Remote working is probably not completely new for many treasuries but the current coronavirus lockdown has made it a continuous reality for most. Treasuries already overwhelmed with the liquidity and risk implications of the pandemic have limited bandwidth to learn remote working best practices. Although individuals and teams vary in their needs, this article summarises remote working practices that work for many.
Treasurers are generally reporting that they are busier and more challenged than even during the global financial crisis – cash and liquidity are under the spotlight and these are core treasury responsibilities.
Working from home affects different people in different ways. Extroverts will miss social interaction. Introverts might love it – though there are reports of introverts bemoaning excess video conferencing. Some find their productivity boosted by avoiding office interruptions, others struggle with demanding small children no longer able to go to school.
Buffer.com surveyed 3,521 remote workers, and found more challenges than benefits with working from home.
Although people vary, there seems to be an emerging consensus on how best to manage working from home.
Remote working brings a release from the routine of nine to five. For some this is liberating, for others confusing. For some, the context shift to an office provided boundaries around their work day, and these are sorely missed at home – work overflows into breakfast and evenings, and maybe leisure and family overflow into the work day.
Most experts recommend routines and rituals to provide boundaries. From a time perspective, these can be modelled on in-office timings. From a location perspective, a dedicated work space is suggested where possible even if this cannot be a separate room.
Team members’ experience will vary. Some have children to attend to while lockdown closes schools. Different people have different temporal rhythms. Experience from in-office work can aid self-understanding.
Research shows that a majority of people benefit from doing thinking and big tasks in the morning while they are fresh, and doing emails and meetings in the afternoons. That of course depends on the overall cadence of the team.
Teams as a whole, as well as individuals, have to accept that productivity varies over time and that not every day will be super productive.
Teams need to negotiate a cadence for work and communication that suits best for all members. Where multiple time zones are involved, it is not realistic it is not realistic to expect colleagues to be available 24/7. Equally, team members need to respect others’ need for sleep, exercise, family time and so forth.
Individual time management for most requires boundaries in time and location, and routines like breaks. Book-ending days with a review and planning session – analogous to agile stand-ups – help many.
Prioritisation helps many overloaded people to focus on what matters. Determining the top three tasks for the next day at end of day can free team members from worry and distraction during their free (and sleep) time. Many people use task management solutions to similar effect.
Trust is key for effective team work, and trust can be hard to foster even at the best of times. Trust requires clear communication and effective communication requires trust. These are even harder to maintain in lockdown.
Teams that have been together for a long time will probably be able to maintain trust longer in lockdown, but even the most cohesive teams need to nurture trust and communication. Colleagues will have very different experiences of remote working that will impact their emotions and their productivity. Teams require sensitivity to stay inclusive and maximise effectiveness.
Remote working increases ambiguity. When colleagues can just drop by to clarify matters, this is not a problem. When working remotely, “dropping by” is not possible, so teams need to make sure that understanding is clear. Clear goals and metrics are important in this context. Paraphrased responses help ascertain whether understanding is shared.
Given the probability of misunderstanding, it is important to assume positive intent. This can be made explicit in the team’s agreements on ways of working and cadence.
Team leaders will need to work harder to balance the team, for example, encouraging quieter colleagues to speak up and encouraging louder colleagues to listen respectfully. Team leaders can mitigate distance by organising short five-minute check-ins weekly to check how colleagues are doing and what if any support they need. However, such check-ins should be voluntary to avoid becoming oppressive.
Trust and communication have to be nurtured outside the team as well. For treasury, this can mean making more effort to communicate progress to internal counterparties as well as vendors, banks, rating agencies, investors and regulators.
The exponential tsunami of emails that comes from unthinking CC’s and forwarding is not a new problem. Corona lockdown will not in itself reduce email volumes, but it provides an opportunity to communicate more effectively via email.
As for meetings, it is important to restrict emails to actionable counterparties. Replies should avoid CYA and focus on value adding Intelligent use of the subject line, as used by the military, helps the recipient manage their inbox. The military practice of BLUF (bottom line up front) also helps recipients to determine quickly what may be required of them. BLUF is a short, staccato statement at the start of an email that summarises its message.
When the subject line headed with a clarifier like ACTION/DECISION/REQUEST/SIGN/INFO and a BLUF summary, recipients are better able to process their email using the OHIO (only handle it once) principle. More efficient inbox processing frees up time for productive work.
Second to email, meetings have become a bane of office life, even before lockdown. Remote meetings can be even more challenging than face to face, and there has to be an effort to guard against a tendency to schedule even more meetings to mitigate the lack of in-person face time.
A good principle is to question whether a meeting is really needed. Agile style stand-ups and quick individual check-ins are better for keeping a team aligned and engaged. If a meeting is really required, apply the principle of “No agenda, no meeting”, and make sure the agenda makes clear the expected outcome of the meeting. Appoint someone – maybe in rotation – to track time during and outcomes of the meeting.
Keep meetings short and punchy. It seems the meme about post-internet humans having an attention span less than goldfish is dubious (and unfair to goldfish). But most people seem to lose focus when meetings exceed 45 minutes, so it is probably wise to break up meetings or at least provide regular coffee/stretch breaks.
Despite our intuition that seeing faces is more “real” or “natural”, there is evidence that video conferences are more stressful than audio, so consider carefully what is needed for each meeting – video conferencing is rarely necessary (and if so, keep it short), screen sharing is often less stressful (and consumes less bandwidth) than faces, and very often audio is effective and less tiring than video conferencing.
Inclusion is even more important in remote meetings than in face to face meetings. To avoid losing input from quieter team members, and to moderate the tendency for louder team members to dominate, use techniques like passing a (virtual) talking stick or brainstorming post-it sessions where everyone has to post their ideas. There are many virtual whiteboards and post-it solutions out there but they can be finickity, so consider video of a physical wall or board updated by a designated recorder.
As explained and evidenced earlier, technology is mostly a poor substitute for face to face interaction. “Technology is great for transactions – but terrible for trust” (Jo Owen). Since remote working is the current reality, using communication technology effectively is important.
The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous channels is important. And whatever channels are used, it is critical to respect others’ time off – preferably based on team-wide agreements about cadence described above.
For many at home, data bandwidth can be an issue. Silicon Valley firms are apparently paying for employees to upgrade their home offices. Many companies may be less generous, and the maximum available bandwidth in some geographies may not be very fast. Teams have to work around the slowest link in their chain.
Most treasurers will follow corporate data security standards. It is still incumbent on individuals to follow best practice such as changing passwords frequently (and not writing them on post-its) as well as using 3FA when available (eg the sign-on apps from Microsoft Office and Google Suite).
Remote working as an ongoing reality presents new challenges to many treasuries. Although individual and team needs vary, the practices presented here can help many to increase their remote working productivity. Adaptive learning and sharing best practice is always helpful.
Twenty-five years of management and treasury experience in global companies. David Blair has extensive experience managing global and diverse treasury teams, as well as playing a leading role in eCommerce standard development and in professional associations. He has counselled corporations and banks as well as governments. He trains treasury teams around the world and serves as a preferred tutor to the EuroFinance treasury and risk management training curriculum.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors