Long reads

Finance teams have been left in the dark on the real cost of working from home

Carlo Gualandri

Carlo Gualandri

CEO, Soldo

2020 was a year like no other and hugely challenging for businesses across the board. Thankfully, with the UK’s vaccine roll out, we can hope, with cautious optimism, that we are only a few months away from the pandemic’s end. Entire sectors of the UK economy are currently shutdown, but it’s clear that even when they re-start, it won’t mark a return to ‘normal’. The aftermath of the crisis will be felt for years to come and many changes to the way we do business will prove permanent.

The UK’s first lockdown last March brought unprecedented disruption. Overnight, businesses were sent into survival mode as they were forced to overhaul their operational models just to keep things running. Many organisations across the country were caught completely unprepared for such a shakeup and found that they were not in possession of the necessary systems and resources to facilitate working from home. The result was a rush of employees, managers and business leaders flocking to procure any working from home equipment they could get their hands on.

It was a rapid transformation - according to ONS figures, by April, almost half of the working population were working from home in some form. And while that transformation has led to a number of advantages – primarily that remote working en-masse, can in fact, work, there are also many challenges. We regularly hear about concerns that remote working has a negative effect on communication, productivity, wellbeing, motivation, coordination and creativity. While these apply across departments, finance teams have been particularly hard hit  - and here’s why.

Remote working has meant a significant change in companies’ spending patterns. There’s been a huge shift in the spending habits of businesses, with exponential growth in ecommerce, digital services and online advertising. Meanwhile, there has been a significant reduction in employee expenses such as travel and entertainment. Without line of sight access, how do finance teams manage operations effectively to cope with such a significant swing in company spending?

Remote working is exacerbating the challenges finance professionals already faced when managing business spending. Research by Soldo reveals that over 72% of British finance directors say that their teams are “unprepared to cope in a complete or partial virtual working environment”. There has been a failure to adapt to digital workflows, resulting in over 58% of UK businesses being unsure of their current level of working capital.

While the pandemic has meant that the strategic value of the finance focus is emerging from the shadows, 64% of finance professionals say that the unnecessary stress of everyday tasks such as reconciliations prevents a true focus on strategic matters. Indeed, these reconciliations aren’t trivial matters, with over half of finance directors (54%) saying that their working capital is so low that lost VAT receipts “threaten business stability”.

Finance teams have thus found themselves in the dark. It’s clear that they need to find new ways of working that are better suited to the changing economic landscape. They need greater clarity, visibility and control of their finances to be able to pivot quickly to thrive - or even survive. 

Fortunately, we live in an era where the tools to address the new challenges of remote working are readily available - whether this be Zoom and similar platforms for meetings, Slack to ensure continued effective collaboration across teams or Soldo to stay on top of employee spend. These have quickly become a vital boon as we move to a more permanent remote working culture. Research from Future Forum shows that the majority of knowledge workers never want to go back to the old way of working. Only 12% want to return to full-time office work, and 72% want a hybrid remote-office model moving forward.

It’s evident that, post-Covid, we will not be going back to business as usual. Remote working is here to stay. Insurance giant Aviva announced that working from home will remain standard practice. Meanwhile, trendsetters such as Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook have introduced working from home and other flexible work options long-term.

Businesses that wish to prosper must accept that this is the new reality. This means adopting systems and practices that allows finance teams to fully retain visibility and control of expenditure in light of new working habits. This is particularly critical in an increasingly tumultuous economic climate, which does not appear to be abating any time soon.

Comments: (2)

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith - RTGS & ClearBank - London 09 March, 2021, 11:14Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

I think the challenges you call out are not due to a change of working environments, but a poor operational process and lack of desire to move with the times. Its about the culture those businesses harvested. 

We do often hear of the negatives of working from home, however, my own experience of large teams working from home for many years now has been quite the opposite. I find that work life balance is often much improved, helping mental health and easing stress loads. This promotes better efficiency and sees team members becoming far more productive - even innovative. Yes - even with collaboration tools we sometimes lack that ability to collaborate quite as effectively, but again this is often down to the lack of experience of using the right collaborative tools. Simply installing Whiteboard from within the Microsoft store on your PC has dramatic improvements on collaboration and visualisation. 

Not commuiting is a blessing for the vast majority of people, and yes, no travel expenses is a great thing for finance departments. (How they struggle to keep tabs on working capital when spend is less like this is a bit beyond me) and yes we sometimes miss the social side of working together in the office, and this is why i dont believe working from home will be 100% of the time for the vast majority of us, rather the vast majority of us will work say 70% of the time from home. The challenges are pretty clear for finance teams.

The cold reality is, that those businesses that failed to allow people to work from home prior to COVID-19 had simply not made the right investments in terms of technology but also in terms of understanding working from home from a culture persepctive within the business. If they had, they would have been able to easily cope with the shift of the entire workforce working from home. As I said at the start of this comment, this is a side effect of a culture failing within the business.... 

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 09 March, 2021, 12:08Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

In the initial phase of lockdown wfh was very pleasurable but its long extension was boring and has psychological imapcts. Even though you are using best collaborative tools but confining at home for long time and not meeting your colleagues in person has its negative effect, beside long stretch of wordking hour which affects both physically and psychologically. However the hybrid or flexiwork model is the best option to keep work life balance, productivity and employee morale although it may be difficult for the company to plan infrastructure and WC requirements.