The key return-to-work challenges facing finance leaders

Giving staff clear instructions and reasons for returning to work in offices means that leaders must walk a fine line.
The key return-to-work challenges facing finance leaders

As coronavirus restrictions start easing around the world, finance leaders face a wide range of challenges.

Staff may need careful management as they return to work after furloughs, working from home, and numerous business and personal disruptions. The timing and nature of such returns will be uncertain and may even reverse at times.

As these challenges unfold, finance leaders are prioritising the health and wellbeing of staff while also trying to maintain productivity. This balance requires a highly agile approach.

Returning to the workplace

If you need staff to return to the workplace, give them a clear reason why, which may require you to review policies, according to a guide from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Many staff will be anxious about returning to workplaces, or they will be facing difficult personal circumstances and need time to readjust.

London-based David Biggs, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO at Farewill, a wills, cremation, and probate company, said leaders must listen to returning staff about their experiences while working from home and collaborate to find the best working solutions for everyone. For example, you may find that staff appreciate the flexibility of a partial work-from-home (WFH) policy.

“The worst thing leaders can do is force workers back into the office without a good rationale, especially with staff worried about health conditions,” Biggs said. “If staff need to be in the workplace, emphasise why it is so important, such as the importance of meeting clients and building rapport with teammates.”

Leaders must consider what criteria they will use to recall staff. Will it be simply business need? Will they consider individual personal circumstances? Remember not to use discriminatory criteria, the CIPD said. For example, decisions about flexible, home, or part-time working could affect women disproportionately.

Sensitive and open reorientation processes, including one-to-one meetings, will be vital, as will a focus on ongoing support. Stephen Sutcliffe, the director of finance and accounting for the Shared Business Services unit of the UK’s National Health Service, said the new environment will require different management skills because it is more difficult to know from miles away how someone is feeling.

“The crisis has led to us talking more about personal issues, even among senior management,” he said. “You can do that virtually. But you have to do it differently and be more imaginative.

“You will also have to trust people more, which is a good thing. But how do you build that trust? Our culture is all about teamwork and camaraderie, so we must keep building those interactions to maintain it. I don’t have all the answers yet. But the key is seeking regular feedback and using it.”

Continuing WFH arrangements

Some companies want working from home to continue in whole or in part. For example, UK-based National Nuclear Laboratories (NNL) concluded that working from home is greener, more sustainable, and more productive.

NNL CFO Matt Miller, FCMA, CGMA, said: “Productivity has improved since staff started WFH. For me, the lack of a commute has been helpful as I feel fresher. Also, in a time of isolation, people have found keeping busy helps their mental wellbeing.”

Miller said the company is looking for ways to maintain the productivity level and keep staff motivated. “One factor will be improving social interactions, to help balance isolation and social interaction,” he said. “We also need measures to ensure the wellbeing of remote workers.”

NNL is also considering how to offer more flexible working generally and entice and motivate staff to be more flexible — for example, in helping those with children at home to stagger starts and finishes effectively.

“This flexibility and support will be front and centre of our employee value proposition and make us especially attractive to future ‘early career’ individuals,” Miller said.

Companies are finding many other ways to help remote workers, including WFH resource hubs; WFH coaching and training; more frequent manager check-ins; mentoring; health and wellbeing sessions; and investments in direct messaging and e-learning.

Supporting furloughed staff

Managing furloughed staff back to work could be a particular challenge for finance leaders, who should develop a transition plan in advance of those employees’ return, said UK-based Will Barkway, people and culture specialist and a director at PwC.

“Ahead of returning furloughed staff, leaders should develop transition plans to make sure the staff can catch up on what they have missed,” he said. “They should also communicate a clear remit that is in line with original job roles.”

One-on-one time with leaders and managers will also help reset their engagement and focus them on refreshed business priorities, Barkway said.

Biggs said honesty and transparency will be key for leaders that need to manage furloughed staff back to work.

“Explain that being furloughed has no relation to their future potential in the business,” he said. “That means making employees feel safe and valued and inspiring them to grasp the challenge of growing business again.”

Financial and mental wellbeing

One big issue for organisations will be financial hardship amongst employees, particularly those who have been furloughed on reduced pay.

“Financial worries have a huge impact on employees,” said Heidi Allan, a senior financial wellbeing consultant at LCP in London. “But managers often only become aware at ‘crisis point’ when that employee can no longer cope.”

Companies can help by creating a culture that supports those in financial difficulty. Finance functions can help because they have a wealth of information on earnings, savings, protection, and wider benefits.

“Combining that with different data points — such as those in the HR system — may help you spot trends or issues, such as a spike in sickness as payday approaches,” Allan said.

Early intervention could be the turning point for that employee and a great way to build engagement and loyalty with staff as they return to work, she said.

Companies should focus on supporting mental health as staff return because anxiety is still high amongst workers. Sutcliffe said that his unit calls all employees regularly to check that their technology is working and to see how they and their families are doing.

The teams, Sutcliffe said, have also been proactive, setting up calls over Zoom and Microsoft Teams and engaging through WhatsApp groups, virtual chat rooms, quizzes, and film clubs.

Maintaining productivity

Barkway said before staff return to work, finance leaders should clarify their new business performance priorities and how they will help the organisation deal with the effects of the pandemic.

“Focus on different ways of delivering a strong restart, for example, looking at a green recovery plan,” he said. “Reset individual goals to align with these new priorities and think about what skills you need in the short-, medium-, and long-term post-COVID world.”

One potential productivity obstacle is availability of technology in workers’ homes. Sutcliffe’s team, for example, has 1,500 staff — about 1,000 in the UK and 500 in India. In India in particular, broadband internet is less available.

“We’ve had to retain some of the work and increase some staff in the UK due to broadband issues and some data security issues,” he said.

Sutcliffe said his unit would continue working from home until early October and then consider a switch to working half the week at home and half in an office. He said staff were so far enjoying the flexibility and that overall levels of missed time because of illness have been reduced.

“However, staff also need to enjoy the social and face-to-face aspects of work, which is why we [will expect them] to split their time between home and office.”

Stress may reduce some people’s productivity, but others will see it as an opportunity to realise inner strength and resilience. Leaders could take the opportunity to give employees more trust and control, and learn more about their values, strengths, and motivations. However, everyday productivity challenges, such as untaken leave, could cause major disruptions as restrictions start to lift.

The CIPD said companies should encourage staff to take due holidays, even while working from home and even if it means relaxing usual rules around the maximum numbers allowed off at once.

Miller said his company is still fine-tuning its approach. “People have only booked about 25% of the holiday we would usually see,” he said. “So, there could be a wave of staff holidays when we most need to gear up and deliver to our customers. To solve this, we are looking at enforcing a shutdown of all offices and laboratories at Christmas — say, for two weeks rather than one — so people will be off at a less important time rather than when we need them most. We have been talking to our trade union about how they can support that.”

To learn about tools businesses can use as they reopen, go to CIMA’s “Business Resilience: Tools for Preparing to Reopen Businesses”. For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how management accountants can handle challenges related to the pandemic, visit FM’s coronavirus resources page.

Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at