Effective collaboration amongst team members has always been one of the hallmark differentiators for highly effective firms and with the increased inclusion of remote workers into the staffing mix, integration of virtual collaboration tools and techniques has never been more important. Firms can benefit significantly from taking time to review and re-evaluate the collaborative tools and processes outlined below, which will help optimize both on-premise and virtual participation.
Universal communication: There is often a ‘communications disconnect’ in firms where senior members prefer to communicate in-person, on the phone, and via email, whereas newer hires prefer communicating via text and video calling. This disconnect can delay response time and hinder collaboration in today’s increasingly virtual environment where remote workers are rapidly becoming the norm. Educate personnel to be experts at communicating and collaborating both internally with firm members, as well as externally with clients. This means utilizing a centralized communication application which contains comprehensive real-time communication capabilities and is universally accessible to all. By default, firms should be selecting applications that are in the cloud and available on workstations as well as mobile devices. Today’s most prevalent collaboration tools utilized by firms are Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. While Slack and Zoom have traditionally been more mature products, the integration of Microsoft Teams with the Microsoft 365 applications and Microsoft’s continuing development of enhanced features, puts Teams at the forefront for firms already familiar with and standardized upon the Microsoft 365 suite.
Project management: Centralized tracking of work/projects is just as critical to optimizing collaboration as communication standards. Firms should dissect their current production processes to identify each project management/due date application, tracking spreadsheet, and manual procedure being utilized and then update or replace them with a centralized workflow tool that provides a single repository that all firm members can utilize to keep abreast of all firm projects. Again, these tools must be utilized by remote personnel as well, so they are optimized by being universally accessible in the cloud. Dedicated workflow tools such as WoltersKluwer XCM and Workstream, Thomson Reuters FirmFlow, Doc-It Workflow, OfficeTools, etc. also aid in improving collaboration when integrated with tax, practice, and document management applications to share common databases which further streamlines firm production.
Collaborative expertise: The importance of training personnel on effectively communicating with the collaboration tools cannot be over-emphasized. Everyone must be comfortable utilizing the tools to setup collaborative meetings both as video and audio calls, invite attendees beforehand, as well as, invite them during live interactions, be able to competently share various screens, edit documents concurrently, and of course, be comfortable directing clients to do the same. For larger firms, identifying a firm expert to provide ongoing education for all firm members on collaborative tools will help develop everyone’s expertise and making the expert readily available to provide support is important to promote adoption of best practices and standardized firm usage.
Individual equipment optimization: Collaboration can be significantly improved by having equipment that enhances each user’s experience. Today’s laptops have integrated cameras and microphones, but these are seldom optimized for the office environment where multiple screens and external noise are the norm. For all personnel consider using a separate web camera on an adjustable arm mount to position the camera for more natural head-on viewing as well as a noise-cancelling microphone and earbuds to improve audio quality. Many of today’s Bluetooth and wired headsets can be configured to answer the user’s office phone, personal smart phone and even connect with some smart phones to play notifications and background music. For individuals doing more formalized training and client interactions, adding LED lighting or light boxes will present a clearer, more professional image and it is important to educate staff on using tools to blur/replace the background when it might be seen as distracting.
Conference room upgrades: Improving virtual participation in traditional on-premise group meetings should also be prioritized. While most firms have a single screen setup in common conference rooms, adding a second display allows the on-premise members to not only see all the remote participants, but they can also have a larger shared document screen to concurrently display other applications or dashboard information for training and discussion. Hardware suppliers such as Dell and Logitech have created integrated video and display tools designed specifically for video conferencing. For firms having meetings around a singular conference room table, there are also 360-degree video/audio conferencing tools such as the Meeting Owl and Kandao Meeting 360 that allow for more traditional ‘around the table’ interaction while including remote participation.
Meeting habits/tips: Getting everyone primarily using the same platform to communicate/collaborate takes a comprehensive effort and it is critical that all team members are onboard and actively using it. Proactively training senior members that prefer face-to-face interactions to use collaborative tools and providing easy access to support should be done with specific intention including the adoption of meeting guidelines. When including remote users, consider running meetings at 25 or 50-minute segments allowing the first 5-10 minutes for setup and social interaction. Begin specific project meetings by reiterating the reason for the meeting and the specific roles/participation of each member to ensure the meeting operates towards the desired outcome. Collaborative project meetings should close with summarization of tasks and any assignments documented during the meeting and available in the collaboration tool afterwards.
Firm culture: Utilizing the collaboration platform for non-work, social interaction is also a good way to promote firm culture, build a team environment, and develop personal friendships with remote workers, while at the same time becoming more comfortable with the tools. Including remote workers in social events such as happy hours, quiz nights, birthday celebrations and firm milestones is important for learning to collaborate with remote workers which can then be effectively applied towards future client interactions.
The increased emphasis on remote workers has forever changed the traditional office landscape and ways that firms collaborate internally. Retooling to take advantage of today’s hardware, workflow and collaboration platforms will ensure the firm is better positioned for tomorrow’s opportunities.