Recommendations for managing remote teams in the Financial Services Industry

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Recommendations for managing remote teams in the Financial Services IndustryThere has been a significant scrutiny on the practice of remote working in Ireland over the last 12 months due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article is based on research which was conducted in Q1 2021. It is based on the contributions of team managers in the financial services industry and the impact that the move to remote working has had on their ability to lead their team as effectively in a remote environment as they had done in an office-based situation.

The research involved an in-depth study with a group of people that manage operational teams in the financial services industry with the goal of obtaining their experience on leading their team of employees remotely.

The participants in the study came from the following backgrounds in the industries of :

  • Fund Administration
  • Insurance
  •  Accountancy
  • Audit
  • Financial Advisors

Transition from leading an office based team to remote team

The reality is that very few teams were adequately prepared for the sudden switch that occurred in 2020. Indeed, the move from office based working to remote working occurred out of necessity rather than design based on the Government directives issued in March 2020. The consequence was that a swift transition from office-based leadership to remote leadership was required by the participants in this study. Less than 15% of the participants had any significant experience in managing remote employees before this.

However, the adaptability of the Irish workforce was evident during this period of transition as people became accustomed to the new work situation without significant consequence to the  productivity of their teams. All participants in this study said they would be supportive of their staff working remotely in the future, with 83% stating they would support a hybrid model and 20% saying they were supportive of fully remote working.

The initial hurdles of remote working :

Communication: Striking the right balance of communication with staff proved to be difficult from the outset. A common complaint was that managers felt that they were unsure of how often they needed to ‘check-in’ with team members. Too few catch-ups meant a threat of isolating employees while too many meetings was wasteful of time. As the remote relationship grew, this proved easier to resolve. Boundaries were established, and new ways of working were agreed upon.  Over time teams settled into their working routines with one another. Email, instant messenger, video calls, conference calls, voice calls were the main medium of communication used by managers in this research.

Training and Knowledge Sharing: An initial difficulty encountered by managers was how to manage training and the exchange of knowledge among their team. This was noted particularly by managers who hired junior staff on internships and graduate programmes who had limited experience in the working environment. Almost 41% of the managers interviewed hired new staff with no prior experience while working remotely. Another 40% of the interviewees had experienced employees join their team while working remotely. To assist with the training process, a recommendation drawn from this study is to appoint a suitable designated trainer for new hires. This will facilitate employees being trained quickly and help them to develop a level of comfort and trust with a knowledgeable, existing team member. Further recommendations for effective training are outlined in the concluding paragraph.

Setting boundaries between work and personal life: A frequent difficulty highlighted by managers was that they struggled to adapt to taking the necessary breaks during the day when working remotely. The managers felt obliged to be available to their teams at all times during the day. Almost 65% of participants reported that they often sacrificed their coffee breaks and/or lunches to be available in case they were called upon. Furthermore, managers reported working longer hours than normal as the time saved on the usual commute to and from the office was spent working instead. As time progressed and the managers became more comfortable with their new work situation, they developed a work life balance that they were comfortable with.

9 Recommendations for making remote working successful for managers

i. Time: Additional time should be set aside by managers to build personal relationships with remote employees to make them feel connected.

ii. Training for Managers: Companies should offer best practice training for managers of remote teams to provide guidance on how to lead remote teams.

iii. Documented Procedures: A team’s operating procedures, job aids and other training materials need to be updated regularly to ensure they are relevant. This will greatly assist in virtual training scenarios.

iv. Training New Staff: Identify an existing team member best suited for training new staff. New employees should be paired up with one existing team member for the majority of their training, where possible. This will facilitate employees being trained quickly and help them to develop a level of comfort and trust with a knowledgeable, existing team member. 

v. Clarity: Remote working for the future looks to be most preferable in a remote/office-based hybrid model. Clear guidelines should be set out for scheduling when employees are working remotely or in the office to provide structure and to allow managers to plan effectively for the team.

vi. Visual Connection: Where available, cameras should be switched on for video calls for at least one call per week to help maintain a personal connection between managers and their teams.

vii. Flexibility: Flexibility is an important part of effective remote working. This includes logging off during the day for regular breaks or altering the start and finish time of work to suit a favourable work/life balance.

viii. Open Mindset: An open mindset is required by remote managers. A greater degree of flexibility can be required of a remote manager than a manager of a fully co-located team. An open minded approach to remote working is a significant step to making it work.

ix. Remote Hiring: Consideration should be given to hiring fully remote employees. It widens the potential for finding the best candidate for a role as the search is not geographically tied to the commuting distance of the company’s office.

The main conclusion from this research is that with the right skill set, managers/team leaders can be successful in managing their teams remotely with minimal impact to their team’s productivity. This also applies to those with no prior experience of managing remote teams, it just may take more time to get it right. 

The three key attributes of successful remote leaders are;

(1) Having an open mindset

(2) Trust

(3) Effective communication skills.

This study revealed that although only 10% of participants had previous experience of remote leadership prior to the pandemic, every manager interviewed would continue with remote leadership and allow employees work remotely at least on a part time basis. 

While leading a team of remote employees initially had its challenges, the managers that participated in this research confirmed that, as time progressed, leadership of remote teams was not an issue. Teams ultimately continued to function at full capacity with no impact to productivity levels. This has led to the conclusion that remote working in a partial or fully remote capacity, is a viable alternative to 100% collocated working and should be implemented where possible by managers in the financial services industry in Ireland.

By Ciaran Brenan.