With many businesses forced to work remotely in the wake of COVID-19, managers have to be attentive to conflicts and tensions that are exacerbated (or triggered) by the newfound dependence on virtual communications. In addition to having to adjust to a remote working environment, finance professionals can be more emotionally vulnerable because of the climate of anxiety and uncertainty.
“The most common reasons behind tensions right now are similar to those we experience when in the office, such as misalignment around what team members think the right strategies are, conflicting priorities, and lack of communication around changes in process,” explained Sarah Rice, chief people officer at Skynamo, a South African technology company. “The primary challenge, amidst these tensions, is that it’s hard to convey a sense of caring and empathy when working digitally, as we don’t have the benefits of nonverbal communication cues. As a result, conflicts can escalate quickly.”
We spoke to Rice and Andrew Morris, a South Africa-based organisational psychologist, to find out how managers can overcome the barriers to virtual conflict resolution and ensure that finance teams stay connected and cohesive in such a challenging period.
Acknowledge the challenge. With finance professionals under enormous pressure to keep the wheels of business turning, it can be very tempting to simply ignore tensions or skirt around difficulties between colleagues. But Rice said the first step is to acknowledge the issue and encourage the individuals in question to “talk it out, and see if they can come to a shared understanding on their own”.
“If this is difficult or problematic, then managers should support the process by suggesting that someone within the organisation (with a totally unbiased view) facilitates the discussion over videoconference,” she explained. “However, there are times when more specialised support is needed, and in these cases I recommend working with an external coach or consultant to find a way forward.”
Gain insight into personality preferences. This is an important time for managers to understand personal needs as well as individual strengths and development areas within teams. According to Morris, this is integral to practising “responsive leadership”.
“These personality preferences are something you can measure for and can really help in gauging where the potential friction points and bottlenecks may occur from a personality perspective,” said Morris. “At the very least, the manager needs to have a sense of what his or her own personality preferences are — or what his or her derailing tendencies may be — so as to mitigate that risk or the team tension that can be caused as a result.”
According to Morris, the latest science on personality measurement is “very rigorous”, and personality preferences can be measured using either type-based assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), or trait-based assessments such as the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI).
For example, certain finance professionals may score high on interpersonal sensitivity and be very perceptive, but they may avoid conflict and hard conversations. In this case, a manager should bring any tensions or issues to light in a private, one-on-one session, and should avoid being overly direct and blunt while discussing potential solutions.
Build team cohesion with daily check-ins. With COVID-19 presenting formidable challenges for finance professionals who have to steer businesses through the economic fallout, it can be difficult to keep up with internal business communications and retain healthy connections with fellow team members.
“Teams that don’t communicate and, more importantly, have fun are more likely to get into conflict situations,” said Rice. “We encourage daily team check-ins with a focus on how each person is doing, not just what they are doing. This creates more of an emotional connection between the team members.”
In addition, Rice recommended that managers create opportunities for nonwork check-ins, to ensure that finance professionals “are all being seen as human beings, not just as co-workers”. This could include, for example, creating a virtual Friday social hour to play games or allow team members to share the best and worst parts of their telecommuting week.
Co-create and clarify team goals. With the reduced (or nonexistent) physical presence of managers and colleagues, shared goal commitment and goal clarity become even more important, Morris advised.
To prevent negative conflict, he emphasised that team members should lead or co-facilitate the process when developing the operating principles, responsibilities, and metrics that encourage goal commitment. Within finance teams, for example, the uncertainty created by COVID-19 could mean that existing forecasts and budgets have to be updated weekly instead of monthly. There should be a group consensus around how this will be achieved and where the responsibilities lie.
“Managers and finance team leaders can harness the power of team contracts or charters which can be valuable when clarifying norms and expectations — particularly in a fast-changing business environment. These contracts or charters should be visible, accessible, and ever-present during the life of each project,” said Morris.
If finance team members have been left out of the goal-clarifying process — or their input has not been included — then managers should create a forum (such as a formal team meeting over videoconference) to review the key elements and openly discuss any stumbling blocks that have arisen.
Provide the right resources. As the global economic landscape changes under COVID-19, Morris noted that there will be new job requirements based on a possible “new reality” for many teams.
“Managers need to ensure that the resources and tools provided match the current demands of the job, otherwise engagement will suffer and unhealthy conflicts will increase,” he explained. For finance professionals, these resources include robust cloud computing tools that allow for secure data sharing, ongoing financial analysis, and real-time online collaboration.
As telecommuting is still new for many finance teams, managers will have to adapt and continuously review their approach to team dynamics as the challenges evolve. Arguably, managers and leaders who can retain a very human connection and sense of empathy with their teams will be better positioned to succeed in the long term.
— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.