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Business finance is yet to shift to reflect widespread remote working

Ryan Demaray, Managing Director SMB EMEA at SAP Concur

The global sweep of COVID-19 has meant a fundamental shift for businesses; travel restrictions and mandated social distancing have meant, in a short space of time, huge swathes of the UK economy have restructured to a remote working setup. New YouGov research commissioned by the SAP Concur team reveals that whilst a healthy 68% of businesses found this transition easy, a significant third of businesses (32%) found it difficult or very difficult.

In particular, companies cited IT, infrastructure and communications as the biggest problems during the shift, with difficulties including:

  • “making sure staff had right equipment at home that enabled secure home working”
  • “IT issues ensuring that relevant programmes were compatible and secure”
  • “authorising invoices without contact”
  • “trying to get all staff to use and be trained on new software”

In order to make the remote working change, 14% of businesses implemented new financial technologies after UK lockdown began. Interestingly, again a third (32%) of those organisations found implementation difficult or very difficult.

What’s more, 11% implemented some automation of financial processes. Specifically examining automation, SMBs had very little plans to implement automation with nearly half (47%) saying they wouldn’t, in comparison, only 23% of enterprises had ruled it out. This is despite enterprises leading the way in already having automation in place (47%) in comparison to SMBs (29%).

This could indicate smaller businesses lack flexibility in their current set up, are unsure of its importance, or have not been properly advised on how to undertake this change. Enterprises (47%) were also far more likely than SMBs (29%) to already have automation in place, suggesting SMBs perhaps feel these tools are suited to larger companies.

Ryan Demaray, Managing Director SMB EMEA at SAP Concur commented: “What this shows is there’s work to be done with so many smaller businesses assuming technology like SAP Concur isn’t for them, when in reality cloud computing has  made enterprise grade software available to every customer. Modern solutions are cloud-based and heavily scalable, so we need to rally behind the SMB community and make it apparent that they absolutely can put in place enterprise-grade solutions in a way that fits their size and budget.”

Businesses are missing a trick when it comes to expense policies 

With the economy expected to head towards a large recession and furlough schemes in place by the UK government (among other changes), cash flow is more important than ever. One major area where changes can be seen having an effect is in the reported expense claims by businesses.

57% of businesses surveyed have seen a decrease in expenses being submitted, but a significant 14% have actually seen these levels rise too; only 28% of businesses haven’t seen any change. Businesses faced with changes have seen major increases in office equipment (35%), software (22%) and household costs (26%), alongside expected reductions in food (64%) and travel (86%).

With this amount of change occurring with expenditure, it stands to reason that policy will shift to support remote workers. After all, few expense policies usually cover household costs; businesses have been forced to consider things they wouldn’t have before. For example, Rolls Royce found many employees didn’t have company mobiles or feel comfortable giving out their personal numbers; it therefore wouldn’t be surprising to see an influx of mobile phone claims. Despite this, less than a quarter (24%) of businesses had plans to change expense policy as they moved to remote working, meaning the majority of surveyed businesses are dealing with these changes and requests against existing policies that don’t reflect the current situation.

It’s clear that finance and business leaders need to start altering policies, both to support new types of expenditure of those working from home and for visibility of the amount of money staff are claiming at a time where cash flow is facing disruption. Education around policy writing and the legality surrounding new expenditure types will be crucial for businesses.

Looking towards the future

Though only 14% of businesses have adopted new financial technologies since the lockdown began, it’s no secret that overall, the pandemic has caused an acceleration of wider digital transformation for many companies. Whether it’s online tools, unified communicated or automated systems offering visibility into cash flow and valuable data – many companies have future-proofed their business.

Our research asked two questions regarding how businesses saw the future; how long the financial function would take to get back to normal, and the same question in regard to general working practices.

For finance functions, 38% said it would be straight away, but the net response was 54% saying it could take between 1 and 12 months. For general workplace practices, the time to get back to ‘normal’ is more pronounced; only 20% think this will happen straight away, and 73% said up to 12 months, pointing at wider practices being far more affected than those specifically finance related.

Finance could differ to general practices due to the large numbers of businesses already using automation for expenses (49%) and invoices (59%) which has therefore made the current cash flow situation easier to deal with. Alternatively, it could mean businesses are feeling greater pressure when it comes to the many moving parts of general working practices, from navigating moves back to the office to company culture. Finally, it could suggest that businesses feel they’ll never get back to where they were before as this is the reality of ‘the new normal’.

Adjusting to changes in the workplace

Our research shows, while many companies have automated finances, there are still a significant amount that do not, particularly in the small business space. What’s more, business leaders are not taking advantage of the full flexibility these tools offer – for example when it comes to expense policies – and the insightful data generated. One thing’s for sure, this is a huge period of uncertainty — hence the range of results — but now the shock of lockdown has died down, businesses need to plan not just to survive, but to thrive as they move forward.

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