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By Daniele Martins, Global Head of FP&A at Thoughtworks
Despite a few outbreaks, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be close to an end. Now it is time to understand what permanent changes in the workspace will last. Many companies are getting back to the office (or never left), some have already decided to remain fully remote, yet others are trying out a hybrid mode. The only thing in common between them is no one is sure of the best set-up yet.
Are we missing the opportunity to think broader and bolder? Could we use the learnings we gained so far with remote work to address a well-known problem: the lack of FP&A professionals in the job market? Have you ever considered having your team distributed in multiple locations?
Remote work is the act of working anywhere outside the office. Basically, a technicality. Distributed work englobes not only the location where you are performing your work but also the way the company and the team get things done. It normally requires a mindset change to one which is more collaborative.
Since January 2018, I have been leading a distributed team in partnership with a colleague (check the article Leading a Global team in pairs), which delivers value and is considered by internal and external stakeholders a high-performing team. Our team is in 4 countries the company has a presence in, spread in 8 different cities. To put things in a bit more context, the company is a global technology company which has been using the model of distributed delivery work since its foundation more than 25 years ago; hence implementing the same concept in the FP&A team was somewhat easier, one could say. Though, I believe any company willing to change can move to this model and get the benefits out of it.
Especially now that many teams have already learnt over the past two years how to work separately, leaders got used to not seeing people around the office the whole time and perhaps even saw the productivity go up as now the teams are happier not having to commute. All of that was a big leap toward the more flexible ways of working, which gave us a great advantage to take remote work to the next level, having employees in different locations and being able to tap into an expanded talent pool which was unthinkable before.
Before getting to details, it is necessary to understand the nature of the business and its culture and acknowledge that some industries are location dependent more than others, or even far back on this journey, given that even during the worst times of the pandemic, they kept the office running. And I think in those cases, going distributed may be slower, but not impossible.
As I mentioned earlier, the first step every team needs to take to move in this direction is a change in mindset. It is imperative for a distributed team to have its basis created on trust. Without it, everything could be unnecessarily hard. Trust will define the management of the deliverables, increase productivity, and create an emotionally secure environment giving people space to be more creative without fear or embarrassment to fail and ask for help.
Assuming the trust is there, the next step is to create a set of guiding principles the team will leave by. For example, defining what core working hours are, the chain of communications when someone needs to be offline or even what tools are acceptable for someone to communicate. Also, we have our own rules on extra hours and expectations on replying to emails after business hours or work on the weekend. Everything is discussed and agreed upon as a group setting the proper levels of expectation.
Speaking of expectation, a clear vision of the team is important. The vision should contain the reason why the team exists and how it plans to achieve it and should be connected to the larger finance goal and the company's strategy. The vision needs to be clear and concise enough that anyone can read and use it as a guide to be able to prioritise the workload, as having autonomous teams is another key principle for success.
The job of the leader becomes more important in this set-up than ever, as it lays on them the job to make sure everyone has the tools and context to deliver the best work in class. Overcommunication of the team's goals, company's strategies and direction must be top of mind of the leader so everyone is aligned and moving in the same direction. The leader has the job of nurturing the team, hence it needs to be empathetic and a good listener to pick up in online conversations any unsaid issues a person could be facing. The leader should also help set personal goals for each team member. To keep up with everyone's goals, the leader could organise 1:1s conversations every so often, making sure people have all the support needed to succeed.
A happy team delivers faster, feels more motivated, and as a result, delivers excellence, and takes care of each other as they feel part of a community. To foment that, the team should have opportunities to bond, either online or face to face, whenever possible. The leader has a role in encouraging the team to create that space to connect, not necessarily by doing it himself, but by bringing up the idea and letting the team self-organise activities such as online quizzes and happy hours.
When hiring a new member, it is important to involve the team in the recruiting process. Supporting the process will make it easier to onboard the person in the team culture. In terms of hiring someone in another country, checking the time overlap between countries is recommended and understanding a bit of the communication barriers language can bring.
Last but not least, I should mention online tools can help immensely with collaboration. Other than the online chat, emails and video conference providers, we also use online tools that allow us to build reports simultaneously, such as google presentations. Also, we use a combination of Google sheets and Trello to track our workflows. Not to mention, the company needs to provide VPN to access the right systems.
In summary, in order to make a distributed teamwork, you have to put people in the first place. A strong leader who is open to challenging himself/herself in new ways of work is imperative, someone who understands the importance of communication, empathy and can listen. A leader who understands what makes people motivated and is willing to give himself up to make the team succeed.
Now, are you ready to expand your team to different locations?
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