In short:

  • Don’t be lulled into complacency by high unemployment numbers. Talented accounting and finance professionals remain in demand.
  • When it comes to perks, think beyond stipends for faster internet speeds and new office chairs.
  • One win/win: paying for, and offering a flexible schedule to accommodate, professional development courses.

In August, employment in professional and business services overall increased by 197,000, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The financial sector added 36,000 jobs, and employment levels for accountants and bookkeepers are down only slightly year-over-year.

Aug. 2019 June 2020 July 2020 Aug. 2020
Accounting and bookkeeping services (seasonally adjusted) 1030.6 1012.1 1012.1 1010.5
Data: BLS
In thousands

As overall unemployment ticks down and companies prepare to navigate the holiday season, CFOs need to look up from their cash flow charts and gaze outward upon their staffs.

Oh, wait — that’ll have to be done over a Zoom call.

Like anyone still working from home, finance teams may lose their sense of urgency, be lulled into complacency by boredom or reduced interaction with peers, be called on to be both teacher and employee and/or struggle with technical challenges. Savvy managers realize this and help their teams push past obstacles to consistently deliver top performance while showing empathy — and thus reducing the risk of them jumping ship as the economy improves.

So how do you make that happen?

1. Lead with Commander’s Intent. That’s when leaders clearly communicate the team’s vision and set overarching priorities. The more your financial team understands the driving factors behind what must be done to keep the company healthy, the better they’ll perform when they can’t as easily check in with colleagues.

“With the rise of remote work, establishing the commander’s intent is more vital than ever,” said Grey Idol, co-founder of Payroll Funding, an invoice factoring company specializing in purchasing invoices from staffing companies.

When everyone knows where you’re aiming to go, the odds are better that you’ll get there.

2. End fire drills. Remote work has proven challenging for many finance pros. That’s especially true for those involved in financial closes: 43% of surveyed executives attending a recent NetSuite webinar on virtual accounting practices said that while they could perform a remote close, the process would be less effective versus in-office.

“Usually, end-of-month close processes are squeezed into the last 10 days of the month,” said Peter Nesbitt, VP of finance at Teampay, a purchasing software provider. “Starting the close earlier and breaking up tasks, such as journal entries, to be done on a weekly basis can significantly reduce stress across the team and improve efficiency.”

To make sure work is spread evenly, many companies are using tools and processes pioneered by software companies. Consider a daily 30-minute or less stand-up meeting where team members discuss tasks they plan to complete that day and review overall goals. Organizational tools that are part of a full collaboration suite can keep everyone on task.

3. Collect spending data in real time. How do you make a remote closes less stressful? We discuss that in depth here, but one key is making sure nonfinance employees aren’t throwing wrenches in the works. To start, make sure they turn in expense reports, receipts and invoices promptly.

One survey of almost 600 finance professionals showed that 43% of companies use manual processes to manage expense reports; that was inefficient when everyone was in the office. It’s more so now.

“During close, finance teams lose valuable time not only waiting for employees to manually submit expenses, but also by having to code them,” said Nesbitt. “Collecting spend data continuously throughout the month and coding it upfront saves time and solves a big pain point for finance teams.”

Once you have that sorted, further systemize the close process by breaking it down into steps.

“Develop a procedure that lays out all of the specific tasks and stakeholders necessary to guide finance teams and employees through close in order to get a firm handle on each of the moving parts and eliminate any redundancies,” said Nesbitt.

4. Offer a home office stipend and setup advice. A May CNBC survey of 9,059 U.S. workers asked, “Thinking ahead to when things are safe again, how often do you think you will want to work from home?” About 20% want to make the WFH arrangement permanent, 38% say they’ll work from home more often than before and 18% either want to be mostly in-office (9%) or back in the office 100% of the time (9%).

What’s your plan to keep people healthy, productive and committed to your company once more options open up?

“It’s tempting for team members without a home office to just work from the kitchen table, but it results in more distractions and less focus than a proper, dedicated workspace,” said Nate Tsang, founder of WallStreetZen, an automated stock analysis service for individual investors. A lack of attention to ergonomics may also lead to health issues.

There are a lot of variables in calculating the per-employee cost of various work models, but CFOs whose companies are in a position to do so should consider how they can work with their teams to set up functional home offices, including providing the technology necessary to accomplish remote closes securely or even launch a continuous close initiative.

5. Do more than work together. It’s easier to create cohesive teams when people are physically together in an office and able to share social interactions. A top challenge for leaders in the WFH era is to develop trust and cohesion.

“Implement regular employee engagement practices among remote workers,” said Michael Hammelburger, CEO of The Bottom Line Group, an expense reduction consulting firm. “We often have end-of-the-week team-building activities that include Pictionary, bucket list challenge and charades. These don’t require close contact so they are better for social distancing observance.”

3 Pillars of Successful Remote Collaboration

CFOs whose teams are new to working from home can foster a culture of success, and not just for month-end remote closes.
Leadership Technological Social
Manage the project, not the hours. Evaluate productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals versus clocking time online, as judged by “the new face time” of being active on Slack or an instant messaging platform. Make sure the right tools are in place. At minimum, finance teams need instant messaging, the ability to securely share files and collaborate on documents, and videoconferencing. Strongly encourage people to turn on video. Not only does it foster the human connection and bring non-verbal cues into play, being on camera tends to minimize multitasking.
Model certainty. Research shows that anxiety is contagious. Effective leaders display confidence in, and actively encourage, their teams. If financially feasible, cover the cost of bandwidth upgrades for employees’ home Wi-Fi. In some cases, spouses and school-age children are also online, and few things are as stressful as getting dropped from an important conference. If time and team size allow, have weekly one-on-one meetings with each team member. Also consider a social connection app, like Donut, that facilitates virtual coffee or group lunches, or even happy hours.

That advice is backed up by psychology: The most productive teams instill a sense of “psychological safety” — members believe that their colleagues won’t punish or mock them for making mistakes. As Harvard Business Review explains, that safety enables people to take risks, toss out new ideas and collaborate freely without worrying about being undermined or ignored.

6. Build a buddy system. “A good way of ensuring that the remote team stays on track is to implement a buddy system,” said Branka Vuleta, founder of Legal Job Site, a recruitment service specializing in legal professionals. “The buddy system increases the sense of belonging in a team and improves motivation and productivity levels.”

One way to build that camaraderie is by setting up rotating buddy pairs weekly or monthly. Managers can announce on a Monday that week’s buddies and encourage them to connect on Slack, Zoom or with a phone call. Come up with icebreakers, whether a question or a game, to get conversations going.

7. Show empathy. “Before the end of each weekly meeting, I also try to ask each staff how they are coping with the ‘new normal’ changes taking place in our society,” said Hammelburger. “I’ve noticed that although times have been tough, we’re cooperating in terms of maintaining our positive workplace culture.”

If that empathy flows to customers, all the better. A variety of studies show that empathic companies outperform their peers in plenty of areas.

One group that may need support now is parents of young children whose schools may be fully or partly remote. News broke recently of a backlash within tech companies that offered extra time off for parents to care for their children. Childless workers asked, “So what do we get?”

As we said, a little empathy goes a long way now.

8. Announce and celebrate wins. “It is essential to properly recognize employees who are performing well, or else you risk losing them to burnout or loss of motivation,” said Jacob Dayan, CEO and cofounder of Community Tax, a tax services company. “I suggest gathering your team or department regularly, perhaps once a week or bi-weekly, to go around and discuss professional wins as that can make somebody’s day if they are recognized in front of everybody else.”

For some, that advice sounds like one more meeting and/or a nightmare scenario for more introverted finance employees. But there’s no reason supervisors can’t send public kudos periodically.

9. Create upskill opportunities. “We’ve opened opportunities for finance team members to take time for training to upskill through online sources,” said Hammelburger. “We even allow flexible schedules, in some cases, to accommodate their classes’ live sessions.”

Hammelburger has worked as a financial consultant for small and midsize businesses since 2010 and says providing such opportunities is critical to motivating the team. Respondents to our Brainyard Summer 2020 Priorities Survey agree. While the rapidly changing nature of business is a preoccupation for every leader now, it’s more acute for finance. We asked about expected actions in the finance department as a result of COVID-19. New training was high on the list for 57% of finance execs.

Considering how eager finance pros are to pursue learning, advance their careers and use their time wisely during lockdowns, covering the cost of training is a major retention win.

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker’s published work appears in many leading print and online publications including Security Boulevard, PCMag, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO, TechTarget, and InformationWeek, as well as many others. Her latest book is ”Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.” She’s also a popular speaker at technology conferences as well as specialty conferences such as the Excellence in Journalism events and a medical research and healthcare event at the NY Academy of Sciences.

Mark Bianco

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