This article is a part of our ongoing series “Soft Skills Monday” offering tools and techniques for improving the in-demand soft skills that today’s finance professionals need to succeed.
When the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020, resourceful organisations reacted quickly, finding short-term solutions to adjust to the crisis. But now, many of those initial strategies may no longer be relevant. To find longer-lasting resilience, organisations must undergo a more thorough, sustainable transition.
That is important because any number of disasters could be just around the corner. The next shock could come in the form of more mutations of the virus, climate change, a natural catastrophe, or an unexpected development on the political stage.
“The future is going to continue to be uncertain,” said Shivani Maitra, a London-based human capital consulting partner at Deloitte. “For years, we’ve been talking about uncertainty due to social, political, and economic reasons; who knew there would be a health reason? But it happened.”
According to a Gartner survey, only 19% of leaders currently believe their workforces can effectively change direction based on changing needs or priorities.
So how can finance leaders update work processes and systems to better adapt to disruption? By redesigning work to enable employees to be more responsive and leveraging new hybrid work structures.
Design around key friction points
For Jessica Knight, a Virginia-based vice-president and team leader for Gartner’s change management and organisational design research team, an important part of designing a resilient workplace involves rethinking how to “coordinate resources, promote desired behaviours, and achieve strategic objectives”. In other words: redesigning how (and where) work gets done.
“In our work with clients, we've seen many organisations, pre-pandemic especially, really focused on efficiency as a means for driving growth — so a lot of standardisation even to the point of rigidity,” she said. “That worked well pre-pandemic, but we’re seeing now in this time of unprecedented change that this singular focus on efficiency to the point of rigidity can actually be a source of fragility and vulnerability.”
Knight highlighted four primary friction points that make it difficult for employees to perform in responsive ways, thereby leading to fragility.
These friction points are:
- Misalignment between organisation designs and the way work actually gets done;
- Overwhelmed teams that are faced with too many tasks and inputs;
- Resources that are trapped by outdated budgets or disconnected decision-makers; and
- Overly rigid, standardised processes that hold employees back from adapting their approach when needed.
Here are two ways CFOs can identify these issues and solve them.
Change as you go
To correct misalignment, stop implementing episodic overhauls of workflows and introduce ongoing adjustments instead. Embed work design assessments into your broader talent management activities. This can boost workforce responsiveness by 11%, according to Gartner.
If your teams are overwhelmed, you can shift from designing your work structures for maximum capacity to clarifying boundaries and prioritising the highest-impact tasks. Ensure employees invest their efforts proportionately to the impact that task will have.
When it comes to resources, financial leaders should focus on mobility, rather than stability. Move decision-making closer to the end user. Maybe tweak your operating budget throughout the year after it's set, or regularly reassess whether you have the right people on each team. You can also disaggregate large functions into autonomous "micro" enterprises.
And as for redesigning your processes to be more flexible, Knight said it’s important for management teams to move from automatically saying “no” to new ideas to instead saying “go”. See where you can move the bar on what requires an approval.
Otherwise, if employees find that approval processes take too long, they may end up skirting them to respond to immediate needs. This can be risky and ultimately costly. Employees might end up skipping critical steps, mismanaging resources, or causing a loss of institutional knowledge.
“Hacking” a work process in this way does not necessarily save time or resources. Instead, managers must get to the roots of the problems employees face and sustainably adapt processes to enhance flexibility.
Build in flexibility
For Deloitte’s Maitra, allowing for greater flexibility is key to creating resilient processes. One way to do this is to design more hybrid work environments, in which, at any given point in time, some people will be in the physical space and others will not.
"Increasingly, we are moving to a place where work will be nonlinear rather than linear,” she said. “Across industries, today everybody sort of starts work at 8.30 and works until 6.30, depending on your organisation culture, but everybody is in at the same time and online at the same time.”
But since the pandemic forced many workforces to go remote, she said, many employees have begun to seek not just flexibility in terms of where they work but also when they start and finish their days. This is called asynchronous work, and it can liberate organisations from old, rigid work processes.
Gartner also recommends introducing a hybrid approach to work systems. It means teams can decide where and when work gets done based on "what makes the most sense to drive productivity and employee engagement".
According to a report by Gartner’s Brian Kropp, building a hybrid workforce can reduce operating costs and open up larger and lower-cost talent pools. It can also reduce facility and compensation costs. For employees, hybrid work models expand their career options, improve their wellbeing, and boost engagement.
Rather than solely tracking how many hours employees work, managers should be asking, “Where and when can work get done to drive the highest levels of productivity and engagement?”
CFOs should also allow old organisational hierarchies to give way to more team-based ways of working, according to Maitra — especially cross-functional teams, where, for example, someone in HR could be working with people from finance, research and development, and marketing, boosting cross-organisational expertise.
"It changes how you look at productivity,” she said. “The minute you switch to a more team-based environment, with greater autonomy and more decision-making at lower levels, your productivity is now being driven by outcomes, not outputs — the focus on tasks is overtaken by a focus on creating value."
These adjustments will require investment. But, according to Maitra, the cost/benefit analysis should be simple for financial managers.
“Yes, there’s a short-term/long-term balance that organisations need to do, but keep in mind the much more sustainable longer impact it’s going to have,” Maitra said. “The future is always going to be uncertain, and therefore you have to be prepared for it.”
— Portia Crowe is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.