Adam Zoucha, MD EMEA, FloQast
It has been more than three years since COVID-19 first sent millions of office workers back to their bedrooms, yet hybrid working remains the norm for a vast range of industries and role types. Many of the radical changes triggered by the pandemic have quickly faded away – mask-wearing, social distancing, and QR code check-ins in every last public venue. But for the majority of desk-based jobs, working from home just made sense, and it’s stuck. The chances of a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday in-office regime being universally reinstated anytime soon are practically nil.
For accounting teams (and most other businesses), the prospect of a permanently hybrid setup comes with a fair few challenges. Most obviously, around team integration and collaboration. Despite the benefits of videoconferencing, filesharing, and IM systems, being physically separate still risks impeding the easy back-and-forth you get in the office. Who’s working on what? Where’s that file? Did you chase so-and-so up on that invoice…? Still easy questions to ask, but the answers take a bit longer to come through when you’ve got to wait for someone to read a chat message or answer your call.
Over time, those little delays and miscommunications can add up, slowing down the close process, holding up month-end reports, and reducing the accounting team’s ability to provide timely strategic advice to senior leadership. So how can businesses ensure their staff can benefit from the flexibility of hybrid working without seeing their work negatively impacted?
How automation makes the difference
Partly, the answer comes down to team management; ensuring regular catch-ups, open communication, and clear lines of responsibility. And partly, it comes down to the potential of automation to transform finance processes.
Correctly deployed, automated accounting systems can help streamline processes, enhance accuracy and efficiency, and contribute to resilience in a hybrid work setup. Automation is now changing the way SME accountants work, improving accuracy and enhancing efficiency within the finance function.
First off, automated accounting solutions can enable teams to collaborate more effectively and efficiently. This frees up time to capitalise on the quality of output – ensuring accuracy for example. Put simply, automation can pick up the grunt work of data entry, sorting, and management, reducing the number of repetitive tasks highly skilled staff are required to do – and reducing the chance of human error. As a result, teams can be more confident that the figures they’re working from are both timely and accurate.
Automation can also help simplify and accelerate hybrid financial processes such as reconciliations, financial reporting, and payroll, by eliminating manual tasks and reducing the need for physical documentation.
There’s a dual benefit to this: first, it reduces the bottlenecks that can occur when staff have to physically be in the office to process certain figures. If the number of in-office days has reduced since the pandemic, there’s a risk of delay. But by digitising the completion and automating the review of receipts, invoices, and expenses, the chances of physical paperwork slowing things up drops significantly.
Secondly, automation can be applied to the overall management of these processes: flagging up late items, notifying staff when manual intervention is required, and displaying outstanding tasks in a usable dashboard.
Stepping up to the top table
These tools not only improve accuracy but also free up time for finance professionals to focus on strategic tasks, even in a hybrid work setting. By automating mundane and repetitive tasks, teams can allocate their resources more effectively and add greater value to their organisations. In other words, when automation is doing the repetitive work, teams have more time available to connect on valuable strategic work and analyse monthly figures to feed into C-suite reports.
Much is made of the pivot the accounting profession is undergoing; moving from fulfilling an essential function to providing high-level insight and leadership. To make that vision a reality, automation must become part of the accounting function. The capacity, data, and insight required to play a truly transformative role at the top table are only possible if the essentials are taken care of accurately and at high speed.
A more fulfilled role also bodes well for staff retention. In some recent research: Controller’s Guidebook: The Great Recalibration – The Role of Technology in Retaining and Recruiting Accountants revealed that more than half of accountants weren’t confident they’d stay in their current role, and a majority of that group weren’t sure they would stay in the industry at all. Data entry and handling are not the best these staff are capable of. Shifting menial tasks onto automated systems frees up your staff to exercise their strategic skills – wherever they’re logging on from. In a sector plagued by a lack of talent, holding on to good people, by making the job more fulfilling, must be a priority.
Reputation and resilience in hybrid operations
Through all of these benefits, automation can contribute to maintaining a company’s reputation and resilience during hybrid work scenarios. By ensuring data accuracy, streamlining processes, and maintaining compliance standards, businesses can navigate hybrid work challenges with confidence.
Organisations will be able to see that financial processes are still being executed to the same level of quality; senior staff will gain access to more in-depth advice from their accounting teams; and those teams themselves will enjoy smoother collaboration whether at home, on the go, or in the office.