The survey, which attracted responses from 50 finance directors in November, sought to understand how the pandemic had affected office working. Unsurprisingly, pre-pandemic, finance staff spent most of their time working at their employer’s office, but for most this fell dramatically as lockdowns and other Covid-safe measures were introduced during 2020.
As the country opened up and restrictions eased, staff have generally returned, but not full time, as finance staff are working from home for at least some of their week.
Finance directors estimated that, on average, their finance teams were broadly spending 90% of their time working in the office pre-Covid.
But during 2020 and early 2021, this then dropped to close to 10% as the pandemic hit
the country. This has rebounded to some extent, with directors suggesting that about a quarter of their finance team time on average is currently spent in the office.
Some pointed out that the arrangements had been different for distinct parts of the finance team during the pandemic. For example, accounts payable and payroll staff were more likely to be working in the office because of technology constraints.
Despite this partial bounce-back, respondents believed that hybrid working is here to stay. Finance directors estimated that in two years’ time there would be a more even split between office and home working, with many suggesting three days at home and two days in the office as a possible model (or vice versa).
Some organisations have created policies setting the preferred split between home and office working. In some cases, there are specific days when all staff are required to come in.
One director of a large trust said the change to hybrid working had been made permanently (staff are required to come into the office at least one day in a two-week period), enabling the need for desk space to be reduced by 40%.
One CCG had refurbished its office to facilitate collaborative working on projects, and training and development, to ensure staff are in the office for a few days a week.
A trust said working patterns were dictated by staff preference, though finance staff were working from home apart from going into the office for a meeting now and again.
Not all workplaces have embedded a new working model, and are still principally working from home.
Responses highlighted the need to recognise that home working was not right for everyone. Some staff did not have the right space or circumstances to work from home.
‘If someone would prefer to be in 100%, we will support it,’ one trust director said. ‘We will look to have everyone coming in roughly 40% of their time at least to keep in touch with the rest of the team.
‘As we support clinical services who are running face-to-face services, we also think it is important to be available to clinicians and managers who want to drop in and see members of the team.’
This feeling that it is important for finance staff to spend time in the office, allowing them to meet their customer groups who work on site, was echoed by another acute trust director.
‘We need to be alongside them, and we need people to feel part of the team again. Remote working can lead to separation within the team and loss of team identity,’ they added.
There were other constraints on home working. One large provider’s finance director said technology had prevented some workers, including payroll and accounts payable staff, from working remotely, while others in the finance department, such as management accountants, have been able to work mostly from home.
Overall, they estimated that this meant 50%
of finance staff time had been spent in the office in 2020 and early 2021.
Despite the significant move to remote working, the finance directors polled were almost equally split over the impact of home working on productivity – 40% believed it improved productivity, 36% said it reduced it.
However, respondents were positive about the benefits of home working. Most thought it led to a better work-life balance for staff, reduced infection risk, cut the amount of office space needed and reduced the carbon footprint.
Others said that previously the team had worked at multiple sites and online meetings had brought them closer together.
Some respondents said remote working had improved staff retention, and this had been helped by new flexible working arrangements and the trust implicit in those arrangements.
However, others believed the ad hoc conversations in offices that can lead to problem-solving were missed.
The potential lack of separation between home and working life was seen as the biggest drawback of home working – cited by 86% of respondents. And 56% said remote working made it more difficult to performance manage or support staff.
‘Finance staff adapted quickly and positively to the pandemic, with many working from home full time,’ said HFMA policy and communications director Emma Knowles (pictured).
‘There are concerns about mental wellbeing and performance management, and for staff who cannot work remotely, either due to personal circumstances or the technology they use.
‘However, as restrictions have eased, finance departments are moving to a mix of home and remote working – a change that could stick in the longer term.’
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