and remote first, your staff will be able to collaborate and produce quality work no matter where they may be working on any given day. 

Loss of collaboration is one of the biggest fears leaders have with team members being remote. Concerns over lack of ideating, training and overall growth have leaders driving people back to a shared office experience. The benefits of collaboration can still be had remotely, however, as long as we leverage technology to revamp processes and think differently about the problems we are trying to solve. 

Incorporating New Team Members

Audit teams have long worked in hybrid environments, of sorts. Some colleagues are collaborating in the field together while others are back in the office. The transformation of auditing started long before the pandemic ever hit. 

Data analytics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing and other technologies have created new opportunities to redesign how audits are performed. These innovations, not so new anymore, have leaders looking for talent with non-traditional skills. They need people adept in performing analytics and know-how with AI databases. 

Audit teams don’t need these specialized skills full-time on each engagement. Staff with these technical skills can be leveraged across all the teams performing their specialized functions. Alan Anderson, CPA, discusses redesigning audit teams using a task-oriented approach, so team members collaborate and perform at their highest levels and optimal tasks. 

In addition to the need for new skills on our teams, the profession, like many others, is struggling with capacity challenges. The demand has been rising for experienced accounting professionals. This means we need to get more strategic about our use of our most experienced and skilled professionals. We may need to engage staff in different offices to work on various clients. Let’s turn our focus to getting them performing at a higher level. 

To do so, they need to collaborate with other colleagues of varied skillsets, so they are not burning up their capacity on tasks that are below their level or outside their skillset, like running data analytics scripts. We also need to build the team’s bench strength by elevating the skills of junior staff to increase their overall contributions. 

Collaboration Tools

The diversity and depth of knowledge expected of accounting professionals today further supports the need for more collaboration between colleagues. The communication tools we use every day have the potential to enable more collaboration if we get more intentional about their usage. 

Create a Teams channel to centralize communication on a topic. Emails get unruly, and not everyone replies to all, so people fall out of the loop. By establishing a Microsoft Teams channel on specific topics or initiatives, everyone can review or perform a search for the information they need. People can contribute their ideas, and decisions can be saved within Teams. Though many are using this tool, too many have not developed methods to enable effective collaboration. 

Sharing screens is a function of many videoconferencing platforms. Collaboration is defined by working jointly on an intellectual project. By sharing screens, you can simulate a virtual white board for planning and idea generation, displaying a scenario for problem solving, and teaching through shadowing. When in a single location, we don’t hesitate to sit in an office together and look at the same computer screen, but when in a remote we don’t reach out as freely to have that same level of interaction. Instant message a colleague. Ask if they have a few minutes. Then share your screen to generate ideas, review an issue, or ask for help. 

Record virtual meetings. When meeting in the office, inevitably some people are not able to make the meeting and, therefore, will miss important discussions. Having dialogue is key to effective collaboration. With virtual meetings, it is easy to record the meeting for others to listen to at a later date. It also provides the option to revisit portions of the meeting for a refresher on the information. Some of the videoconferencing platforms will even produce a transcript of the meeting, making it easier to create a reference document. 

As it pertains specifically to audit engagements, look into all the collaboration tools that are now available within the platforms themselves. Cloud technology has greatly enhanced the options to collaborate in real time with colleagues and clients. For instance, Caseware SmartSync, which can be used with Caseware Cloud, is a file synchronization system that enables you and your team to collaborate on client files simultaneously. As you work on a file, your changes synchronize instantly with each online user, and their changes synchronize with you. 

We can collaborate just as effectively, if not more so, in a hybrid work environment. It takes some learning, unlearning and relearning, which we have all been doing over the last two years. Now that we have strengthened those abilities, let’s keep building them so our teams and organizations become intentional about collaboration.

Samantha Mansfield is a Michigan-based consultant, public speaker and founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC. She has been in the tax and accounting technology industry for over 20 years, consulting firms on implementation and business model transformation.

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