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How has the role of finance professionals in further education shifted over the past year, with the enforced move to remote working?

Simon Kearsley, CEO of bluQube
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The true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on further education will not entirely reveal itself for years. That said, new data covering the first year of the pandemic suggests a sector that is, in many ways, quickly becoming unrecognisable from even a few short months ago, from the classroom to the back office.

Given the prevalence of enforced remote working throughout the sector, technology has naturally played a key role in many financial and other back-office processes during this period, presenting extraordinary challenges.

With many colleges still lacking financial systems and processes set up for remote access, finance teams across the country experienced an initial slowdown in admin processes, as well as difficulty with remote access to systems and IT.

As a result, investment in the right technology and software has played an enormous part in helping finance teams continue to fulfil their roles amidst adverse conditions, with the fallout from these changes still being felt today.

Even now, more than two thirds (69%) of sector finance professionals still work from home in some capacity, indicating that changes previously-thought to be temporary may be in place for a long time to come.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at how the role of finance professionals in further education has shifted over the past year with the enforced move to remote working.

A change to working patterns

As across all sectors, finance professionals across the further education sector experienced significant shifts in the ways in which they work, having moved from predominately office-based working to a more remote arrangement.

According to our industry research, almost two-thirds of finance professionals (65%) have worked remotely over the past 12 months. Notably, while nobody worked in the office full-time more than a third (34%) of finance professionals split their time between office and home-based working, reflecting the need for many FE colleges to have remained open in varying capacities across different stages of the pandemic.

Interestingly, it appears that the once-temporary move to remote working has become a permanent shift for many. Finance departments have invested in the technology and

infrastructure required to make remote working an entirely feasible option and, because of this, as many as 38% of teams across the sector still now primarily work from home. Almost a third (31%) have now adopted a hybrid model, balancing the flexibility and freedom offered by home-working with the benefits of office-based working, and 31% have fully reverted back to office-based working.

Where challenges have arisen for the sector

Naturally, a wholesale shift in working patterns has not been without its professional challenges. For instance, nearly half (43%) of professionals across the further education sector experienced a slowdown in administrative processes when removed from the office, which is perhaps an indication that teams had previously been relying on paper and offline systems.

A further difficulty associated with a lack of technology in place is access to remote systems and IT, which nearly two-thirds (61%) of professionals across the sector reported as a significant challenge affecting the way in which they worked. This comes as little surprise when we consider how many accounting departments will have experienced widespread change to working infrastructure without the benefit of required technology – such as cloud-based systems – in place. Indeed, previous research suggests that over half (58%) of SMEs do not have cloud-based systems in place, indicating the scale of the challenges potentially faced by further education institutions.

A widespread shortfall in remote access also has a knock-on effect on co-operation across teams, with 52% of industry finance professionals reporting reduced collaboration working within the finance department.

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Notably, a further 29% of professionals also reported that they had difficulties sharing information across departments; a critical shortfall given also that the past year has seen a significant (24%) increase in finance teams receiving ad-hoc requests from other departments – no doubt a reflection of budget holders across the college also struggling with remote access to the necessary financial data.

An increasing shift towards more conventional working patterns over time will ease the burden associated with working across a more diverse spread of locations. That said, it is recommended that finance departments invest in technologies that will aid instant collaboration within the finance team as well as between finance and wider college functions. By focussing on technologies that work in tandem with the organisation’s incumbent systems, college staff can ensure productivity can remain high, regardless of where they may be working from.

How sector professionals have benefited from the shift

With the above considerations in mind, it is also important to note that finance departments have noted a number of benefits from the enforced shift to remote working, indicating that it is likely to be here to stay in at least some capacity.

Arguably most notably, many of the positives highlighted revolved around the ongoing shift to digitisation across the sector. Specifically, 77% reported a speeding up of digital transformation in their finance departments, while over half (55%) agreed this had been the biggest benefit of remote working – both of which are likely due to an enforced need for technological improvement driven by the challenges outlined above.

The benefits to embracing technologically-led change – with the right providers and technology in place – are clear, automating time-consuming manual processes and freeing up finance teams to concentrate on important tasks, such as overall strategy and improving the bottom line. To this end, there are positive signs that this step-change is happening already, with 41% of FE accounting departments reporting having already been positively impacted by an increase in automated and semi-automated processes across their organisation.

Interestingly, the shift to a more digitally-led, remote workplace has also had an impact when it comes to focus and productivity. The majority of professionals (82%) stated that they worked more efficiently when freed from office distractions, and 23% also reported a reduction in ad-hoc requests made to them, which is likely to be due to a combination of the physical distance from work making ad-hoc requests more difficult, as well as the increased shift towards digitisation making it easier for colleagues from other departments to access the financial information they need independently.

How will roles in the sector evolve moving forwards?

For better or worse, there is little doubt that the significant amount of time spent working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant lasting effects on the future of the sector. But in which areas will this change manifest itself?

Half of all sector professionals now believe that remote working will become standard practice in the industry, and a further 65% believe that this move will be accompanied by an increase in flexible working hours, indicating that a more agile way of working will come to the fore in the sector over the coming years.

Naturally, greater flexibility will bring its own challenges in terms of communication and collaboration, both between members of a team and departments. Given this, it is perhaps little surprise that a third of all respondents (35%) also predicted an increase in compliance challenges over the coming years, given both the aforementioned challenges and the shifting regulatory landscape.

While 65% of respondents expected to see greater automation of financial functions, surprisingly, 80% do not see their role evolving to become more strategic, perhaps indicating a lack of clarity as to which functions are most likely to be automated in the years to come. However if, as one would hope, it is the more time-consuming, manual tasks becoming more automated, finance professionals will have more time to focus on the strategic tasks that drive long-term growth. Perhaps in recognition of this, 40% believed that their role would see a greater focus on analytics and modelling going forwards.

Overall, it is clear that the evolving role of the finance professional in the further education sector is far from finished, with COVID-19 acting as a catalyst for a seismic shift that has been a long time coming, and will take years to materialise fully. However the role may look, it is clear that for many remote working is now here to stay.

Subsequently colleges, and finance departments in particular, must now ensure they have the technology and infrastructure required to do their jobs effectively from anywhere. Investment in this area will therefore empower finance departments to improve productivity, cut out needless, time-consuming processes, and spend more time doing what matters.

Simon Kearsley, CEO of bluQube

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