Want your finance team to drive innovation? Here’s how to treat them right

Finance is the unsung hero of the business world. For those who work in other departments, it can seem like oxygen – essential to life, but not exactly noticeable. The wheels keep turning, the invoices keep getting paid, and the annual audit just sort of… happens. When everything’s working, why stop to wonder about the processes and people who make it happen?

But finance professionals know the reality is often quite different. Like the proverbial swan, all calmness above the surface and mad paddling beneath, many finance teams are delivering results – but at a significant cost. 

The state of play today

FloQast’s recent research, ‘The State of Play in UK Accounting’, found that increasing requirements around tightening deadlines (36%), existing applications and technology (35%), and complex compliance and regulatory tasks (32%) are acting as major obstacles to operational excellence. And as a result, nine in ten (87%) say their team has lost staff due to burnout. 

It shouldn’t be this way. Too often, finance teams are battling with their tools, processes, and deadlines, rushing to get manual tasks completed for the umpteenth time, and struggling with ongoing talent shortages. Small wonder that the regular crunch of month-end is causing people to leave their jobs – and even the profession: of those accountants who’d seen colleagues leave due to burnout, nearly half (46%) cited the stress of month-end close as the specific cause of their departure.

The root of these challenges is often a fundamental misunderstanding of the role finance teams can play in their organisations. Rather than just acting as glorified calculators, totting up the figures and popping out spreadsheets for the monthly budget meeting, finance teams can provide true innovation and strategic value to their organisations. A clear-eyed view of the numbers and, crucially, a deep understanding of what they mean can make the difference between a successful strategy and a costly flop.

Businesses need to look at their finance teams as one of the main drivers of innovation, not just housekeepers and bean-counters for the departments doing the real strategic work. Here are three key areas to consider to make that a reality.

Lean on technology to free employees from grunt work

The fact that we can even have this conversation about finance playing an innovative, strategic role comes down to one thing: digital technology. The essential work of keeping track of income and outgoings against budgets can now in large part be handled by automated systems paired with well-trained staff. No software can operate independently of the finance team, but a good, ergonomic system can lift the burden of repetitive grunt work off their shoulders.

For example, when it comes time to reconcile the accounts, imagine if rather than having to manually sift through mountains of receipts and transactions, taking up hours or even days of valuable time, the finance department could simply set their automated system off on the job and then deal with any issues it flags up. With that kind of tech-enabled process, accuracy and visibility are maintained (no worrying about what the auditor will dig up in the algorithm’s numbers) but the heavy lifting becomes a lot less heavy.

It’s clear from our research that improved technology is high on the wish list for many finance professionals. For example, accountants who are mostly working from home are the most stressed (75%) during month-end, suggesting some teams are still running antiquated systems that get in the way of operational excellence and, simply put, driving staff to distraction.

Overall, if done properly, automating regular workflows and making manual check-ins more efficient, as well as consolidating collaboration tools in one place, can totally transform the way it looks to work in finance. When technology has been designed with accountants in mind by teams who understand the real pressures they face day by day, it can free up significant amounts of time for more strategic work.

Embrace ideas, create systems, achieve practical outcomes 

All that said, how should businesses look to redeploy the time their finance teams gain back by using advanced software? In short, by involving them in the discussions about key challenges and opportunities facing the organisation, and empowering them to think outside the box to help address those challenges and opportunities.

That might mean addressing localised issues within their own team – for example, figuring out better ways to create and deliver dashboards or financial KPI tracking to senior leadership. That could be a technological project, involving partnership with external providers, or it could simply be an internal quality improvement initiative, identifying bottlenecks and duplications and improving workflows to remove them. Either way, when the finance team itself functions more efficiently, the organisation as a whole benefits.

Equally, it could mean assigning major, organisation-wide needs to the finance department to see what they can do. The most common demand from the C-suite along these lines is, bluntly put, to predict the future – to read the numbers as quickly as possible and accurately explain what they reveal about health and trajectory of the business. Achieving this kind of intelligent, strategic insight is no small task, but it is possible. 

And when finance teams are no longer burdened by routine tasks, they are more likely to have the capacity to work with teams from across the business to integrate a wide variety of data into financial figures – and develop models that give greater insight into the future implications of current results.

More advanced roles means greater satisfaction

When finance teams are freed up and given the opportunity to get involved in more strategic, innovative work, our research shows that their overall job satisfaction tends to go up. 

The change is already underway: 99% say their role has evolved during the pandemic, with the top changes being a greater involvement in technology decisions (46%) and a growing demand from the executive team to provide strategic business insights (44%). The impact has been positive: three quarters (75%) would like to be responsible for at least the same, or more, strategic tasks in the coming two to three years.

Given the impact that stress and dissatisfaction are having on employee retention, these figures should be taken seriously. An innovative, strategic finance team is a happy finance team – and that benefits everyone, right across the business.

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