Finance operations has traditionally been an in-office function. But in the last year, processes that were highly manual and reliant on paper documentation changed by necessity. As offices slowly reopen, finance teams everywhere are once again re-assessing the way they work. Moreover, in many cases, they've been tasked with helping their organizations transition to hybrid and remote work.
We surveyed 101 finance managers from small startups to large enterprises to understand what changes they’ve made to their operations in the past year and what changes they plan to keep. Additionally, we spoke with top finance leaders to learn how they’re thinking ahead, including:
Here’s a look at how finance operations have changed in the past year—and the next wave of changes coming as we look to the future.
The challenges brought on by remote work
In 2020, many areas of finance work became challenging to manage remotely due to legacy systems and processes that relied on hard-copy documentation and in-person communication. The abrupt shift to remote work exposed the fragility and ineffectiveness of these systems.
Month-end reconciliation was especially cumbersome in a virtual setting, as reported by 30% of respondents, followed by employee reimbursements (29%) and accounts payable (28%). Indeed, many teams never made a full transition to remote work. “Check payments come to the office, so someone in accounts receivable has to be in the office,” noted one respondent. Others reported that team members had to go into the office to process invoices.
But with other employees working from home, getting information now required more effort. “It was no longer as simple as walking across the hall,” wrote one respondent. “Now, we need to see if someone is online and hope they answer.”
Omar Choucair, CFO of Trintech, summed up the challenges well in a recent CFO Dive article: “A virtual financial close is more challenging when you rely on dated and siloed technological infrastructure. When data comes from disparate sources and is manually processed, opportunities for delay and error increase. Add to that a team working in entirely different places, and there is a particular challenge.”
In response to these challenges, 73% of respondents in our survey adopted new finance tools and processes. Changes ranged from large-scale retooling to smaller optimizations. Some examples from our research:
- SwagUp adopted Trello to help teams increase productivity and transparency across projects without the need for extra meetings. They also implemented a new employee reward platform Bonusly to bolster virtual employee recognition and engagement.
- 1Password started using AWS Workspaces to collaborate on and store permanent files instead of a traditional shared drive. They also switched from on-premise software to NetSuite for accounting.
- Customer engagement platform 6sense leaned into automation. According to its CFO Rob Goldberg, “Every place where we have a process flow involving downloading something and putting it into a spreadsheet as a CSV file, and uploading it to another system, is ripe for change. Ideally, in the next six months, we'll replace that with some form of automation.”
Most respondents reported positive benefits from the changes they made: 47% percent said their new tools and processes led to greater financial control, 34% reported increased compliance, and 33% saw efficiency gains.
Given these benefits, many of these new tools and systems will become a permanent part of finance operations.
4 strategies for the forward-thinking finance leader
The nature of work has changed irrevocably for all functions and finance teams everywhere are stepping up to help their companies adapt. We spoke with a few leaders to learn what strategies they’re using to guide their organizations.
1. Proactively plan for a hybrid workforce
The rise of hybrid and remote work means that finance teams need to consider new logistical needs for their organizations. What kind of IT does a distributed workforce require? How much travel will teams be doing in a hybrid world? How should offices be handled?
SwagUp Chief of Staff Sarah Sakura flagged staffing as a key area that finance teams should pay attention to in particular.
2. Adopt automation to improve spend control
It’s difficult to predict just how business operations, from marketing to sales, will continue to evolve in the coming year. That’s why, for Plastiq CFO Amir Jafari, the most important work that finance teams can do right now is to improve their efficiency and spend control so they’re prepared for whatever changes come their way.
Greater controls shouldn’t translate to more red tape for employees. According to Jafari:
In Jafari’s mind, simple spend control means that employees should be able to easily swipe a card and get managers to review the expense in real-time. From there, tools should automatically collect receipts on behalf of finance teams and integrate with accounting systems to seamlessly log the expense.
For this reason, Jafari thinks finance leaders should continuously evaluate their toolset, particularly historical solutions that are not open platforms. The best tools should enable open data flows between different systems so teams can easily gain insights. They should offer a great user experience, to ensure adoption by teams. Per Jafari, “Booking a journal entry is one level of data. Knowing what happened in all of our travel spend without having 20 people download data to go analyze it so that we know what's happening? That’s the automation element.”
3. Put more focus on business continuity planning
Given the experience of the last 18 months, another area where finance leaders should take a more proactive approach is business continuity planning and strategies to handle sudden widespread disruption to business operations.
Swagup's Sakura predicts the following:
6sense’s Goldberg is thinking along the same lines. When the pandemic hit, “it took four weeks and involved our entire customer success team, half our sales team, a large part of the management team, and even some of our board members” to revise their forecast, he said. "We want to be able to do that better."
4. Stay close to your employees
Every leader we spoke with agreed on one thing: the most important thing that finance leaders can do as they prepare for the reopening of workplaces is to stay attuned to their employees’ concerns and well-being.
1Password’s CFO Jeannie De Guzman shared this advice:
Plastiq plans to do a soft office opening that “is going to be very human centric,” according to Jafari. “It’s got to be a safe environment for employees where there’s a comfort level to go back to.”
SwagUp’s Sakura offered these best practices:
What's next for finance operations
The last 1.5 years have compelled many finance teams to digitize their operations. For most, these changes have brought about a greater level of control and efficiency gains that they have long needed.
Yet, in the coming months, the hallmarks of a great finance leader won’t lie in their ability to analyze numbers and spit out forecasts. Instead, what will differentiate great leaders from others will be their ability to deeply empathize with their employees and proactively plan for emerging organizational needs.
In the words of 1Password’s De Guzman: