One of the greatest benefits of cloud accounting technology is that it enables flexibility. Increased flexibility can help your firm provide amazing client experiences in a number of ways – i.e., by enabling the ability to adopt amenable hours, serve clients regardless of geographic region, and work remotely.
Many accounting and bookkeeping firms are making moves to operate entirely remotely – some have even moved out of their physical office space. Managing a distributed team can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding for firms who do it well.
One such team is Bean Ninjas, an advisory firm with roots in Australia. Bean Ninjas’ team of 11 staff are distributed all around the world, from the Gold Coast in Australia, to Tucson, USA, and several locations in between. The Bean Ninjas team truly embraces flexibility and has scaled to serve over 100 clients since their launch in 2015.
At the helm of Bean Ninjas’ distributed team is Meryl Johnston. We recently chatted with Meryl to gather some of her insights for successfully managing a distributed team – read on to learn more about some of the ingredients to which she attributes her team’s success!
1. Define your values (and remain accountable to them)
Regardless of whether or not your team operates remotely, it’s important to define your values. Your values will help to inform your business decisions as well as guide your hiring strategy.
Having a defined set of values is especially important for distributed teams who don’t have the opportunity to catch up by the water cooler on a day-to-day basis. After all, it’s often easier to communicate your values and foster a culture that's aligned with them when you’re physically interacting with your colleagues every day.
Meryl founded Bean Ninjas with the intention of being a distributed team from the get-go. Reflecting on this, Meryl says that it would have been difficult to define their values when the business launched: “Our business and team evolved so much in our first two years. We were living out our values, but it was only once we settled into our third year of business that we were in a good position to put our values down on paper. As the team grew and we assigned more managers with direct reports, it became more important to build our culture and values.”
Bean Ninjas’ values – Freedom, Always Growing, and Trust – reflect how they operate as a successful distributed team, as well as outline the expectations of each employee. "We don’t have set hours and we don't check up on every team member every day, but everyone has clear deliverables,” says Meryl. “We just expect that everyone is doing a good job and we have reporting mechanisms in place to flag exceptions.”
Just as important as defining your values is sticking to them. To hold the Bean Ninjas team accountable to their values, Meryl provides monthly video updates and shares stories of the team living their values. Practices like this help to turn your values from aspirations to realities.
2. Keep staff engaged
According to Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work 2017 Report, remote employees most miss engaging activities such as conversations, celebrations, and culture. Even if they’ve actively chosen to work as part of a distributed team, it’s these types of interactions and activities that often contribute to their reasons for staying with a company for a long period of time (as opposed to their actual work tasks).
As such, it’s critical to set a strategy that will help to keep your remote staff engaged. Meryl accomplishes this by collaborating with each member of her team on a development plan to help them achieve their life and career goals. This also helps to achieve alignment with the team’s “Always Growing” value.
“I spend a lot of time managing and making sure that [my team’s] work aligns with their goals,” says Meryl. To further encourage engagement, she also relies on her team's investment in their development plan: “I manage by trying to create the right incentives and motivation. People get a lot of choice.”
Having built Bean Ninjas with the goal of being flexible and the intention to scale, Meryl is starting to train her management team to take on these coaching responsibilities. Regardless of who is managing staff development, fostering team engagement comes down to truly knowing and understanding your team, even if you never have the opportunity to meet them face-to-face.
“Understand what your team values the same way you would your customers,” Meryl advises.
3. Bring on the right clients
Operating with a greater degree of flexibility can enable your firm to provide services that best suit your clients’ unique needs. According to Meryl, “A distributed team is easier to communicate with and can reply to clients promptly.”
However, greater flexibility doesn’t mean you can take on any type of client and adjust to their every need – especially if their needs are misaligned with your firm’s services and specialties.
Similar to defining your firm’s values, it’s important for every firm to define their ideal client. Working with the right clients is especially critical for distributed teams who need to set boundaries regarding the terms of their flexibility, and who could potentially feel isolated (and frustrated) when dealing with a difficult client.
When evaluating a new business opportunity, use a framework (such as Jennie Moore’s DRAGON methodology) for determining whether or not you can work together and have a mutually prosperous relationship. At Bean Ninjas, they vet potential clients during the sales process using a questionnaire, followed by a Zoom meeting (to evaluate their level of tech-savviness).
“For us to give them a good experience, we need to align on how we do business,” says Meryl. “In the early days, we took anyone. Difficult clients impacted staff happiness. If there’s someone you can’t please, no matter what you do – cut that client. It will lead to a happier team.”
Flexibility, education, and happiness
It would be remiss not to mention the importance of technology for remote teams; however, when it comes to managing a successful distributed team, technology should be considered as an enabler (as opposed to a solution). It’s critical to keep your firm’s values, staff engagement strategies, and defining your ideal client(s) at the top of your priorities list.
The ingredients for running a successful distributed team are simple, but it can be challenging to foster them. Enforce your “rules” for flexibility by defining your values and holding your team accountable to them. Keep your staff engaged by investing in their development. Acquire clients who are the right fit to keep your staff happy and build strong, long-lasting relationships.
A firm with a distributed team can provide amazing client services in a number of ways, but this means going beyond enabling the ability to work remotely. To summarize using Meryl’s words: “A happy, well-educated, and flexible team is empowered to deliver an incredible customer experience.”
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