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How remote working will test and prove your firm’s values

team values accounting firm

So everyone is working from home now and there are so many tips. So much advice being given about how to use this well and how to manage your team and what apps to use and what tech to use and how to make sure you stay productive and keep the enthusiasm high and replace in person connections with online ones. 

Which is great. I support all that, and having done this for 8 years myself alongside the remote PF team, I too have lots of tips I could share.

But this isn’t remote working like we used to know it. 

We’re in crisis time, and continually daily-changing time. We’re still in the very early days of this, and we have no idea how long we’ll need to do this for. 

I think we’re all grateful for that, because we’re hoping it’s only a few weeks or only a few months or… let’s not think too long beyond that. I believe that’s the right approach to have, because things are literally changing day by day, and the news takes a lot of adjusting to, even every morning we wake up and see it. 

But as I thought about it, after years of doing this with the PF team, some false starts, some things that work brilliantly and others that don’t, I realised all the tech and apps and processes and systems and plans are great…

…but at the end of the day what matters most – what will help see you through this – will be your values. 

And those values will be tested during this time of extreme remote working.

If you already have company values – documented ones the whole team has memorised and which are used on a daily basis to check your actions and attitude against – this crisis will help you “prove” them. It will help you see whether those values are 1) the right ones and 2) being lived out. 

(If you don’t have them, this is your opportunity to be clear about what you want them to be, and I’ll talk about that too.)

The impact of your values won’t be apparent straight away. Right now, everyone’s motivation is high. 

The schools have only been closed for a few days. People are being productive and publishing content and recording video and writing book outlines. (If you’re not, it’s tempting to feel completely swamped and play the comparison game and feel frustrated at what you haven’t achieved. Quick side note: everyone moves at different paces. People who are frantically “producing” right now will have some down time later; those who are barely getting the basics done will step up their “producing” later.)

But this will get hard. Maybe for some of you it already is hard.

And it’s tempting to just power through. Be as productive as possible and hope it all works out in the end.

But all that means is you will have to face up to this values conversation later, when you’re back in the offices and back in person. It doesn’t remove the conversation or the situation: it just delays it.

I’m not even necessarily recommending you hold an official values session while you’re still getting used to the new temporary-normal, alongside your team. (Although if you want to do that, I’ll share some tips to help you do it well.)

But you do need to be alert to how values guide everything – including and especially remote working – because those values are going to be severely tested in the coming months, and you need to be ready.

We spent most of last year working on our own internal values at PF. We already had four pillars – creativity, integrity, generosity, and rest. Those are the foundational traits that characterise our business and the principles on which it runs. 

But as we explored our work in more detailed areas, we realised those four pillars are not specific enough to help us determine if a small daily decision is a fit with the way we do things. 

Things like… 

  • Hiring practices – who do we hire and who we don’t, and why? What is it that gave us a bad ‘gut feel’ about that person, but a good gut feel about this person? What did they say or do that led to that? 
  • Reviews – how we check in with the team. What forms do we create that the team member fills in before the review? How often do we do reviews? When do salaries get reviewed? How do we know what’s going well, and what needs to improve?
  • Client work – What do we do if we get something wrong and need to fix it? What kind of attitude will we have to that? What will we say and not say? How do we approach things with the client, with each other, with ourselves? How do we deal with where we get it right and where we don’t? What if the client is unhappy and wants to change things, but we believe the original content or design piece is the right one? 
  • Team connection – are we a true team,  or are we just a bunch of individual people working on tasks? How do we communicate? What’s okay to share and not share? How do we integrate our personal lives with our work, without there being no boundary lines at all? 

Over the months we developed six internal word values – and we expanded them to be action statements. 

The 6 internal values we came up with are:

  1. Stay positive 
  2. Show transparency 
  3. Have an opinion 
  4. Take responsibility
  5. Be gracious
  6. Collaborate 

We spent a lot of time working on exactly what these words were, what they meant, which one was the very best word and why. 

For example, the word ‘transparency’ started out as ‘vulnerability’. As a team we’d been reading “Rising Strong” by Brene Brown, and we love the concept that courage always includes vulnerability. Being honest, and open, and sharing things that are hard sometimes. 

But as we discussed it, some team members (in a way fitting with this value) shared they felt ‘vulnerability’ could be seen in a way that doesn’t fit what we’re trying to do as a team. The point, we felt, was for us to be close as a team, and to share things which would help us to BE close (even if it felt personal, or wasn’t the typical “professional” thing). But did that mean sharing everything, all the time? How vulnerable is vulnerable? If we’re sad or grumpy or frustrated, do we share that instantly? What does it actually mean?

We held several discussions – via Slack, in team meetings, and at our in person team retreat. We talked about it to each other one on one. I distinctly remember trying to explain it to a personal friend in a Whatsapp voice message, and found myself defining it as “sharing the right things, at the right time, to build relationship”. She repeated it back to me in a return voice message and I realised it summed up what we all had been trying to say. I took it back to the team and they all agreed that for us, Transparency is the word, defined as:

Sharing the right things

At the right time

To build relationship 

When we had our in person team retreat, we fleshed these out further. At one point we had a break from a long session, and I went into a local pound shop and got items that symbolised our internal values and we had some fun with that too! 

And then over the following months we tested them.

We checked ourselves against them. We started using the word pillar or value in our slack conversations to praise (or call out if it wasn’t there). Saying, “Oh, that’s a great idea – #generositypillar!” or “Thanks so much for sharing that – #transparencyvalue”

And now that this crisis is here, values are more important than ever. Values are tested by a crisis. You know in a crisis what your values actually are, because it’s your default. It’s what you go to, say, do, think of, lean towards, want to get better at.

I’m not pretending we haven’t all felt blindsided by this, and if you’re thinking i haven’t lived up to my values very well at all, the only question right now is – have you tried to? 

If your value is positivity (like one of ours is “stay positive and look for the blessing” ) – have you made efforts to stay positive, even when it’s really hard? Have you caught yourself grumbling or complaining and turned it round the next day? 

One of the team was sharing something with me that was really hard, and really heavy. They said, “Okay so positivity….I’m not quite sure what the positive is there. I’m really trying, but it’s hard to see. Maybe it’s…this? Or this? No, that doesn’t seem like it. I don’t know.”

And I said, “actually that’s why we define positivity. For us, it includes LOOKING for the blessing. Not always finding it instantly. We might not ever truly find it, fully, at least on this side of eternity. But we will look for it. We will insist on believing it’s there. We will ask the question. That’s what this team member did. And that is positivity: at least the way we understand it.

The opposite is the case too. Are there things you or the team are doing which you’re finding frustrating? Are you feeling resentful towards someone else on the team? Are there little niggling things which are bothering you, and you think “oh well, it’s just because we’re all struggling right now”? 

Maybe it is: and maybe this crisis simply enhances what we all usually do so well at hiding. 

But now is not a time for hiding. 

Now is the time for difficulties and uncertainties and resentments to come out into the light. It is when they are shared, communicated, and honestly faced up to that you can see them for what they are, and they lose their power. 

Resentment or shame or guilt or fear loses a lot of power when it’s shared. And it loses even more power when it’s shared with the right person, for the purpose of digging deep and seeing what’s truly underneath. 

That’s what values mean. That’s what values are for. And that’s why you have to fight for your values – to know what they are, to believe they’re the right ones for your firm, and to work at living up to them day by day. In this crisis, or in the “new normal”, whenever that is. 

Whether you haven’t created yours yet, or you want to revisit them, now is the time. Now more than ever.

Now even more than productivity and efficiency and profitability (not to diminish the importance of those things, but to give them their proper place in these current times of crisis).

Here’s the rough process PF followed to create our values. I’ve adapted it slightly to help you begin your own process of identifying values using online meetings and tools, but the in-person element, whenever we get it back, will be critical to continuing the process on the other side. 

STAGE ONE: Words and phrases brainstorm 

(This can be held as a two-hour online call, with timed pauses given for people to think & write things down, then bring them back to the group.)

Team exercise: everybody write down words:

  • Ones we think define us now
  • Ones we want to define us in future
  • Note: no bad ideas! Include everything, even if you disagree

Review all words

Highlight consistent ones. Circle words which are repeated by at least a third of your team (if you have a team of 17, a word mentioned over 5 times would be shortlisted)

Remove any of the “standard” words the ones every other accountant would use 

  • Modern, forward-thinking, progressive
  • Supportive, helpful, reliable
  • Friendly, caring 
  • Professional
  • Knowledgeable
  • Competent, efficient

That’s not an exhaustive list, but those are standard things to doing business. Those aren’t unique to you and your brand. In our experience, almost every accountancy firm in the entire world can be defined by these. We’re looking for personality. Difference. Standing out. What makes you, you.

Connect words that are saying the same thing. Which words are essentially getting across the same type of value? For example all these words fall into the same category: Positive, optimistic, cheerful, encouraging

Shortlist the unique words

Those which make it easiest to understand the concept. For example of these, Positive, optimistic, cheerful, encouraging  – which one expresses it best? Which one seems to cover all of those, and is the type of word you and the team would actually say? 

Leave it for a few days (or longer).

It’s important to have some brain space. Mull it over. Think about it. 

Come back together (another call, probably about an hour for this one)

Discuss whether you’re happy with these defining words. Are they unique? Do you like them? Are there any you wish were on there, but no one came up with them? Any that you came up with that the rest of the team didn’t support?

Repeat the exercise for the opposites. Repeat the exercise for words you feel do not represent your firm, or you do not WANT them to represent your firm (it’s okay if they do now and you need to fix it – part of identifying these words is being honest about where you are now and why) 

 

STAGE TWO: CLIENTS AND TEAM

(This can be held as a one to two-hour online call, with timed pauses given for people to think & write things down, then bring them back to the group.)

Client list

Have each team member list their favourite clients ever (at least 1-3 per team member)

  • Name the client
  • Have each team member list some difficult clients (now or in the past)
  • Identify: Why are they a favourite? What do they…
    • Do or say that is amazing , helpful, our style
    • Words they use and don’t use
    • Attitudes 
    • Personality / characteristics / traits 
  • What do they…
    • Do or say that is annoying, frustrating, difficult, hard, not our style
  • Take responsibility: 
    • Make sure you talk as a team about taking responsibility. This is not a time to attack or blame ‘bad clients’ as if you’re the perfect company and they’re the worst ever. Remember there is ALWAYS something you or the team (or both) can take responsibility for. Did you take the client on despite a bad gut feeling? Did you let them get away with bad behaviour in the past? Did you fail to onboard them well? What could you have done better to help them? 
    • This doesn’t diminish the “truly bad” clients. There are a few who, no matter what you do, are horrible people: but that tends to be a less frequent thing. Most clients want to know how to be a good client, but they didn’t know what the boundaries were.
  • Discuss WHY
    • For the good clients – why is all that so good? Why do we consider these the best things?
    • For the difficult clients – what is it about their words/actions which don’t fit? 

Team list

As the owner of the firm, you (and partners/directors) could repeat this exercise for the team. 

  • What do team members do which is great, helpful, supportive, your “way”? 
  • What attitudes do they have or don’t have? 
  • Remember to again take responsibility as the leaders. This is not a time to attack or blame ‘bad team members’ as if you’re the perfect firm and it’s all their fault. Remember there is ALWAYS something as a leader you can take responsibility for. Did you hire the employee despite a bad gut feeling? Did you let them get away with bad behaviour in the past? Did you fail to onboard them well? Have you praised them for good, and identified the bad straight away? What could you have done better to help them? 

STAGE THREE: Personal principles 

We suggest using these resources from Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead:

The Dare to Lead values exercise (page 30) 

The list of values to choose from

Once the exercise is started, you can meet together online, with timed pauses given for people to think & write things down, then bring them back to the group.

Essentially, the owners/leaders and the team are identifying what matters to you most. What you stand for. What’s important to you and the company. 

We suggest the resources provided above, but a very simple version of this exercise is: 

As the owner, ask yourself: (and write down)

  • What do I stand for myself personally? 
  • Why did i start this company – what matters to me? 
  • What companies or business owners do I admire and what are their values? 
  • What companies/people do i not admire (or really get annoyed at) and what is it that defines them? 

For team members: 

  • What do I stand for myself personally? 
  • What value represents great frustration if i don’t see it lived out (in myself or others)? 
  • What value brings me the most peace, and contentment, when it is lived out or applied to me? 

 

STAGE FOUR: PATTERNS

Now it’s time to bring it all together. The big question to ask yourself – based on your clients, your team, and yourselves, is: 

What are the consistent patterns we keep seeing time and again from all of the above? 

What really matters to us, and why? 

How do we define our firm’s values now? 

Remember, this is simply the first draft. You’ll continue to change and adapt these value statements until everyone agrees to live by them. Ideally, you want every team member (including yourself) to be ready to sign the values statement saying yes, I promise to honour and live by these values in my work and life. 

If someone isn’t ready to do that – to be praised for meeting the company values and called to account for not meeting them – then you either the value isn’t right, or the person isn’t. Be honest with yourself and each other: anything else is just fake. 

 

STAGE FIVE: VISUALS AND BRAND

There is a final stage, which is reviewing how these values are reflected by your entire firm’s brand.

This is a longer term exercise, and you may not be ready yet for direct action on this, but you may already be saying, “What will we change when this is all over? Who will we show ourselves to be – visually and in our marketing – on the other side of this?”

Ask yourself: 

  1. Does our firm name reflect these values? Can it? 
  2. How do our visuals (brand, logo, words on website, imagery, etc) reflect these values? Is there anywhere they do not? 
  3. What do we love about our own brand? 
  4. What do we not love, if anything? 
  5. What would we change, if we could? 

With all that in place, you’re well on your way to not just having your values documented in a nice PDF or on a website page or on the wall of your offices: but better than all that, seeing yourself and your team and your clients live them out every single day. 

That’s what matters the most. That’s why values exist. And that’s what remote working will draw out. 

The question is, will you lean into it and use this to dig deep into who your firm truly is? Or will you simply try to be as productive as you can until this is all over?