The shift to working from home has demanded a big mental adjustment, as well as the physical move itself.

While most have adapted brilliantly, others have found it hard to adjust and their performance has dropped as a result. If it was just for a few weeks, leaders could possibly afford to ignore the issue, but home working is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. For the sake of your team and your accountancy practice, you need to take action. If you don’t make an effort to find solutions, your results will suffer – and your team members will be increasingly demotivated and disengaged.

Tackling issues with working from home

Not all your poor performers are watching Netflix in their pyjamas instead of working. As a leader you should be aware of any issues they are facing.

On a recent Accountants Helping Accountants webinar I brought in AVN’s Practice Growth Experts (PGE) to look at potential causes of poor performance and come up with some practical solutions.

Cause: Uncertainty about the future

We are living in a time of crisis and no one knows what will happen next month, let alone next year. With so much uncertainty about jobs and the economy, it’s not surprising that this will be on the minds of your team.

Bernard Keavy: “If people feel threatened, or any sort of fear, their performance is really adversely affected. So one of the things that we’ll get with people working from home and the uncertainty of Covid, and wondering about jobs and redundancy, and all that sort of stuff is they’ll feel a sense of uncertainty and fear. And that could really also be contributing to a downward effect on performance.”

Even if their own position is secure, they may well be worried about family and friends who have been affected by ill health, redundancy or a challenging job market. Add to that the high workloads that so many accountants are experiencing just now, and it’s no wonder they’re feeling stressed!

In fact, feeling like this for a sustained period of time can put the body into a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’, the physical response to stress. This will have a negative impact on performance.

Cause: Unclear expectations

Effective systems to supervise your team’s work are more difficult to put in place when you aren’t in the same physical space. So you may not have a clear idea of the work your team is actually doing. Likewise, your team may not have a clear idea of what’s expected from them.

Many parents will have been home schooling as well as home working so they simply won’t have been able to put in a solid day’s work as they would normally do in the office. Unless, you have agreed together how this will be managed, this is also likely to be causing stress.

Cause: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Few of us look forward to the dark and cold winter months. But for some people, the change in the season and lack of daylight has a significant impact on their mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects around 3 or 4 people in 100, causing low mood, lack of energy and poor concentration and memory. With working from home, there’s even less opportunity to get out into the daylight as we don’t even leave the house to get to work.

Emma Slack: “We need to be aware of this, particularly when they’re not in the office where they’re being motivated by you and everybody else all the time. They’re sat on their own, in whatever space they’ve got in their home. And sometimes it can be lovely, bright and sunny; sometimes it can be a bit gloomy and dull.”

If any of your team suffer from SAD, it’s likely that they will be finding it difficult to maintain performance.  

Cause: Just not the right fit

Or it could be that actually you DO have team members watching Netflix in their pyjamas instead of working.

Andrew Miller: “You do have the genuine issues of people who have actually got ill or have childcare issues and are therefore unable to work the number of hours they could normally work. But it’s also revealing a lot of people who aren’t really as dedicated as you might have hoped. They’re working from home and they’re harder to supervise and suddenly there’s a question about the efficiency of the team.”

If they haven’t bought into your values and vision and they aren’t motivated to do what you need them to do, perhaps they just aren’t right for your firm. There’s only so much you can do to re-engage them and if it doesn’t work, it might be time to say goodbye.

So what can you do to improve things?

Solution: Communicate your firm’s ‘why’

Use as many different channels as you can to keep in touch with all your team members. Whether you have regular Zoom sessions, phone calls, even socially distanced physical meetings, it’s vital to keep sending out the message of ‘why’ – the purpose of your firm, your values, the difference you’re making.

Andrew Miller: “The people I’ve seen that have good results are those that first of all, have been getting the communication right and having lots of conversations with people; getting really clear about who they are, where they’re going, what their vision is and that destination for the bus as it’s often called; putting in some clear boundaries and KPIs and very much focused on the results.”

If your team is feeling demoralised, reminding them of the bigger picture can make a big difference. Show them that it’s not just a tax return, it’s helping a client’s business to survive.

Kirsty McGregor, corporate finance expert and founder of the Leave No Business Behind campaign: “It goes back to, do the firm and the team members understand your ‘Why’? Or their ‘Why’? Why are they there? What is it that they’re there to achieve? It’s not just about preparing the accounts, it’s the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is really big at the moment. So it’s not just about keeping that business going, or helping that business get the information they need to make decisions. It’s about keeping that business in the community, keeping those employees employed in the economy, keeping all our small businesses running.”

And linked to this …

Solution: Share the positives

We’ve all had enough of bad news this year; so share the good news, however small. It can be incredibly motivating for your team.

Alan Woods is a PGE as well as running his own accountancy practice: “The last six or seven months have been as challenging a period as we’ve had in our industry for a long, long time. But actually, if you flip that the other way, from my point of view it’s probably been the most rewarding period as well. Look at those successes, look at what we’ve actually achieved and make sure we share those positive messages with our team. Then they’re motivated to actually do those things rather than feeling like everything is a bad news story, a negative story. Share how we help clients, even the simple things like furlough. And even if a business has had to close, if we’ve helped them with a bounce back loan or a CBILS or furlough or with a grant application, the difference we’ve still made for that business resonates, hopefully, with our vision and our core values as a business.”

Solution: Clear accountability

It’s also important to communicate clearly what you’re expecting from your team.

Andrew Miller: “It’s not how many hours you work, it’s not where you are at any particular time, it’s what are the actual outputs that are happening. What’s been agreed, where everybody sat down and said, Yep, that’s achievable, that’s doable, that’s going to fit in with what we work on. And so when you have a conversation later on whether or not they’re meeting that agreement, it’s a different level of conversation. You’re not criticising somebody for not doing something, it’s a step back conversation, to say, ‘Well, this is what we’re working to do. What challenges have you had? Why have you not done it? And so by getting that vision and those clear boundaries in place, it’s allowed people to actually work on a bit of a structure.”

And there are some simple steps that will help to make your team accountable.

Jenny Lukas: “Every morning, when we log on, we just put on a Slack channel the things that we’re going to achieve today or that we’re aiming to achieve. At the end of the day we can either tick them off or put a sad face if we don’t achieve it, or just make a comment as to how far we’ve got with it. I find that that helps me to focus on what I need to achieve that day and I actually use that as my to do list. So having that is a way of getting accountability from your team as well. You can see what they’re looking to achieve in that day, you can see whether they achieve it. And I think that works really well as a way of keeping each other accountable and keeping yourself accountable.”

Solution: More exercise and breaks

Working from home often means a lack of structure and many of us are putting in many more hours than we would normally do.

Emma Slack: “I find that I can start work at half past eight and it’s suddenly three o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t even got myself a drink at some point. And so it is really important to have some sort of alarm system that makes you take breaks. There are lots of really great timer apps, that can let you, say every 25 or 30 minutes, go and have five minutes and get out and have a bit of sunshine, make yourself a drink, and go and do something else.”

For team members suffering from SAD, exercise and taking vitamin D supplements can be very beneficial.

I became aware that I was affected by the condition around 10 years ago: “I used to frown upon the whole word ‘depression’, I used to think it was just a state of mind, and we can snap ourselves out of it. And obviously, it has come to light more in recent years that actually this is far more genuine than I personally ever gave it credit for. I’ve done a lot of research into how you can overcome SAD. And one of the pieces of information I read was that you should get out and do some exercise. And so I started exercising in October and that did help me for probably a couple of years before that had a diminishing return. Vitamin D is also incredibly important. If your vitamin D levels drop the chemistry in your entire body changes.”

I also recommend using a SAD light to mimic daylight. And even those without SAD will benefit from getting outside for regular exercise and getting enough vitamin D.

Solution: Get the right team on board

It’s not an easy decision to make, but if someone just doesn’t fit with your business values and purpose, you have to take action.

Jenny Lukas: “This is the time to find out which of those team members just really aren’t right for your business, that aren’t right for coming on this journey with you. And it is the time that you might have to make some tough decisions. But we’re all in a place of change so make sure that if you have got someone that isn’t right, that you take this opportunity to get rid of them in the legal way, the correct legal way; do it right. But don’t keep someone just because you feel, oh no, I can’t really do that. Make sure that you get the right people on board your bus that are going to help you take your business forward.”

Andrew Miller: “It’s painful as you go through it as any change is, but if you do have members of your team who have not really bought into the culture, then coming out of it the other end, the people you’ve got with you are the people you can rely on. Because if they’re going to stick with you through this, they’re going to stick with you through to the end. So actually, this is a great opportunity to really build a strong, cohesive solid team as a result of it.” 

The leader sets the tone

You may be feeling just as stressed and overworked as everyone else. But if you let that feed back to your team, it’s only going to make them more anxious and worried. Again, that will affect their performance.

Emma Slack: “The leader actually sets the tone for the whole business, even for us remote workers. The language you’re using when you’re emailing your team or when you’re on a Slack channel or whatever else you’re using, is so critical. Because that sets the tone for everybody. So if you as the business owner are telling people that you’re stressed and you’re overworked and it’s all panic, that then filters down to your team. Even if you are feeling a bit panicked and stressed, you need to set the example of, ‘It’s okay, we’ve got this organised, we’re going to hit our targets’.”

And crucially, you need to be there for your team.

Emma Slack again: “At the moment, the most important job is to lead and manage your team. So make time in your diary, make sure that you’ve allowed for the fact that at some point, you’re going to have to stop, park your work and actually be there just for your team. Have some sort of policy where you say at certain times of the day, here I am, I’m in my Zoom room, you can come in, you can go out, you can do whatever, you can chat with me on Slack, whatever you like, but you have an availability, because that’s really, really important for people to know that you’re there. You’re not too busy to talk to them if they’ve got an issue.” 

The whole webinar also covered how to delegate when everyone is busy and getting your pricing right in the current crisis. You can watch it on the AVN Know How Hub, which is full of tips, advice and tools for accountants – get 30 days access for as little as £1.