Practice automation: Staff skills once onboard
Firms should be aware of their staff members’ skills and tech aptitude before foisting new tech on them. Practice owner Lucy Cohen looks at what firms can do to upskill staff and make sure everyone is fully equipped.
If you’re reading this then it’s likely that you’ve done the hardest part of the automation journey - you’ve laid out your practice automation roadmap to your team and they’ve got on board with the ideas. Now what?
The first thing to remember is that practice automation is not a one-time thing. This is the start of a process of continuous improvement. There’ll potentially be some big changes at the start as the process kicks off, but once that is embedded in it’s an ongoing journey.
Letting your team know this is key to keeping them engaged in the process going forward. If they think that maybe it’s a change they can ignore or let other people lead on, then they’ll be less keen to be involved in it. Making it clear to them that this is the start of a new, better way of working will ease the transition and motivate them to learn the new skills they need for the future.
Identify existing skills
Something that we at Mazuma have learned from our automation journey is that our team has skills that we never even knew about.
As we implemented our automation, we discovered that one of our team had studied video game development at university and still tinkered with it in their spare time. They were keen to get involved in testing new features in our tech and improving the user experience.
So reach out to your team and see what skills they have. These don’t necessarily have to be tech-based skills either. There are lots of transferable skills that are incredibly important in effectively implementing automation in your practice.
For example, automated messages need to be clear, friendly, and engaging for your clients so that they don’t feel that they’re talking to a robot. Who in your team is a great writer? Maybe they’d enjoy creating those messages.
Perhaps you have someone who is a fantastic teacher. They’d be an ideal fit for training staff on new processes.
And who amongst your team has incredible customer service skills? Clients need to be kept abreast of developments as much as staff do. So maybe they’d be a wonderful ‘customer experience champion’ and be able to devise a strategy to keep clients in the loop.
Depending on the size of your team this process may be informal, but it’s still a good idea to document what you discover. Creating a document of staff skills and tech aptitude will greatly help shape the discussions and create actions for all involved. This skills audit will also identify any gaps in your team’s skill set so that you can look at what needs upskilling to turn your team into automation champions.
Upskill where necessary
It’s unlikely that you’ll have an entire team of people who all effortlessly start adopting your new processes. You’ll have some who take to it more easily than others, but many of them may require a bit of a helping hand to get them up to speed.
The biggest barrier to learning a new skill is often a person’s attitude. Very few people love change, but there are some people who actively reject it.
Hopefully you’ll have already identified those people, but be warned. More often than not you’ll come across a person who seems to be totally on board with something when it’s in the ideas stage, but can be difficult to manage when it gets to implementation and they realise that the changes really do affect them. Those people will probably need additional time and resources spent on them to demonstrate that the changes benefit them rather than threaten their job.
While this can seem frustrating at the time (it seems like a step backwards in the process), from experience those people can actually end up being the biggest champions of change - they just need a little more coaxing to get there. So stick with them!
Your skills and tech aptitude audit should have identified who needs what sort of support. It’s then up to you to decide how to do it. In the past we’ve brought in external training companies to get people up to speed.
Many software providers offer training to your team as part of the onboarding process, so it’s really worth investigating what can be packaged together for your staff to form a comprehensive training plan.
While we’ve found external training to be effective in teaching the skeleton of the new tech, their benefit is seen more in making staff feel more confident about their new skills. Formal training somehow holds more gravitas with a team than internal training courses, so if you have the budget or can get external training for free, it’s great to do.
That said, nothing beats the learning curve you experience when you’re thrown into using a piece of software at the deep end. We’ve often harnessed that steep learning curve and created a ‘buddy system’ that has resulted in some of the most rapid up-skilling we see. We pair people up with someone who has the skills they need and they learn from them. Even during the lockdowns of the pandemic this can be done via screen sharing on Zoom.
I’ve been amazed at the tips and hacks that these buddy systems can produce. It’s really gratifying to see your team whizzing around a bit of software that you implemented in a way that you can’t. It’s fair to say that most of my team are far more proficient on tech than I am - and that’s the way it should be! Create a set of empowered whizz kids and watch them thrive.
Know the limits
Unfortunately you may have some of your team who can’t or won’t be able to adapt to the changes. For all the will in the world, it may be that you need to let some people go.
From personal experience this is really hard to do, but it’s the best outcome for all involved. Many years ago we had a salesperson who, once a lot of the sales process had been automated, just couldn’t make the changes work for them.
It was really obvious that they were bored and unhappy in their work and eventually we had to make the difficult decision to make them redundant. They moved on to another company where they remain today, and are once again fulfilled and happy in their work.
Losing people from your team is always hard, and should always be done with the advice of an HR expert who can make sure that you’re following the necessary legal procedures.
The flip side to losing some people is that you may create opportunities for others. This is the perfect time to adjust your recruitment strategy to align with what your new, automated firm requires. This not only demonstrates your commitment to your new processes to your existing team, but it creates confidence in them as they see new people with exciting skills come through the door to join them.
Seeing the opportunity
With the right guidance and support your team will see automation not as a threat to their jobs, but as an opportunity to develop without the humdrum activities that plague so many roles in accountancy.
Adopting a dynamic and engaging skills strategy will create a team of enthusiasts who have a sense of ownership of the process and therefore the drive to keep evolving it for the benefit of the practice.
Change can be challenging, but automation can be liberating for your practice. It’s worth the initial effort for the long term results.
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