News & Analysis

How F&A Professionals Can Operate Remotely Amid Covid-19

By: Hanadi Khalife

When IMA partnered with the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) to develop an updated version of its internal controls, some of the key components we added included remote working and sustained governance amid crisis. Little did we know at the time that this prospective approach to place serious consideration on crisis management, business continuity, and work for home plans, would be put to the ultimate test with the COVID-19 pandemic. As thousands of companies around the world scramble to find structure and strands of stability in an ocean of chaos, some having to mobilize hundreds of thousands of employees scattered across different continents with limited technological capabilities, working from home has become our new normal. Truth is that you can work from Mars if you had to, but without the right policies and procedures to document how the work is being done, success is virtually – pun intended – impossible.

Obviously, there are different organizations around the world that are testing the limits of working from home, on every work vertical of their businesses. Though their focus is primarily on ensuring continued collaboration and communication amongst employees, they know full well that perhaps one of the greatest challenges they face is making sure they do not expose their organizations to potential cyber-attacks from criminals.

Surely, the more automation the better, however, servicing customers from remote locations poses the question: is the access to their company’s ERP and CRM platforms secure? There is no one single answer and whilst some organizations are struggling, some are being innovative with online collaborative tools taking off like never before.

But the mammoth task at hand is far greater than just working out how companies are going about implementing remote working from home. Within every company, there are multiple divisions, countless functions and a plethora of employee responsibilities that need to be aligned to the overall business goals and targets. If you look at the sheer diversity of organisations out there, operating across various industries and sectors, these functions and work divisions will differ greatly.  Each organisation will have certain “specific-to-its-domain” functions such as R&D in a pharma company, for example, and more generic functions like sales, operations, human resources, marketing, and finance.

But a pandemic means disruption at this end of the value chain as well. How are they adapting to what may well emerge as the new-normal? And what can organisations do to make the transition to remote working easier?

Well for starters, they need to consider this abnormal state as the new normal, thus affirming yet again, that adaptability and agility will forever remain their core skill for success.

The F&A functions are arguably more deeply interconnected with every other department than any function in the enterprise value chain. Therefore, across most enterprises, irrespective of sector or industry, you will see finance teams engaged in what can only be described as an interdisciplinary medium which connects all other functions and departments together in order to generate meaning and influence positive outcomes for the entire organization. This interdisciplinary approach is crucial to organizational success and value creation as it includes having a handle on operations, strategy, group management, sales and more. Which is why working remotely for finance teams, can also be even more challenging.

As with any function, some activities and tasks can be easier or more challenging than others, depending on how routine, repetitive, exclusive, or complex, they are. Given that F&A teams handle extremely sensitive tasks, ensuring that remote work is successful must be the first order of business. The mission is heavily reliant on new technologies which facilitate effortless collaboration between what could be globally dispersed F&A teams, while also enabling a high degree of operational security to mitigate the threat that comes from working on private and unsecure broadband networks. At such a time, CFOs should take responsibility for all risk management and controls including engagement with vendors and relevant third parties. However, what may prove to be somewhat of a challenge is the ability of senior financial planners and analysts to draw out inferences from machine learning and AI that are not as embedded in their domestic IT processes, tools, and technologies.

When it comes to working remotely, more specifically from home, F&A professionals need access to systems and tools that allow for better processing of transactions, electronic invoicing, forecasting and budgeting tools. The reality is that not every home is outfitted or “VPN-ed” properly to provide secure network access. Given that employees are mostly using company devices means potentially exposed access to trade secrets and data, which exposes vulnerability. As noted, there are frameworks such as COSOand COBIT that enable organizations to develop, implement, monitor and improve IT governance, and management best practices as a means of anticipating organizational needs while building the capacity to operate amid such crisis scenarios. However, when new technologies, processes, and procedures are being adopted on the fly, it can be extremely difficult.

In addition to bringing in systems and processes that enable better remote working and collaboration between F&A professionals, among themselves and with their other colleagues and partners, it is very important that at the interface and internal controls level, an organization’s collaborative tools are made more robust, resilient, and secure.

In an ecosystem that may continue to encourage and push for some element of remote working, F&A professionals, like their other colleagues, will need to be more adaptive, collaborative, and creative in their approach to meet organizational goals.

Whether the focus is on e-business, electronic vouchering for accounts payable, vendors and suppliers, or digital tax payment, F&A leaders need not only be concerned with business continuity and uninterrupted service to respective clients. All those are fine, to the extent that they are available; however, in this new world -the new normal brought upon us by COVID-19 – we must all become learning individuals and organizations who are not only learning about this pandemic and flattening curves, but also about ourselves in the process.

The learning is focused on so many fronts, including human and technology. Not seeing our colleagues every day, having children home-schooled over not so perfect platforms, fearing continued employment and the devastating economic impacts of the coronavirus, should not be taken lightly. Not just from a finance or business standpoint, but also from a human standpoint whereby every human takes something away from this tragic global experience. Ultimately, we must all learn if we are going to come out of this pandemic successful.

(The author is Senior Director, MEA & India Operations, The Institute of Management Accountants and the views expressed in this article are her own)

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