Two business-critical responsibilities that accounting firm leaders often find challenging — delivering negative feedback and delegating work to employees — are being made more difficult now that many teams are working remotely, says industry consultant Kristen Rampe.
Her firm, Rampe Consulting, which focuses on practice management and leadership development, is often engaged to help manage the challenges firms face with feedback and delegation. “When firms struggle with how to tell their employees that they’re not doing well, or they’re not meeting expectations, that’s when we end up working with them,” Rampe says.
Within many accounting firms, discussing job performance and other sensitive issues is more difficult when the participants cannot be face-to-face. “Performance feedback can be difficult to discuss, and it’s harder when you’re not in the room,” she explains. “Video calls are a pretty close replacement, but it’s still not the same as being in person.” And if people aren’t comfortable with video, they may want to talk by phone, and you lose a little more of that personal connection, she adds. “You don’t see the body language. You don’t have the personal engagement.”
How to deliver feedback
Rampe’s guidance for delivering feedback includes the following:
Determine whether to act — A first step is to ascertain which issues warrant direct feedback and which don’t. “Sometimes people get stuck in the petty, and we have to remind them to stop wasting their own mental energy on the small stuff,” she says.
On the flipside, supervisors often want to avoid these difficult discussions altogether. “Most of the time, the conversations don’t happen,” Rampe says. “People will think, ‘That’s a problem, but I’ll let their manager tell them about it.’ Or ‘I’ll let the partner tell them about it at their annual review.’ Then people don’t get the feedback and they can’t improve.” This avoidance instinct may be intensified when people are not in the office together.
Supervisors can determine whether to confront an issue by assessing its impact. Problems that require prompt, direct feedback include those that affect clients, other team members, and firm performance, operations, and culture.
Do your homework — With any unappealing task it’s natural to want to act fast and get it over with. When it comes to employee feedback, however, don’t do that. Take the time to ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the context and any mitigating factors.
Rampe cites an example of a manager or partner who notices a CPA’s charge hours had declined and reacts rashly. “The manager then goes to the CPA without preparing for the conversation and says, ‘Your charge hours are too low,’” Rampe says. “Then the manager finds out that another partner had asked the CPA to work on implementing the new tax software, which is why the CPA’s hours were low. But the manager didn’t know that.”
Ensure the employee has the basic information needed to meet expectations — Are objectives clear? Do employees understand the underlying reason for specific job requirements — that is, do they know why they are important? Are they aware of informal expectations that may not be explained when employees are brought on board?
While working at PwC early in her career, Rampe was told about rules regarding time entry — but not when to disregard them. One night she told a partner she was working late to meet a time entry deadline, and he told her to stop. “He said, ‘Go home and go to sleep. You’re working on my client, don’t worry about time entry. I’ll deal with HR.’
Later, while working for a regional accounting firm, Rampe intended to skip a company social event to complete overdue client work — and was told the event was important and failing to attend could adversely affect her career. Often, the best feedback ensures employees have the information they need to succeed.
Map the message — Once the supervisor or partner has determined that a lapse in performance needs to be confronted, it’s important to think through what should be said and how to say it. This is particularly true when the conversation will take place via video conference or phone call — both of which create subtle barriers to understanding.
Performance feedback can be difficult to discuss, and it’s harder when you’re not in the room. Video calls are a pretty close replacement, but it’s still not the same as being in person.
“There’s a lot of comfort in knowing the story you’re going to tell, and knowing the specific points you have to make,” Rampe says. “It’s similar to the way you would prepare for a presentation or a meeting with a client. What is it you’re trying to say? How are you going to say it? How are you going to support your points?”
Virtually delegating work assignments
Asking an employee to take on a task is another important communication that requires extra care when people are working from home.
In the office, the manager can read the cues to determine if it’s a good time to engage — is the employee in deep concentration or meandering to the kitchen for coffee? If it’s a complex task or new territory for the employee, it’s easy to share detailed information, answer questions, and assess understanding when you’re face-to-face.
There are digital tools to help — the ability to set your status to “do not disturb,” Slack chats, screen sharing — but they typically are not part of the day-to-day work in many CPA firms. “The ability to just swing by and drop off a task, it feels different in person,” Rampe notes. “It’s easy to just say ‘Hey, can you do this? I know you were working on that other assignment, but this just came through. Can you pause on that, get this done, then go back to what you were doing?’ You can do this remotely, but you lose the tone, and you lose the body language both ways.”
To successfully delegate tasks remotely, Rampe’s guidance for supervisors and partners echoes her advice for delivering feedback:
- Ensure you and the employee have a clear shared view of expectations, responsibilities, and priorities.
- Build trust over time. It will engender mutual goodwill and stability during periods when pressure is intensified.
- Understand the employee’s current workload and other relevant factors.
- Be prepared to share all the pertinent details related to the assignment.
- Explain why the new work is important or urgent.
- Set the right tone in the conversation.
It can take more effort to convey enthusiasm and appreciation through virtual communication channels — but it is possible, with a bit of forethought and preparation.