Treasury Practice

Remote working: the new normal?

Published: May 2020

People across the world have had to adapt to working remotely in the past few months – but often with the hope that everything will return to business as usual in due course. Does it have to be this way, or has the ‘new normal’ awakened an appetite for home working? How realistic is home working for treasurers, who need to be more connected to the office than most?

Person working on a laptop

With a third of the world’s population experiencing some form of lockdown, working from home has suddenly become commonplace. In some companies, the transition from working in the office to working remotely has been seamless. Indeed, many companies offered remote working models to their employees pre-COVID-19, making it easier to adapt to the current situation. For others, however, the challenges involved mean that it isn’t a feasible long-term option.

Eric Sim, Founder of the Institute of Life, believes that with some adjustment and the right knowledge, corporate employees can easily work from home – and that this will become the norm for at least one day per week for most companies.

But for Ramana Konda, Director, Treasury Asia, Middle East and Africa at Mondelez International, remote working is more nuanced, especially for treasurers. Konda explains that for the data management side of a treasurer’s role, remote working is easy, owing to the limited requirement for interaction with others in the business. But he also asks, to what extent is treasury only about data? Treasury is playing an increasingly strategic role within businesses and Konda feels that they need a physical presence in the office to do so effectively.

Happy employees = happy company

There are, of course, many benefits to working remotely. For Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury at Biogen Idec, a big benefit of working from home is the ability to save two hours per day by not commuting. People may choose to put this time to good use: Sim, for example, spends the time he has gained on learning, and is currently educating himself on positive psychology and video editing.

Home workers generally report better productivity and a higher quality of work than when they are in a traditional office, and the flexibility that home working offers can also help companies retain employees that might otherwise leave. For parents, working from home isn’t a substitute for childcare, but it can enable a better work-life balance by removing commuting time and allowing them to be more present at home, whilst also keeping them in the professional loop.

Likewise, disabled employees who struggle to commute may be able to handle a regular workload from the comfort of their house. Sim also points out that when employees are feeling slightly under the weather, they may be able to work from home instead of using up sick days that might be needed for serious illnesses.

Employees whose families may be relocating, perhaps because a partner has secured a new job elsewhere, may be able to use home working to continue in their employment. And of course, in times of crisis or other disruption – such as severe weather conditions – having the infrastructure already in place means that the switch can be as seamless as possible.

Cybercrime is on the rise

Security is one major consideration when weighing up the pros and cons of home working – particularly given the current focus on this topic. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused such an increase in cybercrime that the World Health Organisation had to post an advisory on its website as fraudsters are impersonating it in phishing emails.

The increase in cybercrime comes as fraudsters and hackers try to take advantage of the upheaval that many companies are experiencing in going remote. Treasurers, as always, are primary targets for these attempts, and so need to be vigilant about any suspicious activity. In particular, emails that ask for files or links to be opened, bank details to be changed or payments to be made should be inspected thoroughly and secondary authorisation should be sought if necessary.

Is remote working cyber-secure?

However, Anish Kapoor, CEO of AccessPay believes that if approached in the correct way, remote working can actually be more secure than working in an office. “A prime example of what we see is when treasurers have a SWIFT workstation, that’s just sat on a desk in the office,” he explains. “With access to that SWIFT workstation, an individual can pretty much do whatever they want. But when you move to having a different technology stack that lets you work from anywhere and you’re not linked to that one workstation anymore, you can normally build a lot more control, having maybe biometric authentication, or two-factor authentication.” Alongside that, there are also multiple layers of access control, and the potential to have other layers of approvals processes.

From a cyber-security standpoint, there are also other things individuals can do to ensure they are staying safe when working remotely – many of which should be company policy. Cyber-security and anti-virus provider Kaspersky recommends making sure that a home WiFi router is encrypted, meaning it requires a password to connect. If using a public WiFi, and indeed sometimes using a personal one, it is also recommended to use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt all data from any potential prying eyes.

Additionally, using a company’s regular corporate services to transfer files and data between colleagues can help security. These services are regulated by a company’s IT department, whereas file-sharing services such as Google Drive can become public very easily if someone has the correct keywords.

Can remote working replace face to face?

Remote working may be more convenient for some employees, but Konda feels that the importance of face-to-face interaction and a physical presence in the office cannot be ignored.

He cites the example of carrying out an FX hedge. “Even today in most markets across the globe, the application for FX involves a manual vetting process,” he explains. In Asia this is especially true, with the array of regulations across countries meaning that many of the processes associated with FX hedging must be done on paper, and often in person. “FX transactions are one of the activities that the company conducts in ‘live mode’, where the coordination of the paper signature is crucial to reach the central bank, or a specific market, and is just one example of why it’s important to stay close to the transaction,” says Konda.

Indeed, aside from the business benefits of having a physical presence in the office, it has also been suggested that physical interaction serves communication better than virtual meetings. Use of video conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom have skyrocketed since the beginning of the year, and their usefulness cannot be ignored. Being able to connect with people across any distance, the only requirement being an internet connection, is revolutionary for businesses.

Hanby, who is based in the UK whilst working for an American company, explains that she is currently working from her home, with three members of her team working from their respective homes in the US, and her treasury analyst working from home in Poland. “We are regularly checking in with each other and the company has been hugely supportive, offering many wellness and mental health support initiatives and opportunities, including virtual training and community groups,” she says.

Konda is in a similar position, as his role sees treasury managers reporting to him from 18 countries. As such, the ability to communicate effectively is important. “Some of my team members are data-driven, and some are also sitting in their respective leadership teams and managing a sub-cluster of the region,” he says. “For the people dealing with the day-to-day operations of letters of credit which are not immediately payable now – particularly treasury transactions like card repatriation payments or interest on loans – those can definitely be managed remotely.” He continues: “I think for my team specifically, 50% are happy working remotely – and so am I, as long as they’re getting the job done.”

Options for treasurers

As the world moves to more digital solutions, so too does treasury – or rather, it should. Many companies are trying to move away from a reliance on spreadsheets by implementing treasury management systems (TMS) and ERPs. When it comes to working from home, these sophisticated systems become more important, as they keep information centralised and easier to access.

For Biogen’s Hanby, having the right equipment and software is an important first step. “The company has been very supportive, providing essential IT equipment, and we use online systems which are all still accessible remotely,” she explains.

Kapoor notes that in 2018, AccessPay conducted a Finance & Treasury Automation Adoption Survey, which found that spreadsheets were still the predominant tool used by most treasurers. When it comes to working remotely, Kapoor explains that this approach “would involve emailing around lots and lots of spreadsheets – which isn’t great from a technology and data protection perspective.”

If cloud-based systems aren’t feasible for a company at the moment – for example, implementing a TMS can prove very costly – then there are other options available. These might include the use of a reliable remote desktop – using a secure VPN, of course.

Virtual project management tools such as Basecamp, Microsoft Teams or Trello are also a necessity, particularly if a treasury team has more than two or three members. But, Konda reminds, technology is an enabler and not an alternative to the core conduct of business in treasury. He notes that new projects that arise, especially automations such as implementation of automatic debit or an ACH, require partners to be connected to the physical office rather than remotely.

Similarly, there are some aspects of treasury that move so fast – the enormous and rapid fluctuations in the markets are evidence of that – that Konda feels a physical presence in the office is a necessity, if only for the strategic ease of being able to contact someone and take action immediately, rather than have to wait for a reply to an email.

Can virtual offices work?

graphic 1

The extent to which virtual offices can replace a real-life meeting is questionable. One study found that the inevitable delays in virtual communication, both over the phone and online, cause significant feelings of awkwardness and confusion. Transmission delays of just 1.2 seconds meant that other parties were rated as “less attentive, friendly and self-disciplined than if there was no delay”.

Sim has a few tips to help with making video conferencing run more smoothly:

  • Always use headphones to ensure good audio quality and, if possible, use an external webcam. “I see a lot of bad audio and video quality, as the hardware that comes with computers is not always the best.”

  • Place the camera at eye level, “otherwise participants will be looking up your nostrils”.

  • Sit next to a window if you can, so that one side of your face is nicely lit up. “If that’s not possible, then use a desk lamp aimed at the wall, to bounce the light off.”

  • Try to maintain professionalism on business calls. “I put on my standard white shirt and navy suit, but long pants aren’t necessary!”

From the bottom up

In Kapoor’s experience, the main problems that come from working remotely aren’t generally technological, but rather human ones. For essential treasury activities like cash forecasting, input is required from a variety of people across the business, bringing with it the risk of human error.

“A number of cloud-based TMS projects have been entered into with the thought that ‘oh we’ll just put this TMS in place and it’ll solve all our problems and we can work from anywhere’, and actually it doesn’t work like that,” Kapoor explains. “The problem is how you get all this information from all the people and systems in the business.”

As a result, the businesses that have transitioned seamlessly to working remotely have been the ones that have put a great deal of thought into how these systems work. “They’ve used technology to automate as much of that input as possible, working from the bottom up,” says Kapoor. “So when everything started to happen with the coronavirus and they had to go remote, they didn’t have some of the problems that other companies have experienced.”

The best way to overcome the data-input challenge, aside from automating everything, says Kapoor, is for the treasurer to engage with the people they need the data from and ask them ‘what can I do that would make your life easier? How can I help to take some of the burden from you, because presumably pulling all this data together every day is not something you look forward to?’ This type of empathetic engagement and human connection can help overcome problems while paving the way to a smoother remote working experience.

I think across a huge number of businesses there will be a massive shift in how people work post-pandemic. I think this enforced working from home has made people realise that in a lot of cases it is absolutely possible, and that there are huge associated benefits such as saving time and money, environmental considerations and being able to spend more time with family.

Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury, Biogen Idec

Will remote become the norm?

“This isn’t going to go away,” says Kapoor. “There are going to be more of these events, and so everyone we talk to is thinking long term, thinking that actually they’ve got to be prepared for a world where we have to work from home not all of the time, but certainly more of the time.”

Konda, despite his belief that a fully functional treasury department requires a physical presence in the office, is of a similar view. “Five years ago, we had a lot of offices and many rooms in companies. There came a trend where a company would hire a floor with just cubicles, no offices, and so we graduated down into that space. We saw hot desks, where you could walk into any of them and start working. Now, the gradual transition will be towards working remotely.”

A lot of companies already offer remote working as a benefit, and Konda notes that Mondelez has offered it for a while. In the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic though, he says it’s important to note that the remote working instigated by the virus is not indicative of a future of remote working. “Entire communities have gone into lockdown; your colleague community, your external party community, such as banks, meaning a reduced number of available banking hours, the situation is different.” He’s hopeful that post-COVID-19, remote working will be a possibility for all employees by default.

Hanby is already a supporter of remote working, and like Kapoor and Konda she sees it becoming more popular in the future. “I think across a huge number of businesses there will be a massive shift in how people work post-pandemic. I think this enforced working from home has made people realise that in a lot of cases it is absolutely possible, and that there are huge associated benefits such as saving time and money, environmental considerations and being able to spend more time with family,” she concludes.

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