WFH strategies for CFO's

As work from home (WFH) becomes business-as-usual during these unprecedented times, a deep dive into how CFOs and FDs approach this situation.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a pandemic. This is only the 5th time WHO has declared a 'public health emergency of international concern' (PHEIC) in the last ten years.

The recent review by Forbes for nearly 200 conference call transcripts with mentions of “coronavirus” or “outbreak” paints a clear picture of what corporate leaders were telling investors. There was a very notable spike in January 2020 in the number of transcripts that mention “coronavirus”, “corona virus” or “outbreak”.

During these unprecedented times, one of the tactics for stopping the spread of the virus has been social distancing. Tactics like maintaining a distance of at least six feet with others, avoiding public transportation, limiting nonessential travel, and skipping gatherings saved thousands of lives both during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and in Mexico City during the 2009 flu pandemic. The business application of social distancing is to allow employees to work from home (WFH) – a measure taken by most businesses as they activate their Business Continuity Planning (BCP).

However, the unique nature of finance operations poses a different challenge for facilitating working from home.

Finance duties are different

Finance team members occupy and perform duties specific to their positions.

Bookkeepers and accountants typically work with historical data, performing tasks such as cleaning up the books, reconciling accounts, and filing taxes. Having this foundation of historical data is necessary for financial insight and forecasting. Financial analysts and CFOs, on the other hand, use present and historical data to forecast and analyze an organization’s future. Financial analysts deal with pricing strategies, product profitability, and financial modeling, ultimately recommending scenarios that allow companies to grow to their potential. CFOs take that further, working more with go-to-market strategies, competitive analysis, and risk management. CFOs lead companies towards a decision that will make the most financial sense.

Understanding the unique duties of the different members of the finance team was the first step for the finance leaders towards embracing work from home for their teams.

BIA for finance

The first step for CFOs and FDs when preparing for their team to WFH was to undertake or refresh a business impact assessment (BIA) for their team. 

BIA is a systematic process that evaluates the critical functions, services, products and processes. This process crucially identifies which employee groups and what skillsets are essential to the delivery of these key functions. Identifying these teammates and procedures makes it possible for the CFOs and FDs to understand the impact a loss in personnel across the business or one specific area may have on its ability to deliver to its stakeholders. 

The BIA process also puts a timescale on any downtime (how long the business can survive without this function). This is essential in enabling the CFOs and FDs to plan around staff shortages in their teams effectively.

Cope with the communication and collaboration gap

According to the State of Remote Work study by Buffer - a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world, 17 percent of remote workers cite communication as their biggest struggle with remote work.

Timely communication is key while managing remote teams. According to the TINYpulse study, more than half of the respondents said they have daily conversations with their manager, while 34% said they communicated with their manager at least once a week.

“Our biggest challenge is around communicating expectations and policies,” says Tanya Crino, Finance Director at MeetEdgar, a social media scheduling company with thirteen team members working in the US, Canada, and the UK. “As a remote team without daily face time, we have to be extra vigilant and proactive with our communications.”

According to a Harvard Business Review poll of more than 1,000 workers, 46 percent said the most successful managers check in frequently and regularly with remote workers. So what does this look like in practice? First, it means proactively reaching out to every person you manage, whether through regular instant messages, a weekly 1:1, or a spontaneous video call to talk through an issue.

One commonly used communication and collaboration tool is Slack. “Our entire company works in Slack,” says Jenny Bloom, CFO at Zapier, a workflow automation company with 100+ team members spanning fifteen countries. “Our finance team has multiple channels, which each serve a specific purpose. This allows us to answer questions from other departments—for example, ‘Does this home office purchase fall within my budget?’—and have team discussions, without relying on lengthy email threads.”

Another widely used tool is Zoom. “We live in Zoom,” says Preston Graham, VP of Finance at Auth0, an authentication and authorization platform with 475 employees working in 30 different countries. “I’ve been with other companies in the past where conference calls were more popular, but doing everything in video conferencing generates a higher level of engagement across teams. You’re able to pick up on visual cues that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Video communication platforms such as Skype and Google Video Chat also allow face-to-face meetings, no matter where employees may be telecommuting. For document collaboration, software like Quip lets the whole team see and comment on all the team's documents. File-sharing collaboration and project management tools like Huddle and Teamwork Projects focus on collaboration around uploaded files and keep an online record of who is responsible for what, so no tasks slip through the cracks. Finally, real-time collaborations can be done using free platforms like Collabedit.

Tracking personal progress towards the team output

Working from home with its distributed decision-making and more flexible reporting structures can be challenging for the finance department. For example, how does the FD or the CFO coordinate questions on critical projects when a quick stop by the project manager’s desk is out of the question? How do they share complex financial information with stakeholders across departments when they can’t call a team huddle in the company conference room?

A Harvard study shows how reflecting on one’s work and keeping a done list improves productivity by 30 percent as well as overall employee happiness. Sharing progress holds everyone accountable, but more importantly, it fuels an individual desire to contribute and support others that might need help.

Finance heads can try exposing the team's productivity output with the team members for motivation and personal fulfillment. Daily progress tools like I Done This can enable finance heads to share productivity. The tool integrates with all other workflow tools creating a central hub for tracking progress across the entire team. Everyone submits the work they completed that day, and the tool creates a report of the team’s accomplishments for all to see.

Democratize access to purchasing and expenses

According to Teampay's CEO, Andrew Hoag, a significant difference while individuals and teams work from home is that individuals now make purchasing decisions across an organization rather than a centralized purchasing department.

Clear rules and guidelines on how spending decisions should be made need to be set by the Finance heads. They need to identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within the business’ supply chains (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations.

Democratizing access to purchases and expenses will help the CFOs and FDs to plan for how the business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or these supply chains are interrupted.

Controversial, sensitive, or high-profile issues like the COVID-19 outbreak typically attract review by senior management, corporate affairs, legal, risk management, and a host of other functions. Each leader has suggestions on how to best craft these guidelines, leading to a slow and cumbersome process. It is critical to assemble a small, trusted team of members within the finance function and give them enough leeway to make rapid tactical decisions.

Maintaining the same level of protection

Security is indeed more challenging to manage when people work remotely – but it's not impossible. This is just about implementing best practice recommendations. Alexandra Hayter of SmartVault shared these three things finance heads can do to protect the business in a remote working environment

1. Move data to the cloud

The best way to enable home-working is to have all your data accessible via a web browser. Many of us will be on cloud-based accounting or tax software already but will need access to a local network in the office to access payroll or HR data. By moving all data to the cloud, we can build an office that can become fully remote when required.

2. Share documents electronically

Implementing a client portal means documents do not need to go in the post (or by unsecured email), and also means you can increase client serviceability by giving them 24/7 access to their files. Online document storage reduces the time needed to be spent in the office, which means any employees can access documents from home.

3. Adopt an e-signature platform

Implementing electronic signatures means we don’t need to print or post signed documents. It also means if a customer wants a copy of a signed document they can log in and get it whenever they want.

Psychological care

Stress and anxiety about the spread of the novel coronavirus, coupled with increased social distancing and isolation recommendations through WFH may affect an individual’s mental health.

"I think the biggest impact is just 'mind share.' It's going to be difficult for people to focus as well as it might otherwise have been because this will be on their minds. People who have their kids at school are probably checking in with the kids a lot more. These things are difficult to measure — but it's going to happen", said Derrick Morton, CEO of FlowPlay, a Seattle-based gaming company with 60 employees.

Finance heads need to focus on preparedness, staying calm, and reaching out to check on the well-being of their teammates. They need to remind their teams that COVID-19 is a serious but temporary illness, and that life will return to normal in time. They need to share some tips for making sure their teams are taking care of their mental health during the coronavirus disease outbreak.

Preparing now for the next crisis

By preparing their teams to work remotely today, finance heads preparing for the next crisis (or the next phase of the current crisis) now is likely to be much more effective than an ad hoc, reactive response when the crisis hits.

Martin Reeves, a senior partner, and managing director in the San Francisco office of BCG shares: “We should expect that the COVID-19 crisis will change our businesses and society in important ways. For example, it is likely to fuel areas like online shopping, online education, and public health investments. It is also likely to change how companies configure their supply chains and reinforce the trend away from dependence on a few mega factories. So when an urgent part of the crisis has been navigated, companies should consider what this crisis changes and what they’ve learned so they can reflect them in their plans”.

Avalara during Covid-19 pandemic

During these unprecedented times of the Covid-19 pandemic, Avalara has continued with its employee-first policy and successfully navigated this testing spell of uncertainty with initiatives Employee Assistance Programs like Ava Covid Warriors and Avalara COVID Hardship fund. Even during this crisis, the company was able to connect, engage, and foster collaboration within Avalarians. 

Covid-19 scenario propelled the ever-changing ecosystem of Tax Compliance to a higher compelling level and Avalara responded by maintaining Customer support SLAs. The company developed an Internal COVID-19 Tax Impact Database Tracker Implementation for 190+ countries. Avalara also provided its customers with Brexit guidance during the pandemic. The critical business environment didn’t stop Avalara from not just launching new products and partnerships, but also crossing milestones in its journey of achieving excellence in tax compliance. In Jan 2021, Avalara signed a deal with Shopify to get content for Tier 1/2/3 countries and make them available on Production engines with aggressive timelines. Avalara’s Content Generation for Point Of Sale – a new offering in the POS Retail Segment for providing Tax Content Generation for POS, and the support during Cyber week are just a few feathers added to its Orange cap during the pandemic.

Through the adoption of RPA, the finance team at Avalara was able to save around 11,000 hours annually - achieved greater accuracy, and reduced the reworks owing to manual errors. Seventy percent of the workforce at Avalara India started working from home within the first week of lockdown, and the remaining thirty percent followed their fellow Avalarians within the first month. 

The business community worldwide couldn’t have anticipated the impact of the pandemic. However, it is up to the leadership, including CFOs and Finance Directors, to convert this situation into opportunities and prevail this phase through digitalization.

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