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The future of the workplace for finance teams

AICPA & CIMA’s Associate Technical Director Peter Spence highlights some of the challenges finance leaders should be thinking about as the nature of the workplace evolves.

A great deal has been written about whether remote or hybrid working is here to stay. In my view, this is a small part of a much bigger story about how the workplace is changing.

New research conducted by AICPA & CIMA, where I work, looks at these trends in-depth and considers what they mean for finance leaders. Let’s take a look at how some of these changes inter-relate.

Shared services

The shared service centre model was developed for good reasons. By centralising routine tasks, organisations can achieve great economies of scale or outsource the function if appropriate. The centres focus on the efficient use of resources and workflows.

Today our profession is being reshaped by digitisation, sustainability and the move towards being value partners as well as trusted advisors. We asked participants in our research if these trends, and other changes affecting accounting and finance, were affecting the shared services model. The most common answer was that the model was not obsolete, but it needs to transform.

The finance team of the future will need to have a deep understanding of the business, the environment it operates in and the requirements of its stakeholders. This can be difficult to achieve with the way a shared services model operates now. As more routine tasks are digitalised, a greater premium will be placed on the interpretation of financial data, particularly by management accountants. As a result, the shared services model will become dependent on competencies rather than tasks, and so it is likely to evolve to incorporate finance business partnering.

The future of business partnering

The research indicates that finance business partnering is the way high performing organisations are operationalising the need to work across organisation as a value driver rather than a self-contained cost centre.

Business partnering requires a specific set of skills, and thought needs to be given about how to do it effectively. Our professionals have earned their place at the decision-making table through the power of their analysis and commercial acumen. To perform this role effectively they need to be confident dealing with both financial and non-financial data, and comfortable acting as ‘co-pilots’ to other departments. Doing this effectively rests on a bed of trust and mutual respect between colleagues.

The classic challenge faced by finance teams developing the skills and competencies needed for becoming effective business partners is the limited time and resources available to analyse large amounts of data effectively enough to build the required levels of trust with a wide range of decision makers.

Making hybrid working work

The need to build trust, both with each other and with partners outside of the finance team, and to positively develop the culture in the organisation, raises the issue of hybrid working. A striking feature of our research was that although there was general agreement that hybrid is the model of the future, the appropriate mix of remote/in person work varies according to circumstance and is not yet settled. The debate has moved on from whether hybrid is a good idea to how to make it work most effectively.

The fact that hybrid, rather than fully remote, has become the model of choice for finance professionals indicates that there are clear and recognised benefits to collaborating in an office environment, as well as to working remotely. Our research participants argued that in person exchanges enable better communication, which in turn facilitates idea generation, sharing and co-learning.

As I discussed earlier, building trust and rapport with colleagues from across the organisation is a vital part of becoming an effective business partner, so it follows that some degree of in-person interaction will be required.

That said, it would be foolish for finance leaders to overlook the very real benefits a degree of remote working brings. For example, a hybrid model widens the potential talent pool for an organisation by reducing commuting costs for team members and therefore opening recruitment opportunities from a wider geographical area.

My argument is that rather than get stuck in the weeds about how many office days are required, think in terms of how you can best enable effective business partnering while creating the best environment for recruiting and retaining talent. That way you will be taking a strategic approach which aligns with the needs of your organisation, and that is the key to building a team which performs well in the changing workplace.

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