How to perfect the remote close

The UK finance sector is battling to stay as agile as possible, in the face of the seismic changes to our working lives.  For corporate finance teams, though, one thing hasn’t changed: the accounting calendar.

For companies of any size, but especially private and public mid-market businesses and large corporations, finance teams are still expected to close the books at the end of each month, as well as for each quarter and the fiscal year. Crucially, everything needs doing remotely, which is unlike anything else experienced to date. 

During a crisis that threatens all economies globally, understanding how any business is coping is crucial to ensure the right decisions are made, at the right time.  This means a lot is resting on the accuracy and timeliness of the remote close. As finance teams get to grips with it, there is a great deal to think about when everyone works remotely, especially if team members and third-party partners have different types of access to critical data. 

In a recent survey of Insight Software customers, when asked to rate how their first remote month-end close process went overall, 96% of surveyed CFOs and finance leaders said it went okay, but there are areas to improve.

Not only that, when commenting on the biggest frustrations with the first remote month-end close:

  • 47% said it was adapting to a work-from-home environment 
  • 40% said it was communicating without the face-to-face connection that posed the biggest challenge
  • 24% said it was getting required input from other departments across the business
  • 17% said it was how long it took to get everything completed

With this in mind, we’ve come up with some tips and tricks on how finance teams can perfect the remote close as time goes on, especially as variables can change by the hour. 

Set expectations constantly & communicate regularly

Closing the books remotely relies on information provided by people outside of your organisation. It is likely that customers or vendors are having their own issues, meaning inevitable delays. Make sure the company’s executive team understands any adjustments to the closing timeline so they can plan accordingly and support finance as needed. For the finance team, a daily communication – an email, thread on Teams or Slack, short video call, etc. – is critical to ensure everyone is clear what finance needs to deliver and how everyone on the team fits into the process.

Evaluate your risk exposure 

At times like this, accounts receivables are becoming harder to predict, meaning businesses instinctively stockpile cash and freeze expenses. Knowing the full picture in the sales and renewals pipeline, supply chain, and other contractual obligations defines the risk exposure. Bringing in the key stakeholders to give you these insights very early on helps when closing the books and supports the business case for making difficult decisions if need’s be. 

Review data access rights and focus on information security

Depending on the technology you are working with, certain individuals may not have access to critical data remotely, particularly if there are connectivity issues when accessing an on-premise ERP via a VPN. Evaluating and reviewing who has access to what, and the workarounds and tools needed (without compromising information security) should be reviewed as a priority. A lengthy discussion with IT and information security officers is required at the earliest opportunity to evaluate what can be done.

Also, with data required for the close distributed throughout your own organisation and across suppliers, vendors, and customers, it’s imperative for finance teams to request data that is not self-service as soon as possible to avoid delays. 

Formulate your digital tool kit

Those things often taken for granted now need an overhaul and a creative way of solving them. From shifts to digital tools to streamline previously “physical” interactions, to digital signatures for the sign-off process, to collaboration-based reporting so finance team members are aware of real-time updates – all are necessary and shouldn’t be thought about part-way through the process. Video calls tend to be more collaborative than phone calls, so arranging regular touch points is critical to the continued functioning and well-being of the finance team. Getting the digital tool kit in place for every major touch point is now an integral part of planning the remote close.

The digital toolkit should also consider the softer discussions and huddles which typically happen in the office. These more informal meetings often centre on the story behind the numbers, which is important for internal management reporting and communicating to the market. 

Evaluate the impact of Covid-19 and create the narrative

It is likely that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the revenues and profitability of your business. Covenant reporting, trading updates, potential M&A activity, and annual reports are likely to require an assessment, looking at the full impact of Covid-19. This assessment will need to consider both incremental costs, which may be classified as exceptional, and also lost revenues and profits. A robust way to evidence and explain the impact, which goes beyond comparing budget to actuals will be critical to providing a credible narrative on the impact Covid-19 has had on the business.

Richard Sampson is SVP of EMEA at Insightsoftware, a global provider of financial reporting solutions
with more than 25,000 customers worldwide.

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