As finance organizations contemplate the prospect of re-entering their offices for the first time in a long time, there are a number of logistical and practical matters to consider, and some theoretical ones as well. In addition to ensuring the continuation of proper internal controls over financial transactions and financial reporting, that means looking out for the well-being of team members and looking for ways to incorporate any lessons learned from the past 10 weeks or so, including new skillsets and adaptations developed while working remotely.
From a practical perspective, right off the bat, there needs to be a re-imagining of how many people will come to work, where they will sit, and with whom they will interact. Social distancing may require teams that previously worked in close proximity to either spread out over a larger footprint — which may require leasing more office space — or work in shifts, or under a hybrid arrangement in which some people return to the office while others continue to work from home.
Next, as with any disruptive change, it is important for finance leaders to identify process improvements that may have occurred as an unintended consequence of pandemic response and consider ways to operationalize those improvements upon re-entry. It doesn’t make sense to return to broken processes when there is a better way forward and it is now in place in the current remote/dispersed environment. For example, there may be instances where finance organizations turned to third-party cloud service providers, to facilitate remote access. Or, perhaps a service previously provided by a shared service center may have been automated to get around the fact that many offshore shared service centers went offline during the lockdown.
There are also more theoretical logistical questions that need to be answered. Health experts are recommending that workers maintain social distancing protocols, even in the workplace, and that employers implement screening protocols — such as temperature readings and health questionnaires upon building entry and increased sanitation of common areas, restrooms, training facilities and door handles. Even things previously taken for granted, such as how often teams meet, where, and whether in large or small groups, need to be carefully reconsidered — weighing intangibles, such as the team members’ perception of well-being.
Such changes may require budget tweaks. They may require board or at least audit committee permission in keeping with the company’s internal control structure. They may also merit consulting with third-party advisers, such as outside auditors and attorneys, to ensure that any new internal controls are sufficient and that new procedures comply with privacy rules.
Given the urgency of getting the global economy back up and running, it is important that finance executives adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to unforced errors. The last thing any company needs is to get people back into the office without adequate safeguards and create preventable security, privacy and health problems.
The re-entry process is not something that can be achieved in a silo. Finance will not be the only part of the organization reentering the building. So, in addition to the obvious functional teams, such as, say, an accounting policies and practices group, there will be groups that interface with other business units, including real estate, human resources, IT, training and logistics.
Over the past few weeks, organizations have flexed new muscles that may have been underdeveloped in an office environment. There may also be flaws and fail points that have been brought into stark relief under the pressures of distance and improvisation. I’m sure every organization has a list of improvements made on the fly that they would like to incorporate, automate or perpetuate. A number of items have been prioritized. Of those, more have been identified than workflowed, and more have been workflowed than automated. But the lists exist, and that’s an opportunity in itself. Now is the time to review those opportunities and position the team to make the most of them.