Technology: Leading virtual accounting teams
October 26, 2020
By Sammie D. Parsley, CPA, CMA, CIA, CGMA and Michael Wieck
The accounting profession has seen the proliferation of technology and automation in recent years. Technological advances have led to an increase in the number of accounting professionals telecommuting and subsequently given rise to virtual teams. Virtual teams consist of accountants dispersed geographically yet collaborate on organizational tasks to achieve common goals using information and communication technologies. When compared to traditional office collocation, characteristics of virtual work organizations can impede the development of relationships among team members and render traditional management techniques ineffective in a virtual environment. Heavy reliance on information technology, the geographical distance separating team members, and lack of social and physical interaction among team members are some of the factors that can inhibit the development of high-quality virtual teams. Challenges can appear formidable for both team members, team managers, and IT personnel who provide support activities.
The following sections will provide background into virtual teams within the accounting profession, the benefits and drawbacks of implementing virtual teams, and practical implications, including effective ways to lead remote teams.
Introduction to virtual teams
Virtual teams are groups of geographically dispersed individuals who assemble using telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish organizational tasks (Townsend, DeMarie and Hendrickson 1998). Telecommuting CPAs and virtual team members communicate through technologies such as telephone, audio and video conferencing, email, and collaborative writing platforms such as Padlet and Google Docs. Team leaders must address challenging issues such as the flow of communications, personality differences, diversity, technical problems and meeting tight deadlines throughout the year (Pauleen 2004). Those in team leadership roles can use technology to address these issues and move the team forward toward accomplishing its objectives while engaging and motivating participants throughout the work process.
Building trust is imperative to the short-term and long-term success of such teams. Consequently, periodic face-to-face meetings can contribute to building trust among members and strengthening the team. Anecdotal observation shows that strong team relational links are associated with increased motivation, higher levels of organizational commitment and an increase in morale. Although physical face-to-face interaction has been the preferred way to build relationships and deal with complex business situations, skillful and thoughtful applications of virtual communication channels make it possible to lead teams and departments successfully in a virtual environment.
As a result of COVID-19, many pubic accounting firms have resorted to telecommuting options and the development of virtual teams to meet seasonal demands. The 2020 busy season found many accounting professionals encountering remote work and virtual teams for the first time. Effects have been far-reaching, as CPAs across all levels, from partners to entry-level, have experienced undeniable stress as busy season workloads shifted from being completed in traditional collocated arrangements to remote teams in a short period.
Firms organizing virtual teams can enhance performance by reaching skilled individuals and reducing both fixed and variable costs. Office overhead and some fixed costs, such as building rent, can be reduced or eliminated. Additionally, firms can do their part in reducing their carbon footprint as virtual environments result in fewer individuals making daily office commutes.
In a remote environment, employees can experience higher job satisfaction and work-life balance. Time normally spent commuting or traveling to clients’ offices can be spent completing tasks. Employees also have more flexibility for personal tasks while completing work assignments.
The use of virtual teams allows public accounting firms to expand their hiring pool of applicants. Talent management can consider those individuals not willing to relocate or who do not wish for a long commute. This approach allows for access to a deeper talent pool and can result in a competitive advantage in human capital.
Accountants participating on virtual teams may tend to feel isolated as most team interaction occurs through the use of information and communication technologies. Such isolation can inhibit individual commitment to team goals and have a negative impact on overall team performance. CPAs who are members of virtual teams may not have as many opportunities to gather for social conversations, which can lead to trust-building and enhanced collaboration. The risk of fragmentation may occur with virtual teams. With a multitude of communication applications today, teams within the same organization may employ different apps to communicate. This can eventually lead to a breakdown in communication where employees do not know what information to find where and result in decreased efficiency and productivity.
Additional attention should be paid to security and compliance issues. Inherently more risk exists for sensitive and confidential information to be viewed by non-authorized individuals. For example, a laptop computer in public is easier to steal than a desktop computer in an office.
As previously mentioned, trust is paramount to effective teamwork. Building trust in a virtual environment can be more challenging than the traditional team setting. Managers and team leads should encourage teammates to respond promptly to colleague requests and take time to provide constructive feedback to one another. Firms should maintain positive and supportive tones in their communications. Prior studies have shown that departments who received email communications with motivating language, which worked as goal primers, outperformed control groups. Frequent interactions, such as a daily “AM Huddle” using media-rich platforms (e.g. BlueJeans or Zoom) can allow managers to communicate team objectives effectively while building trust among members.
Managers should create clearly defined workflows and deadlines to promote cohesiveness and achievement of work objectives. One option to consider is the preparation of a virtual team charter, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of team members, various options for communication and lists overall team objectives. For long-term virtual teams, this could come in the form of a team mission statement. Professional experience indicates that a constructive tone that includes both direction giving and empathy helps in building trusting relationships among colleagues and achieve better work performance.
Virtual team members should be encouraged to exchange social information to promote the building of personal relationships and to assess each other’s behavior. Physical meetings can be organized after work or facilitated at the onset of busy season or a major project. One team found having a quarterly social outing during work hours proved highly effective in team building. Such physical social interaction promotes future electronic interactions while building trust and collective awareness of the team. Zoom or BlueJeans allow visual and verbal interaction with media-rich virtual meetings. One regional public accounting firm office had a virtual “bring your pet to work day” in which team members were encouraged to share pictures or videos of their pet while working remotely. Not only are such activities good for morale, but they also encourage future virtual interactions among teammates.
Strengthening the bond and subsequent overall performance of virtual teams is based on clearly defined roles and objectives. Contributions of each virtual team member should be well defined. These actions help reduce uncertainty and ambiguity that can be associated with the virtual accounting context and remote work environments. Perhaps even more so after the outbreak of COVID-19, public accounting firms realize the advantages of implementing virtual teams. With current trends toward lean organizations and automation, the importance of virtual teams in accounting will likely continue to increase.
Pauleen, David J. 2004. “An Inductively Derived Model of Leader-Initiated Relationship Building with Virtual Team Members.” Journal of Management Information Systems 20: 227-256.
Townsend, A, S DeMarie, and A Hendrickson. 1998. “Virtual teams: Technology and the workplace of the future.” Academy of Management Executive 17-29.
About the authors:
Sammie D. Parsley, CPA, CMA, CIA, CGMA is supervising senior at Carr, Riggs & Ingram LLC in Bowling Green. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Michael Wieck is acting assistant professor of accounting at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.