Rules of Engagement for CPAs to Stay Informed, Productive & Connected

Who would argue that it’s important for teams, groups, parents, to be on the same page – and stay on the same page? No one would argue that. But that doesn’t make it easy.

I put together this video for YOU – Managing Partners, Partners and Senior Managers of CPA Firms – to answer your questions:

How can I be sure that my staff are working to their capacity?

How can I ensure that the professionals are staying engaged and focused?

I feel such a disconnect – isolated and removed from things – How can I help my staff who might feel this way, too?

How can effectively track workflow and monitor who is working on what?

This is an ideal opportunity to create a Culture of Accountability – switching from reacting to individual clients’ needs and staff’s questions – to establishing a more holistic proactive approach to all you do.

As more firms adopt remote access and flexible schedules, it’s more important than ever for everyone to honor the same rules as they apply to appropriate methods of communication in order to be efficient, effective and productive at work. This 15-minute video will carefully and easily explain best practices around rules of engagement.

HINT: This will work best if EVERYONE in the firm watches this.

Suggestion: Make it a “must see” event at your firm;) It’s a GAME CHANGER.

If you think working from home saves you TIME & ENERGY from showering, getting dressed, driving / commuting to work and being “on” all day, readily available to answer requests, become involved in spur of the moment conversations (and idle chit chat or gossip) and endure dozens of other random interruptive distractions … well, that’s just the beginning!

When you are mindful about HOW, WHEN & WHY you COMMUNICATE, everything gets so much better!

The Rules of Engagement have not changed – but the current remote workplace environment calls for a revisit of these rules by everyone – TODAY.

Let’s get started by refreshing our understanding of brain science – which directly correlates to our productivity.

Brain Science – You may remember from primary school science class that the brain has two sides – a left side and a right side. The left side processes information logically, sequentially and methodologically – step by step. The right side of the brain processes information from a broader, familial, interconnected approach – a holistic bird’s eye view of things.

Although some people may categorize an accountant as a typically left-brained individual – the way an artist might be labeled as an overall right-brained individual – the truth is that individuals experience a shift in brain hemispherical dominance throughout each day – as often as about every 90 minutes. (Consider the length of an average Disney movie, college class or workshop – usually around 90 minutes). Segmenting work based on where your natural tendency is at that time – being mindful about the regular schedule of your brain activity – can help fuel your efficiency and effectiveness on those tasks.

Example:  Should I reconcile the account or compare specs on that new software I’m shopping for? 

Should I tabulate that report / track my billable time or should I conduct a strategy meeting with the team?  

Let’s review various forms of communication currently used in the workplace today to highlight their design and proven effectiveness.

E-mails – A suggested outline for an e-mail message – arguably all business communication – is the following: greeting/salutation; the “ask” the reason for the communication and a wrap-up – action item with a timeline / deadline and closing.

Example: Good morning. I hope you enjoyed the long holiday weekend. The President of XYZ Company has asked for the final draft of the report today – can you provide that to me by 2:00 pm so I can review it before I send it over?

Please let me know.

Thanks so much.

E-mails are beneficial because the same message can be viewed by a whole team at once; it provides documented proof of a request (with a time stamp) or the completion of a task.  If there are several items being addressed, I suggest using a bulleted list – possibly assigning team names to certain tasks, as appropriate. Notice a timeline for response is clearly imposed.

It should be noted that if anything more needs to be achieved, outside of a specific request or directive, an e-mail might not be the most effective method for the communication. I have had many coaching sessions that centered around hurt feelings because of a misinterpreted e-mail – remember that intonation and mannerisms / demeanor are completely lost when using this medium.

Texts (or Instant Messages) Texting is also referred to as SMS, which stands for “short messaging system”.Of course,many people favor texting because of its provision of instant gratification or response. Texting, like twitter was designed for short spontaneous immediate messaging. Personally, most of us write anything but short texts and I would suggest that is fine! Emojis, graphics and gimmicks are a great addition to using texting to send fun and friendly messages. Professionally speaking (pun intended) it is not the best choice for business communications, because of its distracting features. Respectful mindfulness around others’ time, focus and preparedness should be the propriety when conducting communications within a workforce and dealing with clients. A good rule of thumb is to address when / if and how to use text when dealing with your professional team and clients.

Example: “I’m here” “Running late”, storm warnings, road closures, etc. are great examples of why texting was initially utilized.

Phone Calls – phone calls are a very effective and meaningful way for two people to connect. Phone calls are a safe way to open up, share vulnerability and discuss issues and problems. It is a great forum for give and take, with space to process and contemplate without distraction and, as a result can reinforce more focus on the topic at hand. Vocal fluctuations, humor and pauses all lend to the depth of the conversation. There is usually no record of this exchange so action items should still be noted and followed up on, when necessary.  I suggest that callers show respect and mindfulness by scheduling calls with others in advance to ensure that the recipient of the call can be attentive and prepared to discuss the proposed topic. An unexpected ringing phone is a great distraction to any professional service provider and one that would be unwelcome in most cases. Phone calls should be scheduled for the part of the day where you feel right-brained dominant.

Example: I got a call from XYZ who seemed disgruntled and unsatisfied with ABC … let’s have a phone call later today or tomorrow morning to see if we can resolve the issues. When might you have the time for a 30-minute call?

Conference Calls – Conference can be tricky – depending upon the number of participants on the call. Conference calls are effective when there is a time constraint around addressing a topic or when there is a need for a group or team to witness or contribute to a particular dialogue. Conference calls can also serve as a means of bridging two groups – a client team and the service provider team to build rapport and energy around the conversation involving all the players. They can be well-used for collaboration as long as there is a strong facilitator present.

Example: “My team has an idea to run by yours so that we can access your audit records electronically, but we might need to understand somethings in order to iron out a few kinks. Can we get a small group on a 30-minute conference call after lunch among you, me and our respective IT directors?

Virtual Meetings – Like any group meeting, there should be an agenda. I suggest involving all participants by having certain professionals assigned to address agenda items to keep everyone alert and engaged. The agenda as well as the timeline of the meeting should be well-managed, and notes/minutes should be taken for distribution or recap post-meeting. Finally, action items should be clearly assigned with deadlines for response or follow-up. The next meeting should be scheduled before the meeting closes. Psychologically, there is great benefit to having regular virtual meetings among a remote workforce with no more than 8 team or group members – weekly is a good rule of thumb.

Example: “Our virtual team meetings take every place every Wednesday at 10:00 am Central Time and each attendee makes a report on their previously assigned action item and asks questions to the team of how to move forward our progress. New agenda items are collected within 24 hours prior to the weekly meeting and recaps with action items assigned go out to the participants, copying the Executive Committee, no later than 24 hours afterward.”

Webinars – This is a great tool for educational purposes because many attendees can come and listen to a live presentation. Registration fees can be collected, audio-visual tools such as PowerPoint can be utilized. Attendees can post questions to the presenter for immediate feedback. Surveys can be taken among the attendees, the result of which can be shared and discussed immediately. Webinars may be recorded for viewing at a later date, if applicable. Some challenges when giving webinars are keeping attendees engaged and the perception of an isolated presenter experience. When the speaker is captivating and energetic, effective audio-visuals are used and there is an interactive Q&A section, webinars can be engaging and effective.

Example: There will be an informative webinar to explore the impact of the latest tax law changes and it would be a good idea for our tax department to attend so we can develop some ideas for addressing these with our clients.

Videos – The same rules of engagement for webinars apply with the use of video – with the exception of the allowance of animation and other creative effects to further engage your audience. The right brain and left brains are both targeted with the use of the written word – overlaying text or subtitles on top of stimulating moving visuals and audio – such as music or the spoken work – to reinforce the message or topic of the video. Video is one of the most compelling ways to teach, motivate and entertain others.

Example: This is why I decided to bite the bullet and create this video for YOU!

Handwritten notes – What makes a note so special is the fact they are rare and unusual. The “dos” of using handwritten notes include legible penmanship (otherwise, a typewritten note can be appreciated, especially when using a scripted font) card stock stationery and a unique or differentiating design – such as a square shaped envelope. An invitation or thank you card stands out among the usual collection of daily mail items and is attractive as well as intriguing. The recipient often is made to feel special for being awarded this unusual and thoughtful touch by another. It shows great care and attention because of the extra effort required – like postage and delivery. Of note (pun intended) is timing – notes of gratitude or observation should be received no later than a few days after a particular event or exchange.

Example: She always makes a point of sending a handwritten note when someone does something that positively impacts her – such as showing her appreciation for a client referral or testimonial.

Printed Communication / Correspondence – There is still a need for original copies of official documentation in certain cases – albeit they are becoming few and far between. The art of letter writing should not be ignored for the same reasons as stated for notes and letters of recognition,  commemoration or congratulations are well-appreciated when they are attractive and substantial enough for framing; this includes award certificates and diplomas.

Example: “He received an official letter of appreciation from the president which hangs in his office next to his diploma from Dartmouth.”

More Rules of Engagement to Consider

Ask others how they would prefer to be communicated with and when

Implement core work hours and define / establish expected response time of requests

Don’t relay a problem without offering a possible solution (Plan “A” and or “B”)

Have a well-formed outcome in mind and state that clearly before calling a meeting, hitting the “send” button or picking up the phone

Be mindful of your and others’ time – perhaps gather all your questions for that direct report and then ask to meet with them for a half hour twice a week – rather than shooting out requests for things throughout the day

Set up meetings in advance, distribute agendas, record minutes and enforce action items / measurable goals and trackable to do lists

Consider setting up a library of FAQs regarding hot button issues for everyone to access (these can be edited / improved upon on an ongoing basis)

Utilize any internal tracking systems in place to monitor workflow. Arrange to have everyone report outward and upward regularly of their progress on client engagements. Just as your professionals are used to tracking their time, they should now be encouraged to track their productivity.

Ensure external communication to clients is written with a tone and message from their perspective and do segment these communications by niche, accordingly, addressing various issues that your segmented audience are facing, whenever possible –a guideline for all communication is this: empathize, educate/empower, advise then instruct

Clearly defined mutually agreed upon expectations for all roles is a must for a unified, smooth running and productive workforce

Be proactive in all that you do; apply mindfulness and careful thought to what you say and do – this can make a difference in fostering clarity and understanding

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