How to lead finance transformation in a remote environment

Remote working poses an additional hurdle when trying to implement change in your finance team. Johnson Matthey’s Malcolm Finn shares what he’s learnt during the pandemic.

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Remote work has been the saving grace of many companies this past year, and for Malcolm Finn, it also proofed to be a crash course in leadership.

Malcolm joined chemicals giant Johnson Matthey as Director of Finance during the height of the pandemic. Brought on to lead finance strategy and transformation, he had to adjust on the fly to leading in a remote environment.

We recently interviewed Malcolm on The CFO Playbook, where he shared with us how he’s doing that despite the difficulties of managing a dispersed team.

Here are Malcolm’s tips on how to lead in a remote work environment.

1. Prioritise personal connections

One of the most difficult things to maintain in an era of remote work is a personal connection with your team members.

While isolation is a necessary part of the pandemic, it’s brought about unintended consequences. Malcolm says:

‘We’ve all been deprived of the usual human interactions that are the basis for shared knowledge in the workplace, and there’s a need to connect more regularly and ask how people are feeling.’

In a typical in-person workplace, you connect and interact with your employees regularly, but with remote work, you have to schedule times to check in. Malcolm says even just asking someone how they’re feeling at the beginning of a meeting can help ‘create space’, which gives that person time to take a breath and mentally shift their focus.

Instead of diving straight into business, create emotional connections at the start of each meeting by talking about non-work-related topics. It will help everyone relax and adjust mentally, and in turn, will make your meeting more productive once you do get down to business.

2. Build trust

When it comes to remote work, Malcolm says you need to default to a position of trust with your employees.

Remote work presents many challenges, especially as people learn to juggle the emotional stress of the pandemic and caring for family members, all while maintaining a productive work environment from home.

It’s important to have empathy for what your team members are going through. Malcolm says:

‘Being very real, showing your vulnerability, showing your emotions, understanding your emotions, creates that psychological circumstance for your team to show the same and feel safe. If your employees and your team feel safe, they’re more willing to change, learn and grow, be more adaptive, creative, and innovative’.

In this instance, you have to lead by example. Being honest and vulnerable with your team will allow them to feel that they can be honest and vulnerable with you.

Creating a safe space for your team also means helping them set boundaries. Working from home makes it more difficult to separate work life from home life. To prevent burnout, Malcolm says it is vital to avoid back-to-back meetings, have set on and off hours, and carve out time for brainstorming and innovation.

As a leader, it’s your job to build mutually trusting relationships with your team members and create a workspace where people are willing to adapt and innovate.

3. Promote a culture of constant learning

Over the past year, leaders were forced to become more adaptive and agile than ever before. But how do you lead in an environment of constant change? Being agile, according to Malcolm, is all about rapid learning and decision-making.

For Malcolm, being an agile leader means learning your way through new situations:

‘It would be an easy and safe undertaking if you only had to face problems you knew the answer to and you knew the solutions to. Yesterday, the world was complicated and you needed technical expertise to get through things. Today, the world is complex and you need that constant learning.’

Adapting to change isn’t easy, but it’s a vital attribute for a leader in a remote or hybrid environment. You have to look at the world around you and adapt to it in order to create the best possible working environment for your team.

Looking to the future

Remote work, in some form or other, is here to stay. So leaders need to learn how to adapt to this new way of working.

Though challenging, you can successfully lead remotely as long as you connect with your employees, build a safe and trusting work environment, and stay flexible in an ever-changing world.

While you can’t prepare for every eventuality, you can cultivate an adaptive mindset to help you pivot when challenges come your way.

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