By Hannah Wright, Director, Sage People
Across the world finance professionals are tackling the effects of the pandemic. They are working to understand the immediate implications to society and the economy, whilst looking ahead to the long-term problems that may affect the financial industry. Financial expertise is needed to navigate businesses through the current climate and ensure survival and resilience.
A new generation has arrived in the workplace offering a valuable and fresh financial perspective on the COVID-19 fall out. So, meeting the needs of Gen Z is more important than ever. Attracting and retaining young finance professionals is key to future survival, whilst embracing technological innovation. However, today 59% of employers lack workers with soft digital skills, like critical thinking, and 51% are experiencing a shortage of hard digital skills, such as coding and data analysis.
Fresh out of education and filled with enthusiasm, Gen Zers have much to offer businesses as they are digitally native by nature and comfortable getting to grips with with the latest data and analytic solutions. However, companies face stiff competition in getting their attention and delivering on their expectations. To fully understand what attracts the brightest young graduates’ firms must shake up their finance function and workplace culture.
A new approach to creating a workplace environment
Despite a large pool of people looking for work as a result of the pandemic, attracting young people is still a challenge. In the accountancy sector, 84% of professionals believe younger generations have progressive expectations, attitudes and talents that will need to be nurtured in order to attract them. Showing those attitudes reflected throughout the business is a crucial aspect of this.
The prospect of a flexiable career, driven by the support of an organization, is very attractive to Gen Zers. Even though times are tough, it’s important for businesses to show young employees that they are invested in their future to make them feel valued and secure. Tailored training programmes for financial professionals should be considered with the aim of developing essential skills needed to push young people forward in their careers. This initiative should be encouraged by a firm’s CFO, whilst being supported largely by the finance team.
Nevertheless, the working world as we know it has been completely changed and young people are entering businesses at a time when “what’s next?’ can often be a question. Even as COVID measures wax and wane, ‘Generation Remote’ will expect a more flexible working environment, with the ability to work changeable hours and from the safety and convenience of their homes. A working environment that puts people first, by promoting a work-life balance and an emphasis on mental health wellbeing, will be expected.
Despite the pandemic, not all businesses have culturally made the move to a more flexible working model. While it may be difficult, finance leaders should reconsider whether the traditional nine-to-five, desk-bound culture is still serving the business successfully. If not, they may be depriving themselves of valuable talent and could look to adopt a more flexible approach. Flexible and supportive working conditions can no longer be offered as an extra ‘work perk’ for employees. Instead, they are expected and are now essential to retaining talent.
Promoting a tech-savvy workplace
However, Gen Zers need more. A supported and flexible working environment isn’t the only building block to attract and retain top talent. Alongside flexible work policies, innovative technology that supports and empowers employees in their roles is equally critical. The widespread use of old, disparate systems not only stifles agility and innovation – it can scare away young talent who’s expectations are akin to that of consumer lives
Furthermore, as many businesses continue to use outdated technology, they cannot reap the benefits that modern data and analytical insight has to offer. Such outdated systems can be daunting and counterproductive for new-starters, who have developed their skills on new consumer-grade platforms and technologies in their personal lives. Training new workers how to use old systems is costly and hardly an attractive prospect for someone just starting their career.
Fortunately, by creating an integrated, efficient and modern tech-savvy environment, businesses offer young workers a welcoming hand and the tools they need to perform at their best. Cloud-based technology provides access to the latest tools, meaning young workers don’t need to struggle with outdated technology. Instead, they can access systems whenever and wherever they want, something vital for today’s remote work world.
Because of this, adopting technology has a strong effect on innovation. New technology attracts new talent, which in turn brings more fresh ideas, perspectives and capabilities to a business. This is especially true of artificial intelligence where we see 40% of Gen Zers using AI in their working lives compared to just28% of Baby Boomers.
Fueled with technological knowledge, employing a younger finance team can be of great value to a business. These individuals can take advantage of the latest tools and technologies that are so appealing to their generation. With this comes the rise of the ‘intelligent organisation’ – one able to leverage integrated technology to understand and make optimal decisions based on data insights. Real-time insight into the situation of the organisation offers company-wide visibility of the bigger picture and creates opportunities for increased agility. This is highly valuable at a time when our environment is evolving quickly.
Understanding what matters to Gen Z is critical to attracting young finance professionals both now and in the future. This generation is a crucial asset when it comes to technological innovation, whether that’s employing new cloud-based software, automating admin tasks or reaching new business opportunities. Employing Gen Z talent enables businesses to keep up with technological advances, meet ever changing client needs and equip the overall workforce with the tools they need for efficient and purposeful working.
HOW CAN BUSINESSES BREAK INTO MARKETS BEYOND THE EU?
Atul Bhakta, CEO of One World Express
The build-up and aftermath of Brexit impeded the long-term plans of businesses both in the UK, and of EU businesses trading to the UK. The heavily protracted negotiations induced a culture of uncertainty in business, with few able to adequately prepare for all the future trading landscapes left on the table.
Once a deal was struck, with just one week before the Brexit deadline of 31st January 2020, organisations were then left scrambling to improvise new processes to translate their operations to the new systems and avoid spiralling costs, shipping delays, and various other disruptions.
As a result, businesses both here and in the EU saw a substantial trading slowdown in the months following Brexit, with new rules on customs checks, lengthy tailbacks at ports, denser and knottier administrative rules and new limitations on visas for the workforce all contributing to a tense trading relationship.
Indeed, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed a precipitous drop in trading immediately after Brexit, with UK exports to the continent plummeting 40.7% year on year to January 2021.
This is a striking decline, given the historically close economic and cultural ties between the UK and EU. Inevitably, this caused a lull in long-term confidence amongst UK businesses. Indeed, a previous study conducted by One World Express in January 2021 found that 25% of UK companies doubted that they would last until the end of the year.
Of course, Brexit is even now not a finalised issue – it will shift and evolve in significance and relevance as time passes and economies reshape; but the loss of confidence for businesses in UK-EU trade has been a tangible impact within the first year.
Accordingly, some organisations have begun exploring the scope for expansion into territories beyond the EU.
New opportunities attracting attention
As noted, the UK’s trade with the EU saw a sharp decline immediately following the formalisation of Brexit. While this decline has recovered steadily over the year, there has been an equally impressive parallel forming, as non-EU trade has remained mostly stable throughout.
Of course, UK imports from global markets have always remained at high levels, and when considering business growth and the economy as a whole, outward trade holds a heightened significance. On the export side of matters, ONS figures suggest that UK exports outside of the EU increased by 1.7% year-on-year to January 2021.
While a very modest increase, such figures indicate that international expansion could carry promise for business leaders, and hint at potentially lucrative opportunities within non-EU markets.
As 2021 progressed, it became evident that UK businesses’ appetite to explore opportunities further afield had grown. To take in the views of decision-makers, One World Express commissioned an independent survey of 752 business leaders in the UK, finding that 61% were either already operating abroad in some capacity, or had plans to expand into new territories over the coming year. More than six in ten (62%) reported Brexit as a key motivator in their decision to diversify beyond trading with the EU.
There was also some evidence that these plans were not solely in pursuit of the gains of modest uplifts in trade with non-EU countries. The survey found that more than two thirds (68%) of exporters had observed increased overseas demand for their products in the previous year, while 63% felt that markets outside of the EU were more willing to pay a premium for British-made goods.
The role of ‘Brand UK’ is significant here. For many years, products made in the UK have benefitted from the country’s reputation for high quality production and excellent service, which has driven a consistent rise in demand as emerging markets with high levels of consumer spending, such as India or China. In turn, UK businesses have found it easier than most to gain a foothold in new markets. Indeed, the majority (67%) of exporters reported their British brand had enhanced the reputation and demand for their goods and services when targeting international consumers.
Despite this innate – and highly welcome – competitive advantage, there are a number of factors UK firms must consider before diving in to unfamiliar markets.
The importance of planning
Many would be surprised to learn that a large number of businesses look to enter new markets with minimal planning in place. Notably, almost one third (32%) of exporters do not have such a strategy in place, which is likely to hamper the growth of British businesses abroad if left unaddressed. A crucial starting point for any international expansion plan lies in the research and relationship building.
Ascertaining the consumer preferences and audience behaviours in target markets, and forging appropriate connections with distributors, vendors, and ecommerce platforms, will allow firms to access consumers more easily, and in greater numbers, than marketing from scratch in unfamiliar territory. Encouragingly, according to One World Express’ research, 72% of exporters already include this in their plans.
UK organisations must also recognise the value of a robust and flexible logistics strategy. When products are being shipped to the furthest corners of the globe, there is a degree of risk if the finer details are not handled correctly. Delayed, missing, or damaged deliveries will erode consumer trust, and diminish the prospects of companies before they get off the ground. Accordingly, companies should ensure they have a transparent tracking system and efficient and user-friendly returns process. Investment in adopting the right software solutions to manage the shipping will create a streamlined and cost-effective process, affording firms the best chance at success.
Naturally, the EU will always be one of the UK’s most critical trading partners. However, as the dust settles on Brexit and the pandemic recedes into memory, the next few years present an interesting crossroads for the international prospects of UK businesses. With a tranche of new free trade agreements arriving in the near future, and international demand for Brand UK going from strength to strength, the scope for expansion into unfamiliar markets is growing apace. Provided business leaders get the finer details right, the rewards for bold investment in expansion could help charge a boom in the UK exports sector.
WHAT FIREFIGHTERS CAN TEACH FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS ABOUT DATA COLLABORATION
Gabriele Albarosa, CEO, LiveDataset
Digital transformation can be difficult for any business, but in the financial services industry it can prove especially tricky. Replacing manual data processes is a big step, but in an industry so heavily regulated and audited, cohesive and comprehensive transformation is crucial.
Today, the challenge is no longer in convincing financial services organisations that they need to transform their processes and tasks; the vast majority understand the benefits of automating and streamlining their financial processes.
Instead, it’s about instilling the message that there is more to transformation than ripping out and replacing outdated technologies. A good financial transformation strategy must also take into account how these technologies are implemented, ensuring they integrate into an organisation’s culture, connect data and guarantee compliance, without completely demolishing the custom processes that employees want to use.
Little Fires Everywhere
While business transformation offers long-term benefits throughout an organisation, individual departments are often loathe to abandon the bespoke processes that facilitate day-to-day operations. Many organisations feel under pressure to transform quickly, and subsequently focus on how to get their employees onboard with a new solution rather than integrating every minute component of the old.
As a result, digital transformation efforts tend to bypass these disparate components, leaving small, potentially non-compliant hazards smouldering like little fires across an organisation.
These “little fires” don’t immediately represent a threat to business operations, but the lack of quality control, integration, and visibility of these manual workflows, means they’re inherently high-risk.
When a pressure situation hits the organisation, like a surprise audit, legal proceedings or new reporting demands, these processes become a highly combustible cocktail for non-compliance, lost data and human error.
Tackling the flames
Organisations need to tackle these little fires early on, rather than sitting back and hoping they will burn themselves out. But how can they be dealt with?
If you think of these small, unregistered processes as little fires, then your team needs to think like a firefighter — being fast, agile, flexible, and well-prepared for potential risks.
So how can CFOs, CXOs and Chief Transformation Officers bring this strategy to life?
- Be fast — don’t wait around for largescale digital transformation
There’s a common misconception amongst financial service organisations that before facing the issue, you need to wait until an overhaul of department processes or an in-depth audit. This could leave you waiting years for a solution that needs to be implemented in weeks, putting your department at risk.
Organisations must act with speed and address the issue head-on as soon as it has been spotted. Businesses don’t need to wait for largescale transformation; temporary or even permanent solutions do exist and can be tailored and installed immediately — targeting the issue before it becomes a bigger problem.
In my own business, we recommend a three 3-step approach to tackle these issue quickly: First, listening to an organisation’s business challenges to locate the most pressing fire. Second, build a working example for business leaders and decision-makers to evaluate. Finally, follow up with real-time collaboration to ensure that wider company processes don’t cause similar problems in future.
- Be agile and flexible — look for customisable solution that evolve over time
Organisations are ever-evolving, and so are the problems they face. However, some financial services organisations see the answer to these problems as a one-time, short-term fix. Working to put out these fires at speed shouldn’t stop organisations from considering how to prevent and deal with future ones. That’s why businesses run fire drills!
Financial organisations need forward-thinking systems that will work now and in the future, whenever they face their next data collaboration crisis. The ability to act in an agile way is fundamental to this sort of futureproofing.
Agile, flexible solutions will enable organisations to fight multiple fires, with the same systems, as time goes on. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work here. Putting one fire to rest won’t prevent more from happening, and not all fires are the same (just try throwing water on a chip pan fire!) Every organisation has distinct needs and that means customised solutions.
- Be prepared — implement solutions before disruption occurs
To understand their weakness and subsequently prevent fires, financial service organisations must encourage employees across departments to hold an ethos of self-improvement. Preparation is key to success.
That means establishing a comprehensive understanding of the day-to-day routines of employees at all levels. It’s in habit and routine (one-off processes, keeping data on email, spreadsheets as systems, etc) where financial fire hazards thrive.
If new, more compliant technologies are to be installed, they cannot dismantle these existing routines. Flexible data collaboration solutions are needed that perfectly match the existing way of working. Achieving the goals of transformation without any of the disruption.
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