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Stand Out in a Virtual World

By Lois D. Bryan, D.Sc., CPA, and Jacob C. Peng, Ph.D., CISA
September 1, 2021

Given the immense impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—to say it has affected all aspects of business operations is a considerable understatement—it’s unrealistic to think that business interactions after this crisis has passed will be conducted exactly the way they were in the pre-pandemic workplace.

 

As they’ve been doing since COVID-19 hit, companies and Big 4 accounting firms are investing significant resources in infrastructure and technologies to deliver products and services to customers and to help enable accounting and finance professionals access client records and other information. For those employees working remotely, these resources are allowing them to make the at-home work environment more productive.

 

Many people (including clients and customers) have gotten over their initial hesitation and are now embracing the use of new technologies in place of face-to-face interactions. In addition, more employees are enjoying the increased flexibility that working from home provides. Some of them, in fact, have chosen to leave the office altogether, preferring to earn a paycheck from an organization that allows them to work remotely full-time. This has led to a number of people leaving established jobs and joining new companies.

 

These workplace changes particularly affect those in the early stages of their careers, who are starting out when most, if not all, of their interactions occur in a virtual work environment. For these new hires, the real challenge is to get a handle on how things “work” within the new organization. Determining how to meet the right people, figuring out whom to contact to get the guidance and information needed to be successful, and finding those who can help with everyday tasks should be a high priority for savvy new hires.

 

But how can a new employee get up to speed quickly and become a valued team member in this new virtual world? Let’s take a look.

 

CHALLENGES IN ASSIMILATING

 

Becoming acclimated to an organization’s culture is an important step that can help new employees become more satisfied with their work and more effective doing it. If you’re a management accountant or other finance professional with many years under your belt, you know that culture is much broader than the words contained in a mission or vision statement or a statement of values. Culture is often unwritten and is something that you begin to understand after you’ve attended enough meetings and have interacted with enough people in the new environment. For example, does the organization encourage risk-taking? Does it facilitate team building? Do people truly enjoy working there?

 

It has long been thought that many of an organization’s cultural aspects need to be experienced through personal, face-to-face interactions. With training and critical interactions now often taking place virtually, however, how can new and sometimes inexperienced employees learn the culture of the organization? With social distancing and restrictions placed on in-person group meetings and social interactions, the “normal” pre-pandemic interactions—stopping by a supervisor’s desk to ask a question, grabbing a cup of coffee with a coworker, having lunch or just chatting with the person in the next cubicle—may not be possible. Without the availability of in-person team building, training, and social events, how can new employees get acclimated to the workplace and become contributing and effective team members?

 

First off, if you’re a new hire just starting your career, it’s time to forget about the activities you expected to mark your transition from college and start your first “real” job as an accounting or finance professional using all the skills you can muster. It’s understandable if your excitement about starting your new job drops a bit after you realize that your orientation, or maybe even your first weeks or months on the job, will happen in front of a computer screen. You’ve probably taken enough online classes to know how to go unnoticed if you want to, but receding into the background on your first days as a newly minted professional is not a good idea! It’s just as important to stand out and make a good impression in a virtual workplace as it is in a more traditional one, though this may require different behaviors.

 

 

TIPS TO GET NOTICED

 

In a competitive workplace, it’s important to pay attention to how others view your performance and attitude. When interactions among supervisors, staff, and clients take place in a virtual environment, however, it may be easy to go unnoticed. With that said, here are several tips to help you navigate a complex virtual environment to your advantage.

 

Learn and manage available technologies. Invest time in discovering, learning, and becoming comfortable with the applications and nuances of all the technologies available to you, especially those related to communications, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. Although your new company may be using software or communications platforms unfamiliar to you, established technological skills are often easily transferable.

 

Be well prepared for every virtual meeting (see “Virtual Meetings: Look the Part!” below), and make the most of the technology available. Get online early and double-check that everything works ahead of the start time. The last thing you want to say to your new boss is, “Sorry, my camera doesn’t work.” Be sure to make connections with people in the IT department who can help you.

 

And forget about hiding behind your computer by shutting off your camera as you may have done in your university courses. Making yourself visible to the team shows that you’re a professional, you care about the meeting, and that you’re ready and willing to contribute. No one’s interested in talking to a blank screen! By making yourself visible and engaging in the discussion, you’ll make it easier for the person presenting to judge the effect of the information being shared and will give your teammates a more favorable impression of you.

 

For accounting and finance professionals, the frequency of meetings among project or engagement team members may increase given the lack of availability of the usual person-to-person interactions. Additionally, as a result of these meetings being conducted in a virtual setting, more senior-level managers or partners may find it easier and less time-consuming to attend some of them. This presents an opportunity for newly hired professionals to demonstrate their skills to these high-level people.

 

Provide a fresh perspective. It’s quite possible that new hires—whether they’re fresh out of college or have worked elsewhere for many years—have skill levels and knowledge of current technologies, techniques, and strategies that exceed those of accounting and finance professionals who have been at the company for a while.

 

One way a new hire can get noticed is to volunteer to help create a presentation that will be used by a senior member of their team. For example, if you’re a new hire, you could volunteer to use a data visualization platform or spreadsheet, such as Microsoft Power BI or Excel, to create an interactive presentation for your supervisor to use at a client meeting.

 

Because of their many other responsibilities, supervisors often don’t have time to spend on such creative work and would value a subordinate stepping up to take it on. This new professional—you, perhaps—could become the supervisor’s “go-to” person! Your initiative may be discussed with others at the company and even become part of your performance evaluations and promotion considerations. The importance of a supervisor knowing that you’re willing to take the initiative in seeking ways to contribute to the team’s success shouldn’t be underestimated.

 

Another way to get noticed as a new accounting or finance professional is to review the internal templates or procedural checklists that have already been developed for tasks, such as those used in analyzing variances, and think of ways to improve the process. (If you’re worried about stepping on someone’s toes, you might frame the conversation along the lines of, “In my last position [or internship], one thing I found effective was…”)

 

This intense examination of the process can also help you to better understand the assigned task and how it may fit in with the overall project. For instance, there are many tasks that must be performed during the quarterly and year-end closings and/or reporting processes. As a new hire, you can, if appropriate, revise the checklist that was provided. And if there isn’t a list, then create one. Managers will value this type of initiative because it not only helps them personally but also the organization as a whole.

 

Be inquisitive. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Prepare thoughtful questions in advance of any meeting or interaction, and be sure to follow up afterward with additional material that you think might help or by interacting with those who might be able to provide relevant information.

Take advantage of being the newest member of the team, and don’t be afraid to ask what you might think are “dumb” questions. This shows that you’re interested and want to understand and learn. If you’re part of the current group of new hires, asking questions also helps you stand out among your peers. The same goes for virtual meetings or interactions. Take advantage of all opportunities to place yourself in a positive light to other people in the organization.

 

Build bridges. Connect with your supervisors and with your team through email and videoconferencing. This is especially important when in-person connections aren’t possible. It’s also important to make virtual connections with those in administrative and clerical positions in your organization. These are people who often can facilitate your workflow and help you find out with whom you need to communicate for various matters.

 

It’s also crucial to work on connecting people to each other, both inside and outside of your team. One way to do this is to take the initiative and set up virtual work groups. The need to work in a team doesn’t go away because you don’t see each other face-to-face. If anything, it’s probably even more critical. A positive team culture improves everyone’s performance, and well-functioning teams lead to more creative results.

 

Even though organizations have varied in their response to COVID-19—some want their employees back in the office, while others have adopted a modified schedule or left the decision to individual employees—it’s particularly critical for new accounting and finance professionals to utilize physical space to connect with their peers. In fact, a recent remote-work survey conducted by PwC found that younger employees and the least experienced workers (0-5 years) want to be in the office more often, to meet with their managers and take advantage of company training programs. (For more findings from the survey, see PwC’s “It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done,” pwc.to/3ia9sA1.)

 

More and more, accounting and finance professionals work in teams, so the ability to ask questions and build connections is crucial. For instance, imagine you’re part of the team assembling a complex workbook that involves a dozen or more worksheets, with conceivably tens of thousands of data rows. How do you get input from your team or ask questions? How do you make changes in the shared document? It may be challenging to protect and monitor changes to coauthored workbooks shared with multiple users. Understanding this process may require you to take the initiative and learn on your own how to collaborate using shared documents and files.

 

Meet deadlines and deliver results. Nothing irks managers more than employees who miss deadlines. To make sure you don’t get under anyone’s skin in this regard, break tasks into manageable parts and, if possible, use task management software like Google Tasks or Microsoft Planner to track your progress.

 

Be sure to aim for a date before the actual due date to allow for unanticipated problems. Try to go beyond what you’re asked to do and, if possible, deliver it ahead of schedule. In some situations, if you have time, it may be possible to seek feedback from a more experienced colleague to make sure what you’ve done fully responds to the issue at hand. Think, too, of ways that you can help move the project along. Don’t ask, “How can I help?” Instead, ask, “Would it be helpful if I did X, Y, or Z?” This can demonstrate that you understand the project and, more importantly, that you’ve thought about how you can contribute beyond the basic requirements.

 

Seek out and utilize mentors. If a mentor wasn’t formally assigned to you, find someone who may be interested in serving in that capacity. Depending on your job requirements, you may wish to look for more than one mentor, each with different skills. It’s no secret that many executives attribute their career success to having mentors along the way who helped get them to where they are today. Holding in-depth conversations with supervisors and mentors, and learning how they do things, can only be helpful in your own career. Moreover, supervisors and mentors will remember those conversations and may share with others in the organization your desire and willingness to grow as a professional.

 

Increase your technical knowledge. Take every opportunity to learn about your profession and your industry. Search your organization’s website to learn about its history, holdings, management structure, and its clients and customers. Depending on what tasks you’ve been assigned, ask your supervisors and mentors which continuing education courses may benefit you the most.

 

In addition, there are many COVID-19-related tax law changes and/or opportunities for businesses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and other relief measures, that may have a significant impact on your organization or the clients it serves. Investing the time to educate yourself about these changes and opportunities can benefit both you and your team. Since these developments are new to everyone, a resourceful, self-educated new hire is on the same playing field as more experienced professionals.

 

Getting to know people in other areas of the company and having informal conversations with them can also provide you with institutional knowledge. This can be somewhat more challenging in a virtual world but may be accomplished by attending virtual “lunch and learn” meetings. When you meet someone with relevant skills, be sure to note their name, position, areas of expertise, and contact information. You can then start to build up a “reference list” and, if you keep track of these people informally, you very likely can be useful to each other over the years.

 

NEW WORLD, NEW OPPORTUNITIES

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of life for accounting and finance professionals, but the basic strategies for becoming successful remain the same. Many of the workplace changes necessitated by the pandemic may persist to a greater or lesser degree in the future, but to be successful in the early stages of your career, you still need to be motivated, meet deadlines, get the job done, and be open to taking on additional assignments. Since many of these activities will most likely take place in a virtual environment, you must proactively make meaningful connections and use communication technologies to manage your relationships with your coworkers and supervisors.

 

Finally, the more flexible approach of working from home may tempt you to feel that it’s more leisure-like than professional. It isn’t. Be sure to stay focused and to use the increased flexibility to help you perform rather than to take it easy. Reach out to coworkers and find ways to connect with them even if you can’t meet in person. Ask more questions, be more fully prepared, take advantage of virtual learning, and, ultimately, enjoy more career success!


Virtual Meetings: Look the Part!

 

 

Don’t let the seemingly casual environment of virtual meetings and interactions fool you. You’re still working as an accounting or finance professional, so it’s important that what your supervisors, colleagues, clients, and customers see reflects your relationship to your work.

 

  • Even if casual clothing is permissible, make sure your clothes are clean and unwrinkled, and don’t exhibit logos or wording that might be offensive to others. If you’re unsure of what to wear, err on the side of business attire until you get a feel for what your colleagues and supervisors deem appropriate. Some companies may have a formal policy for dress during virtual meetings, so it may also make sense to check in with human resources.
  • Be sure that your workspace is well-lit and doesn’t include anything that would distract attention from you or reflect on you in an unprofessional way (political signs, banners, or statements of any sort are a big no-no). Examine what’s displayed in your camera view and make sure you haven’t overlooked anything. This extends to personal grooming as well. Treat it as you would if you were heading to the office.
  • Eliminate any distractions. Turn off your cell phone or place it in vibrate or silent mode. And while it may be impossible for a working parent to stop a young child from occasionally invading the workspace, be sure to remove pets from your work area. A barking dog or a cat walking across your desk may be the perfect subject for a YouTube video, but this should be avoided during work meetings.
  • Depending on your responsibilities, you may find yourself involved in numerous virtual meetings. Creating an organized, professional-looking work environment not only contributes to increased productivity but may also affect others’ perceptions of your level of professionalism.

Tips for Managers

 

While it’s true that new hires face a lot of challenges navigating the virtual environment, the job of the manager who’s responsible for onboarding new hires can be just as daunting. Here are some tips to help:

  • Be the culture advocate for the organization. Recognize that, with fewer (if any) in-person interactions, additional effort is needed to build an effective team and instill cultural expectations.
  • Stick with tested technology tools that work for the team, and don’t push out unnecessary changes. Make sure your new hires understand the technology and are provided with support resources.
  • Assign a mentor. Often senior employees are eager to share their institutional knowledge and experience and are looking for the right opportunity to help others.
  • Add a “buddy.” Introduce your new hire to someone within the organization hired around the same time and at a similar level of experience. This can even be someone from a different team.
  • Recognize and celebrate your team members’ work achievements, no matter how small they are. Group celebrations of outstanding teamwork make interactions more real and help team members to feel better connected.
  • Use traditional, old-school communications from time to time. Pick up the phone and have a one-on-one chat with a team member. Having a conversation can do wonders to help team members, especially new ones, feel valued and that you’re giving them the individual attention they may need.

 

Lois D. Bryan, D.Sc., CPA, is the university professor of accounting at Robert Morris University. You can reach Lois at (412) 397-6339 or bryan@rmu.edu.
Jacob C. Peng, Ph.D., CISA, is the Richard J. Harshman Professor of Accounting at Robert Morris University. He can be contacted at (412) 397-6385 or peng@rmu.edu.
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