Time has been even stranger than usual in 2020. Days seem to hang, but weeks can vanish in a heartbeat – particularly in the altered rhythms of our working lives. CIMA chief executive – management accounting Andrew Harding writes


 

The especially high-stakes unpredictability of this year – the pandemic, Brexit, the US presidential election – has scrambled any notion of a normal week.

Although for many, this year has forced them to put their lives on pause, finance professionals have been working around the clock and at speed to support those keeping the economy moving. Many have been called on to provide the data and insights driving business-critical decisions that have had to be taken in shrunken timescales.

All this activity among so much stagnation is very odd, but it has produced some incredible changes. Here are the ones that I think are worth highlighting:

 

Revamped business models

In 2020, business models have been interrogated and, where necessary, revamped. See Airbnb, supermarkets ramping up their home delivery operations, eat-in restaurants pivoting to takeaway services, and so on.

This does not necessarily require total innovation. Creating a viable business means being practical but also imaginative and it has been encouraging to see this. On the other hand, there have been high-profile examples of businesses which have failed to move with technology and the pandemic has accelerated their decline. A notable example is the Arcadia group; what was once the undisputed ruler of the UK high-street fashion scene collapsed just before Christmas.

 

Know your skills base

What the switch in business models has shown is the importance of not just talking about business agility but knowing how to put it into practice. For this to work, it is vital that business leaders know which skills are available but ,more importantly, lacking in the organisation. If it is not possible to hire from outside, train existing staff to fill the gap. Our own Mind the Skills Gap research has regularly found that this is not happening.

I am more optimistic that businesses will take action to put it right, however, now they can see what happens when the unexpected arrives unexpectedly. As a bonus, it is a way of developing employees when it might not be possible to offer promotions or financial rewards. Staff should also commit to keeping their skills up to date, if you lose your job, having in-demand and current skills are the keys to employability.

 

Business partnering

I mentioned this earlier and it bears repeating: finance professionals have been more than proving their worth this year, being drawn into the centre of decision-making as leadership teams pull in all available resources to keep organisations viable.

Other functions are also increasingly turning to finance for support with critical decision making, particularly when it comes to protecting the value of the organisation. In recent months, the finance function has truly become the ‘value partner’ to the business. Finance professionals add the most value when they can share their expertise and skills across the business. It is a virtuous circle too, as finance professionals move from team to team, they gather increasing amounts of information which enriches the leadership team’s decision-making capability immensely. In short better decisions are made.

2020 has been a challenging year forcing most people and organisations to rapidly adapt to a new reality. While some changes have been temporary, some are here to stay.

 

Chance for a business reset

Many organisations have already used this period to reimagine their business. In 2021, others will follow. That might mean developing new products or services, or parting ways with customers that are no longer profitable. It may also mean revising processes to make the organisation more effective and efficient.

Finance professionals are getting actively involved in these business resets, which should further enhance their standing as strategic partners.

 

Experience gained

Finance professionals at every level are gaining a huge amount of experience as a result of the pandemic and this is set to continue.

As well as getting to use new digital tools, they are becoming skilled at scenario planning and helping to shape strategy. Junior staff are using digital channels to connect with senior leaders across the business and enhance their professional development.

 

New perspective on work-life balance

Organisations are rethinking the concept of the workplace as a result of the pandemic. Going forward, it is increasingly likely that finance functions will mostly work from home but use the office as a space to collaborate. In theory, this should enable finance professionals to get a better work-life balance – provided the boundaries between home and work do not become blurred.

Finally, as 2020 taught us, let us not expect things to always go according to plan. But if we can be agile and stay focused on the present and the future, we are better prepared to manage both.