With many organisations settling into fully remote or hybrid modes of working, finance leaders may have to reconsider not only their leadership approach — but also the tools and methods that underpin team performance.
In the absence of in-person meetings and impromptu chats around the coffee machine, leaders have to strike a balance between flexibility and supportive management, with some industry analysts warning that rigorous monitoring of remote workers’ productivity is “pointless” and can lead to toxic work cultures.
Yet, given that the finance function is inherently outcomes-based in most businesses, many CFOs are finding that leveraging cloud-based technology and software enables them to track business metrics and KPIs with enhanced accuracy, insight, and detail. If positively incorporated, these tools allow them to provide resources and support in a more impactful and personalised way.
For GetSmarter, a South Africa-based global education company that specialises in online short courses for students and professionals, driving both engagement and performance using technology is nothing new. However, since the company switched to remote working in March 2020, it has placed a greater emphasis on ensuring technologies it uses support a people-centric approach, said Mark Midgley, senior vice-president, Finance & Accounting at GetSmarter, which is a part of 2U Inc., a Nasdaq-listed educational technology company.
“We have a very strong emphasis on data and a strong emphasis on people (both our own people and the students taking our courses), and we strive to keep those two things in balance,” Midgley explained. “As a finance team, performance has always been measured in terms of output, but remote working has made us become even more conscious that the tools we are using have to be a reliable and accurate representation of what’s really going on.”
According to Midgley, his team uses the analytics platform Tableau to draw on multiple sources of organisational data, including information from Salesforce, to gain a real-time view of key aspects of the business. These tools were in place before the pandemic, but there is now a heightened focus on the accuracy and frequency of data-sharing between teams.
Using data visualisations from Tableau, Midgley’s team creates a daily finance dashboard that provides live metrics and key indicators that allow them to prioritise tasks accordingly. This daily dashboard captures all the cash inflows across geographies; predicted cash outflows and inflows for the weeks ahead; student registrations for every course; registrations by course by geography for the last 24 hours; and other data.
“An extract of that daily finance dashboard lands in my inbox each morning, so it’s the first thing I look at to gain a view of our cash flow position, as well as to monitor live numbers and metrics such as student registrations that are leading indicators as to how the business is going to be doing in the days and weeks ahead,” Midgley said.
In addition to using these indicators to monitor business performance and provide accurate and digestible feedback to the leadership team, Midgley can also keep track of the finance team’s KPIs, such as how quickly they are resolving customer account queries.
“Some of my team members are very customer-facing, so we use daily reporting metrics from our Salesforce dashboard that allow us to see, for instance, how old or how urgent a customer query is … and in this way, support the team to prioritise these queries.”
Staying fluid to manage volatility
While Midgley and his team at GetSmarter have benefited from surging interest in online education over the past year, their finance peers over at Travelstart, an online travel agency with offices across Africa and the Middle East, have had to contend with ongoing uncertainty as the pandemic has severely disrupted global travel.
“We are placing major emphasis on tracking cash flows at the moment, and it is the management of this cash flow reporting that is most important right now,” said Robbie Taylor, the CFO at Travelstart, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa. The company has largely been working remotely for the past year. “Apart from cash flow, the finance team requirements are very fluid, and we monitor output instead of time, which allows for more flexibility and helps team members to balance their work, family, and home responsibilities”.
According to Taylor, this more outcomes-based approach was in place long before the pandemic hit and is fundamentally supported by cloud-based technology that enables teams across geographies to collaborate on shared platforms.
For instance, the entire Travelstart Group uses Sage Evolution for monthly management accounts and reporting, and Google Sheets to link daily and weekly forecasts, and to forecast cash positions for the different entities within the group. Taylor highlighted the Automatic Currency Conversion functionality in Google Sheets as being particularly valuable, allowing his team to generate forecasts and reports without needing to manually convert currencies according to current rates.
“More recently, cost control has become the most critical function within the business, and we’ve put new measures in place across all of our global entities to more closely track and limit our spend, which has yielded huge benefits.”
To this end, Taylor has implemented the use of Fraxion, a cloud-based procurement software that specialises in spend management and provides enhanced visibility around costs.
Tracking sales targets across continents
At German multinational Siemens Group, which gives its sales and service-oriented teams the option to work from home several days a week, the process of digitising business functions has been underway for many years, and the pandemic simply accelerated many of these processes.
Within the Siemens finance function, for example, global teams use an internally developed dashboard that tracks key metrics such as order levels, revenues, and costs pertaining to specific products, said Ralf Gerharz, CFO, Siemens Southern and Eastern Africa.
In South Africa, his finance team, which is working almost entirely remotely, uses the internal dashboard to monitor Siemens’ network of 70 local partners who sell products on their behalf. The team tracks sales funnels and conversions in order to ensure that partners’ sales targets are met at month end.
“I log on to this dashboard once a week to ensure that we are consistently achieving targets within the [product] business, as this is something that we need to stay on top of,” Gerharz said. “To manage my team on a more day-to-day level, I am spending most of my time on Microsoft Teams using the chat and video functions.”
He added that one area of concern has been around onboarding new employees remotely and establishing a level of trust and confidence with new recruits that would allow them to work efficiently in a remote environment.
“We’ve used Microsoft Teams to onboard and train people and have found that the platform has served this purpose really well,” he said, noting that his finance team has successfully onboarded six new employees in the past 12 months.
Accountability and peer support
With technology now supporting almost every aspect of leadership and management, it is critical that leaders use technology that offers “a human touch”, said Jordaan Burger, financial director of Africa & Middle East at Sage, a multinational software company.
For instance, Sage has established virtual support networks that are designed to alleviate feelings of disconnection and alienation as employees adjust. One example is Family@Sage, a virtual get-together held once a month. In these sessions, industry speakers are invited to discuss topical issues such as wellbeing and coping with anxiety.
“The move to remote working has shifted our priorities in the finance function, and we are thinking creatively about how we can drive accountability, transparency, and productivity,” Burger added.
For the productivity and accountability aspect, his finance team uses Sage software to monitor monthly KPIs such as lifetime value of customer, customer acquisition cost, renewal rate by volume, and renewal rate by value.
Establishing rhythms that drive execution
At GetSmarter, Midgley reiterated the importance of having strong, clearly articulated goals and strategies to support engagement among remote teams, which have to be underpinned by an “accountability framework” that holds both leaders and teams responsible for execution.
“In the current environment, having this kind of precise framework in place has become almost essential: It will make or break a business,” he said. “Accountability requires leaders to have detailed tactics in place, and the ability to monitor progress against well-defined goals at very regular intervals.”
This requires a high degree of transparency across the organisation, as well as a rigorous approach to communications so that everyone is clear on their roles and deliverables on a day-to-day level, Midgley said.
To achieve this clarity at GetSmarter, every team across the business participates in a daily stand up meeting with a manager. During this morning virtual meeting, teams share their wins and losses from the previous day as well as their main priorities for the current day and any challenges. This catch up provides an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving.
“Having the goals and strategies in place is one thing, but implementing the actual processes to execute on these is the silver bullet,” Midgley said. “We’ve found that establishing really strong daily rhythms around data, and around communications, has served us extremely well.”
— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com.