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Rebuilding after COVID-19, what does the future of the business office look like?

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a dramatic shift in operations for institutions of higher education, both operationally and in the business office. In my experience, the organizations I interact with have done a remarkable job of balancing increased financial pressures, the change in the way things are done in a remote or hybrid work environment and the pressures of personal life on their employees. As we reflect on the past 20 months, the words that readily spring to mind are ‘sacrifice,’ ‘exhaustion,’ and ‘overworked’.

I am a CPA, not a psychologist, but even I know the impact that the pandemic has had on our mental well-being, social interactions and personal life, will be studied for years to come. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to make decisions on what the future of the business office looks like, and to set policies and the tone at the top that will allow the business office to move forward successfully.

During the pandemic, the shift to remote work created significant disruption and forced a pivot to electronic communication and processes. Staff cuts and furloughs were implemented as a cost saving measure due to the uncertainty of the future. Employees were generally working more due to new processes, less staff, and the natural lack of boundaries between work and home life in a new remote situation.

It is likely that the continued workforce shortages will necessitate that we do more work with less resources. To help alleviate the related challenges, there are several learning opportunities that I think business offices should embrace:

  1. Streamline processes and leverage technology: Even the long-time hold outs that “need to touch the paper” transitioned to electronic means by necessity. Moving to electronic processes allows for more streamlined processes and better sharing and storing of information.
  2. Increased communication amongst the team: Since teams were not together in a physical location, an increased effort was needed to ensure communication channels were open. This may or may not have been successful depending on team participation, but to effectively manage your business office, communication is key.
  3. Better insight into the “big picture”: With increased electronic routing of information and increased communication, team members that were siloed or had little insight into how their role played into the bigger picture were able to more fully understand the whole process.
  4. Virtual meetings: This is a double edge sword. In my mind, there is no substitute for live interaction in many situations, however the ability to leverage technology in situations that make sense created significant ‘found time’ for employees. This newfound time could be repurposed to assist business offices with resource constraints.
  5. Project management: While projects in the past had the luxury of in-person interaction and communication, managers needed to hone project management skills to keep teams moving and information flowing.

While there are many positive takeaways from the past 18 months, I firmly believe that we cannot continue in exactly the same manner as we have throughout the pandemic. Areas for increased focus are as follows:

  1. Flexibility and productivity: It may be time to reevaluate measurements of productivity and ensure that your team understands what is expected of them, particularly if you are continuing in a flexible or hybrid work environment.
  2. Reinvestment in the team: Many teams did what was needed to weather the storm through sacrifices, monetary and other. Showing appreciation and providing a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel to the extent you can, is necessary. If staff cuts or furloughs have been made, business offices are operating on less resources than before. The job market is hot and organizations risk losing valuable human resources.
  3. Evaluation of key processes: The shift in business operations as well as the increase in new situations (stimulus funding, more frequent financial reporting and data gathering, increased liquidity analysis and more) stressed and challenged the business office. From an accounting and financial reporting perspective, this creates risk and potential gaps in internal controls. Processes should be critically reviewed to ensure that risk is mitigated to the extent possible.
  4. Leadership communication: Working remotely has created a lack of boundaries and as a side effect, an increased feeling of burnout for staff. The inability to “get away” from work, even during non-work hours, due to being at the new workplace (home) 24/7 and the increased workload creates a sense of frustration and exhaustion. It is time for leaders to consider helping their team establish boundaries and manage their time by clearly communicating expectations. This may be as simple as letting the team know that an instant response is not necessary, even if it is do-able, or working with them to prioritize projects and timelines.

I am optimistic that there is much to be learned in the business office from the pandemic. The key is to not just return to a “new normal,” but to rebuild in a thoughtful and strategic way to improve upon the “old normal.”

This material has been prepared for general, informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. Should you require any such advice, please contact us directly. The information contained herein does not create, and your review or use of the information does not constitute, an accountant-client relationship.