Flourishing in a New Reality: Automation for the Post-COVID-19 Labor Market

Ken Thomas, Managing Director Business Performance Improvement
Chelsea Klimo, Associate Director Business Performance Improvement

Availability and quality of finance and accounting talent is an issue chief financial officers (CFOs) have been grappling with since the COVID-19 pandemic spurred major changes in how people work — and how they relate to their work. For one thing, many employees are showing a decided preference for remote and hybrid work. Second, many employees have made new and lasting decisions about their future livelihoods that don’t include direct and dedicated employment. Last, younger workers are less inclined to remain with the same employer for extended periods compared to previous generations, and employee mobility is on the rise.

None of this is good news for CFOs scrambling to fill positions in their finance and accounting departments now that the economy is expanding. But an increasing number of finance leaders are accelerating automation plans to overcome the triple threat of remote and hybrid work, labor shortages, and increased turnover.

The labor shortage challenge in numbers

It’s growing more difficult to find skilled professionals where and when finance leaders need them. Through COVID-19 and our rocky ongoing recovery from it, employers have been experiencing a “great resignation” as employees (especially mid-career talent) reconsider the way they earn their livelihoods. Individuals are switching industries, redefining the balance between their personal and professional lives and, in some cases, even leaving the workforce altogether. Consider the following:

  • There are more job openings. The S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021, resulting in a record 10.9 million open jobs at the end of that month.
  • Employees are hoping to move on. The Microsoft Work Trend Index for this year surveyed 30,000 people working at a variety of companies in 31 countries. Among its findings: 40% of respondents said they were considering leaving their jobs. Worse still, Gallup’s research indicated that 48% of American employees were actively looking for new positions.
  • Recruiting is getting more difficult. 95% of the CFOs of major U.S. corporations surveyed for the CNBC Global CFO Council survey for Q3 2021 said so. That’s a dramatic increase over the 18% who said in the same survey a mere two quarters ago that recruiting has become more difficult.

Looking outside the box for solutions

To cope with these challenges, finance leaders are turning to innovative and flexible solutions. They’re accommodating remote or flexible work arrangements to attract and retain talent when possible. Some are designing fully remote or hybrid-virtual roles. Since remote staff can work from anywhere, businesses can’t rely on the convenient and familiar local labor pool. (On the upside, they are also discovering that recruiting efforts can be expanded to labor pools outside the office’s geographical area.)

Where once companies were automating to save money, enhance productivity and reduce error rates, they’re now adopting an automation strategy to flourish in a new reality: They must become less dependent on any one community of employees and scale quickly when growth opportunities arise. Automation is helping finance leaders reinvent operations so they can be less vulnerable to labor-related upheavals and shortages. In a new twist, they are now factoring these new labor challenges into technology investment criteria. For instance, in software selection, finance leaders might lean toward systems that can automate mundane or repetitive tasks while supporting mobility, which will enable them to thrive even with more remote workers, fewer suitable employment candidates or higher turnover.

Other collateral benefits of automation include:

  • Retaining the brain trust. Where qualified workers are hard to attract and retain, automation slows the brain drain by automating repetitive work and freeing higher-value employees to focus on higher-value tasks.
  • Encapsulating knowledge into process. When turnover is fast, finance leaders can’t count on experienced workers training the new ones. (That kind of training is proving less effective over teleconferencing software anyway.) Automation shields organizations from knowledge loss by embedding the organization’s policies in its configuration and by enabling data-driven decisions for consistent application of business rules. Automating finance and accounting processes is one way to optimize processes while ensuring compliance. Automated tasks become more suitable for new, unseasoned employees.
  • Preventing data loss. In a virtual environment where much of the work is done remotely, data protection is a growing concern. Many cloud-based automated solutions provide security features to ensure data privacy, reducing a concern with new or remote employees handling sensitive information.

(A side note about automation and related talent: Finding the skill sets to enable automation and to operate finance and accounting functions in an automated environment can be barriers to wider adoption. Finance leaders may want support from managed solutions services, which help address business challenges by providing consulting and specialized staffing resources.)

In closing

The challenging new labor trends outlined here are changing the way finance leaders conduct and scale their businesses post-COVID-19 by forcing them to accommodate remote work, consider new labor pools and find new incentives to retain and attract knowledgeable talent. As they work through these challenges, leaders are also discovering that access to a flexible workforce of well-qualified specialists can be a great tool to transform and keep finance and accounting functions flourishing in the new reality.

 

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