There's a lot that we're happy to put behind us now that 2021 is over, but one thing seems destined to persist: going virtual with key work and virtual finance & office operations. Leadership has had to pivot quickly to implement effective remote workplace procedures and strategies last year, and now that the change has been made, many are seeing the potential for long-term benefits with a distributed workforce.
It's a topic that's gotten a lot of airplay in the past year, and it doesn't seem like that will change anytime soon. It's even been a common theme in the conversations we've had the opportunity to listen in on when our VP & General Manager of FAO Services – Megan Weis – talks to finance leaders on Personiv's award-winning podcast, CFO Weekly.
With a backlog of nearly 40 episodes, there is plenty of insight to be had about this topic and many, many more. Recently, we started curating those insights with our ongoing segment, Ask The CFO, where the inaugural topic was the ongoing talent shortage. This time, we're turning our attention to virtual work, remote teams and how accounting departments can succeed in the era of Zoom and the home office.
Here's what CFOs and other leaders have had to say about going virtual next year and beyond.
Going Virtual: Forced by Covid-19 Times, But Here to Stay
Long before most of us even knew what a coronavirus was, many organizations were beginning to weigh the pros and cons of virtual finance operations and allowing their employees to work from anywhere. Technological advances that facilitated global collaboration are hardly new: Slack was introduced in 2013 and had 4 million active users by 2016, and by 2018, 70% of the world's working population did their job from home at least once a week, according to research from the International Workplace Group (IWG).
The availability of collaborative software, the Millennial demand for work-life balance and the rapid expansion of the global economy all had a part to play in the growing number of organizations offering remote work options for their employees. The global pandemic that shuttered campuses in the U.S. and beyond didn't simply crystallized the argument for working from anywhere.
And once it's over? A recent survey from Gartner found that more than 80 percent of the companies they polled planned to continue to allow remote work to continue in some capacity or another. The pandemic acted as a catalyst of change, according to Macy Macaskill, CFO at Rockets Awesome, who addressed those changes in Episode 36: Coming Through COVID: Overcoming Your Biggest Business Challenges:
"I don't know what the future holds, but I do think that shopping and lifestyle habits have permanently shifted as a result of the COVID pandemic." – Macy Macaskill, CFO at Rockets of Awesome
Consumer habits aren't the only things that are likely to have changed for good. The way we work will never be the same either, and that comes with its own set of challenges.
According to Mike Gilmartin, CFO at M. Davis & Sons, those challenges do not need to be net negative experiences. The pivot to remote work may have indeed been unexpected, but when he spoke to Weis on Episode 34: Managing An Engaged Workforce: Adjusting To The New Normal, he pointed out that going virtual shone a much-needed light on opportunities for improvement, saying that:
"One of the biggest surprises of remote work was finding out that many of our processes and procedures needed upgrading." – Mike Gilmartin, CFO at M. Davis & Sons
Gilmartin was referring specifically to his team's monthly "whip" meetings about project financials – previously two-day affairs – that have become streamlined, electronically-facilitated meetings that run much more smoothly and gobble up much less time since the team went virtual.
How Leadership Has Handled Transitioning to a Virtual Workforce Trying to Retain Successful Virtual Finance Operations
There are plenty of benefits to going remote. That's a huge part of why so much of the workforce will continue to work from home long after the pandemic has been managed. Increased productivity, better work-life balance and a smaller real estate footprint that shrinks operational overhead are just some of those benefits, but the road to reaping them has not necessarily been smooth.
Short-Term Priorities for Newly Remote Workplaces
There have been logistical puzzles to solve in the rush to keep employees connected, ramp up cybersecurity and communicate with clients. CFOs and other leaders have learned to identify and solve these short-term challenges that affect virtual finance operations.
Jill Barnard, CFO at Televerde, has plenty of experience working with a team that can't always be on location. It's experience she began cultivating long before "social distancing" was in the broader working lexicon, and she had important advice for other leaders on Episode 9: Embrace Change, Don't Fear It.
"When 50 percent of your workforce isn't fully 100 percent in your control, as is the case with our incarcerated workforce, you have to be able to pivot and pivot quickly." – Jill Barnard, CFO at Televerde
For his part, Gilmartin emphasized how important it is to make sure that teams have the right tools for the jobs they're being asked to do when that can no longer be done in the office environment they're used to.
Software like teams and video conferencing technology like Google Meet and Zoom are crucial, of course, but that shouldn't mean that leaders should feel constricted by them. If the tool you need doesn't exist yet, that's an excellent incentive to create it yourself.
"Our employee portal has really been an important new tool. It's really taken off, so [our team] can go in there and do a number of things from that employee portal. So it's been exciting to watch that explode." – Mike Gilmartin, CFO at M. Davis & Sons
He also outlined a few more logistical fixes that he's been able to implement based on experience and employee feedback that can go a long way toward staying out of the weeds as companies take their day-to-day operations and project management virtual:
Make sure everyone has the right tools and technology to work and collaborate
Encourage teams to collaborate with each other outside of all-hands and other meetings
Control email flow to keep important and urgent communications from getting lost
Going Virtual Successfully in The Long-Term - Virtual Finance Operations
The larger, long-term need is for organizations to allow their corporate cultures to evolve to accommodate this shift to a new environment. Ali Green, CEO and Co-Founder of Australia's Pantera Press, built her entire business from her kitchen table over a decade ago, encouraged leaders to recognize that change is happening at every level, and that includes at the individual level. In Episode 2: 10 Rules For Success When Working From Home, she stressed the importance of patience during times of transition:
"When it comes to managing people, one of the key things is actually just being kind and understanding. At this point in time, life is very difficult for lots and lots of people and the world is very stressful. Recognize that we're all doing the best we can. This is not business as usual – we need to be kind and supportive of everyone." – Ali Green, CEO & Co-Founder of Pantera Press
That's especially true as leaders become aware of one aspect of remote work that we're only now beginning to really understand: the long-term mental health impact of working from home. Now that we're almost a year into this new reality, those potential challenges are making themselves known. According to research from TELUS International, four out of five workers find it hard to "shut off" or "clock out" in the evenings, nearly half say they feel "less healthy mentally" while working from home and a full 97 percent said that vacation days are critical as companies continue to go virtual this year.
[ON-DEMAND WEBINAR]: Top Work From Home Tips From Ali Green
Leaders like Macy Macaskill are paying attention and have found practical ways to implement feedback like this. Specifically, Macaskill explains:
"While we're working remotely, we've instituted mental health Fridays, which gives every employee paid time off every other Friday. We think it's just really critical to facilitate personal, you know, 'me time' during this crazy period." – Macy Macaskill CFO at Awesome Rockets
That's a concern that's echoed by Gilmartin, who points out that now that the option to socialize at offices that can't reasonably implement social distancing has been removed, a lot of workers are missing "water cooler" talk and in-person connections as they begin to realize that their coworkers are more akin to their friends. He, too, urges leaders to get out in front of the isolation and dysthymia their teams may already be facing:
"At home, we need to make sure that we're communicating with them on a regular basis – not just sending emails, but picking up the phone or having video conferences. These two options bring in more of the human element than email does. Every once in a while, we send them Uber Eats or DoorDash [gift] cards to let them know that we're thinking about them. Yeah, let them know that you know what they are going through and how much you appreciate the work that they do."
Going Remote Without Going Crazy: Video Meetings in the Age of 'Zoom Fatigue'
Of course, all of that video conferencing can start to have the opposite effect, if leaders aren't careful.
"I worry about the long-term effects working remotely has on company culture; on an individual's mental health, for instance. 'Zoom fatigue' is a real thing. If you do enough Zoom meetings during the day, it wipes you out." – Mike Gilmartin, CFO at M. Davis & Sons
He understands that while video meetings and online collaboration are absolutely critical, they're not a one-to-one replacement for the real thing and encourages leaders to adjust their expectations and meeting protocol for as long as video conferences are the major means of holding a meeting.
He advises leaders to pause for a while after a question to allow for apprehensive or previously muted participants to speak up. Having participants turn on their camera, he says, can help leadership see when they're starting to "lose" their teammates and adjust as needed.
He isn't the only one that thinks it's important to keep the camera on. Jill Barnard has a similar policy, and it's one that she's found can help counteract the negative impacts of going virtual.
"Mental health is really being recognized as a challenge in this pandemic situation, and we're just used to this human connection. We may gripe about [video meetings], but once it's gone you realize just how much of the human connection you're missing." – Jill Barnard, CFO at Televerde
Going virtual and maintaining positive virtual finance operations is a learning experience, and it's one that's still very much in progress – this is just a sampling of some of what our guests have taken away from the experience so far. You can hear what other leaders have to say and get more strategies for building high-performing remote teams when you tune in to CFO Weekly. If you have something to add to the conversation, don't hesitate to get in touch – we would love to have you as a guest on the podcast.