My partner and I have been leading a virtual firm for over 7 years, and we’ve learned a few things about the virtual environment for firms. We did it when it wasn’t so cool, and now we have some insights that can help any firm owner run their own virtual firm. In fact, we shared these insights in The Accountant Entrepreneur webinar series where we had hundreds of people join us and ask some great questions!
Here are the 7 tips I shared as to what we learned on our journey to building a virtual firm:
Tip Number 1: We Realized the Importance of Culture in Building and Sustaining Team Cohesiveness.
Team Members who have respect and affection for one another, and a sense of responsibility to each other is a big deal. Being able and eager to work together effectively as a team is a result. The more virtual teams can build their individual relationships/links with each other, the stronger the whole team is as a unit. The more they have opportunities to build those cross-connections, the more loyalty we have to each other in daily situations. Recurring weekly team meetings and annual in-person retreats are ways to do this. Further, building virtual team culture takes leadership from the owners to ‘pull’ the team together to prevent them from drifting apart. Creating a safe place where each team member can trust one another further builds a safe place where team members are okay to fail, ask questions, and grow.
Tip Number 2: We Realized that Virtual Processes are not the Same as Brick and Mortar Processes.
Physical processes usually contain 3 to 4 ‘nuanced’ processes built into one human interaction. Thus, many processes are ‘combined’ in a physical office unconsciously. This is unknown to the owners, unless they attempt to run these processes virtually. Then they quickly realize that every process has to have its own step, and nothing can be combined. All processes must be overt in a virtual world. Each step in a virtual process must be strategically designed in a way to allow the firm to deliver the service with value, clearly communicate to the client what is happening and why, and direct the team step by step so they are not confused. And it’s important to get the team involved. The virtual firm owners can build processes, but the virtual team can truly bring color to these processes as they are the ones that follow them, provide service with them, or allow them to affect their work.
Tip Number 3: We Realized that Hiring Requires Vetting the New Employee’s Beliefs about Work, and how those Beliefs Affect their Performance.
Team members that come from a brick and mortar office often believe different things than team members that come from a virtual environment. These beliefs have to be vetted out, explained clearly, and the team needs assistance to know how to truly be successful in a virtual environment. For example, virtual team members bear a heavier responsibility to manage their own work (since the team is not together). Some team members are well suited for this, while others are not organized enough to manage their own work. This could be a personality issue, or just that they misunderstand what level of responsibility they will bear in a virtual environment. This skill can be learned, but it takes patience from the firm to lead these team members. We have to remind new team members that working in a virtual firm is still a job. But surprisingly, many people don’t view a virtual role as a real job. Oddly enough, they could unknowingly disregard firm policies, fail to ‘show up’ for work virtually, or disengage or disappear from the firm.
Tip Number 4: We Realized the Importance of Training Around the Software Used to Manage and Push the Work Through a Virtual Firm.
Virtual firms run on top of workflow and browser-based technology. Teaching a team how to use the firm’s software is a key to their success. This teaching is ongoing for the firm (though the market has corrected this at some level for us over time). As an example, workflow software can be managed and owned by a key team member, but the team will still manage the population and service of their work on the software themselves. The team needs a level of proactivity to keep their workflow ‘dashboard’ populated and updated. There are many new workflow products being built for virtual accounting/tax teams (from simple to complex). Changing these workflow systems is often highly disruptive to the processes and team. It will ultimately affect service to clients. A firm needs to commit to a product and use it for a number of years to feel it’s highest value.
Tip Number 5: We Realized the Importance of Human Leadership in the Project Management Function of a Virtual Firm.
Virtual teams don’t seem to manage themselves well. They need leadership, and this can be accomplished by a Project Manager or Coordinator. Brick and Mortar firms, or larger virtual firms, may combine this role into a Manager position. A Project Manager or Coordinator role needs a deep level of context to know what to follow up with the team on, when, and why. When first establishing this role, the Project Manager or Coordinator role is often an owner or Manager level role for it to be truly effective at first. In addition to other team meetings in the firm, a minimum of monthly PM/PC meetings with the team is necessary to stay on top of virtual work with a virtual team. These are one-on-one with the PM/PC and the team member.
Tip Number 6: We Realized that a Leadership Team is Important in a Virtual Firm too. A leadership team (the opposite of a ‘flat organization’) is not only a brick and mortar concept.
Creative human teams need leaders who represent the owners to the whole team and support the role of the leaders out to the firm. Leadership teams become necessary at certain team sizes since the owner(s) typically can’t truly train, care, and lead more than 6 to 8 virtual team members well in a firm (generally). The range of leadership in a brick and mortar firm can be 8 to 12 per owner, while the range of leadership in a virtual firm may be closer to 6 to 8 team members per owner. To aid the leadership team, we’ve learned that recurring leadership rhythms help the owners stay in touch and in sync with their leadership team in a way that allows the leadership team to also pull virtual team close and lead them in an asynchronous environment (an often frustrating experience for team with brick and mortar experience).
Tip Number 7: We Realized the Importance of the Firm’s Vision and Values in Leading Virtual Teams.
Similar to Tip Number 6, a firm’s vision and values is not only a brick and mortar concept. In fact, sharing vision and values at least annually is even more important in a virtual setting due to the nuanced nature of leadership. Sharing the owners’ vision with the virtual team at least annually keeps the team on the same page, and aids in keeping the team sticky and focused around the same mission. Some of this excitement is more nuanced and can be ‘felt’ in a brick and mortar firm – but not in a virtual firm. Keeping teams on the same page must be overtly stated. Similar to the vision, the values of a firm are meant to hold any team close (since they drift). Even more so in a virtual firm. Values must become part of the very glue that keeps firms together. Whereas a brick and mortar firm can feel or sense the values of the leaders walking down the hall, you won’t feel that in a virtual firm. Vision and values must be overtly stated.
Leading a virtual firm can be done successfully, it just takes different skills to pull it off. And it takes practice leading teams in different ways when you can’t see them or influence them in person. Join us weekly on Facebook for my ‘Ask Jason’ question series sponsored by Bill.com,’ where I’ll continue to answer questions about building a virtual firm.
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