Are finance leaders finally loosening the reins on remote work?

Long associated with presenteeism, many finance leaders are new advocates of remote working. But greater responsibility for staff welfare cannot be avoided

Finance and flexibility may not seem like natural bedfellows yet, in common with all C-suite leaders, the chief financial officer (CFO) has had no option but to keep pace with the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. 

For a function whose rhythms are dictated by formal set-piece events, such as year-end results, the abrupt switch from office to home working would seem, at first glance, to have dealt a calamitous blow. But it could be that the very warp and weft of the CFO’s year planner has been a saving grace.

“When you know you have month-end management reporting due soon or the annual audit on the horizon, you simply have to get on and deal with it, rather than sit on your hands and wonder how to manage,” says Alison Dolan, CFO at Rightmove.

“While the biggest challenge for heads of sales has, I’m told, been the need to keep salespeople from feeling antsy about their targets and commissions, the finance leader’s constant cycle of deliverables has been something to fall back on.” 

In terms of the office being the sole place of work for most people, that concept will increasingly look like something from the 18th century

Many finance heads report that their teams’ natural affinity with meticulous planning has come into its own in the work-from-home (WFH) environment, particularly the need to finalise Zoom call agendas well in advance.

Yet if the need for greater pre-prep and structure when colleagues are remote was identified early on, an overall improvement in data security was certainly not.

“I would argue that data security risks were greater pre-COVID when staff were spending lots of time travelling and often making calls on public transport and in airports,” says James Watts, CFO at online marketplace OnBuy.

“A home-working environment may still have its challenges, but on balance it provides a much more secure workspace. I believe ecommerce should be leading the way in maximising its benefits for employees.”

If VPNs, or virtual private networks, have proved far less of a headache than many CFOs feared, testing the emotional temperature of both existing and new staff raises important issues around work-life balance, stress and burnout.

CFOs’ remote onboarding challenge

“I joined this business last September, in the middle of COVID, and I know from personal experience that being onboarded without face-to-face introductions or even an organisation chart to help you decipher who’s who can be quite a bewildering experience, even at my level,” says Dolan.

“Nowadays, I am at pains to make sure that my managers plan for new joiners in great detail because when you are new and working from home, particularly if you’re fairly junior, you need a lot of extra input to make you feel engaged.”

Post-COVID, the notion that staff can only be productive inside a building looks archaic. While hybrid working will for many mean part office and part home, it’s the establishment of near-home work locations that is gaining favour.

One organisation looking to reduce commute times in this way is Standard Chartered, whose CFO Andy Halford believes that while many businesses will retain the concept of the office, its fundamental purpose will change.

“I do see a continuing role for the physical office, but it will do other things like allowing colleagues to meet up and collaborate or even simply socialise with each other,” he says.

“In terms of the office being the sole place of work for most people, that concept will increasingly look like something from the 18th century.”

With a current 12-month trial of near-home working likely to result in 98 per cent of the bank’s staff being offered flexible working by 2023, costs have already been driven down. While Halford says the full impact on the balance sheet won’t be clear for three to five years, it’s the new culture, “unrecognisable from pre-COVID days”, which promises the greatest returns, he says.

Finance embraces WFH

With 75 per cent of Standard Chartered’s overall headcount and at least that proportion of finance staff now working remotely, Halford believes “the first-in-last-out attitude that some in finance may have held has all but disappeared”.

Despite the disruption, he describes the shift to home working as “a revelation and an eye opener”, and believes that in embracing change so readily, the finance department itself has proved to be “a cultural trailblazer”.

“No wheels have fallen off the bus, there’s been no change to our key events schedule and we’re reporting our first quarter results, but this time remotely rather than face to face,” he says.

Despite the many advantages of WFH, Halford shares Dolan’s concerns over the impact on colleagues’ mental health, however.

“When you’re not face to face with people, it’s far more difficult to get a sense of their lives and as a leader you have to be aware that even if colleagues say they are OK, they may not be,” he says.

“Younger staff may miss the camaraderie of the office, while people with school-age children may find home schooling a strain, particularly if there isn’t a lot of space. We also have to consider older colleagues who may find themselves alone all day in a large empty house.”

Horror stories of managers who remotely track keyboard use as an ad hoc productivity guide may abound, but leaders insisting on bouts of video-conferencing banter or even weekly team quizzes are equally problematic. 

“Forced fun on Zoom didn’t work for us because we found it cringey and false, so we junked it early on in favour of longer meetings which start with informal chit chat about the kids or the cat before we start talking about the subject in hand,” says Rightmove’s Dolan.

“The important thing is to allow enough time to identify people who may be struggling and follow up any issues with them privately.”

Developing the employer proposition

For every employee who is raring to get back to HQ, there are others with “re-entry syndrome” and according to Chris Biggs, finance partner at Theta Global Advisors, any CFO tempted to be prescriptive over return dates should think again.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity around going back to the office and it’s incumbent on leaders to be sensitive to peoples’ fears,” he says.

“If a CFO feels that colleagues who wish to stay at home cannot be trusted to remain productive, they have the wrong team.”

While remote communication is always a challenge, Biggs believes that over-use of video conferencing is as much a gaffe as non-stop cc’d emails.

“It’s important to clarify your expectations and set priorities for the team, but there’s always a temptation to over-communicate when people are at home and a captive audience,” he says.

Rather than assuming everyone loves Zoom meetings as much as the CFO, he advises asking each colleague privately whether video conferencing is a highlight or a bore.

Despite the challenges, however, finance leaders in many organisations are currently enjoying what Dolan calls “a new freedom to unclench”.

“In my experience, an awful lot of CFOs have been amazed at what can be achieved remotely and relish an end to constant face-to-face supervision and the birth of greater flexibility,” she says.

But it’s vital to accept that taking responsibility for your team’s mental health will impose an additional and heavy burden. “Emotional intelligence is a brand-new language for many of us in finance, but we need to learn it very fast,” Dolan concludes.