At this point in time, many companies worldwide have been forced to adopt remote working. Some companies were prepared and already operating with remote or flexible working schedules. Others have been scrambling to adopt new tools and create new rituals to replace the ones lost with the distance.
Flexible working was on the rise even before the COVID-19 outbreak. A study by the US Census Bureau in 2010 found that 9.3% of workers worked 1 day a week from home. That number has increased to 36% in 2020, according to a recent report by GetApp. This is a 400% growth in a decade. That number today is probably nearer 90%.
It is well known that this trend does not come without challenges. This Gartner report outlines some of them: lack of mutual trust, unrealistic expectations regarding what kind of work can be done remotely and disengagement are some of those.
The challenge I want to focus on is corporate culture, and how the decentralisation of spending through transparency and team empowerment can help enhance engagement and productivity.
Spending when we no longer see each other in person
It is fairly easy to procure the things (computer, screen, chair, etc.) and software (access to Slack, email address etc.) needed for a new team member that will join your physical office. You have the checklist of what they need, make the purchases and welcome them. Pretty straight forward, since you can control the office space.
This becomes more of an issue when you are hiring someone to work remotely. You don’t know what will be suited best for each team member’s specific needs. Space, comfort and preferences all become more important as it’s their home you are filling up with new things. This is also true when your team has to start working from home.
Furthermore, control and visibility over day-to-day company spending also becomes more challenging with distance. CFOs and founders already struggle to keep track of the SaaS tools they are paying for, who is using them and when the next payment is due. This gets worse as teams are required to keep performing and need to constantly adopt new tools to keep scaling.
Adding this to the lack of physical interactions, spend requests might start piling up in the company card owner’s inbox, resulting in frustration and friction points on both ends. A popular solution is to allow employees to make the purchases they need and reimburse later.
In a recent article, Forbes argues that this practice burdens employees since they are effectively lending their cash to the company. Furthermore, this burden is unequally distributed since lower-paid team members lack access to company cards more often than managers. This results in financial stress and even resentment among the team members, which is what we need to avoid, especially right now.
Decentralising spend sounds scary
Control and accountability over the company’s expenses are some of the main concerns for founders and CFOs. That is why, according to our experience there are one or just a few company cards in an SME, or sometimes the founders provide their own credit card as the company card.
Whilst some minor expenses are usually taken by employees, you cannot expect your team to purchase all the things they need for their home office and get reimbursed later, especially for new hires. You cannot demand for them to pay monthly SaaS subscriptions either and reimbursement of any expense becomes harder than ever as people can’t meet in person: expenses turn opaque quite quickly. The result of this complex dynamic could be a much-feared loop.
Spend requests pile up, the card owner has to question team members on the spending they are asking for, which might lead to uncomfortable conversations. There are delays in necessary spending and the card owner becomes a blocker for the rest of the team, whilst she’s overwhelmed by requests and approvals. The consequences are general frustration, disengagement, and resentment, once again.
Smart spend decentralisation
As with most problems in life, the solution exposed above is not the only one available nor the best possible solution. We strongly believe empowerment and accountability are two sides of one coin, and there is a way to break the cycle.
The first step to improving this cycle is creating one transparent channel to manage all of your team member’s spend requests. This will help organise all the requests and reduce the time-to-response.
The second step is to establish approval flows that operate beforehand, in order to maintain control of spending. Each company and team is unique, so the approval flow design is mostly a matter of choice. It is important to keep in mind the agility and effectiveness of the process when it is being designed.
The third step is to empower your team to spend the company’s money within the limits established in the approval flow. This can be done in several ways, however, in these times, virtual credit cards are an amazing solution, since there is no possibility of sharing a common space (let alone a plastic card).
The fourth step is to keep track of all the virtual credit cards, so that it doesn’t become painful for the finance team to gather the information and analyse it. It can be tricky to consolidate all the information, and additional processes or infrastructure might be needed to fulfill this step.
The result of implementing this framework is an empowered workforce, who knows how to send the request for expenses beforehand and is accountable for each of their subscriptions and purchases. This solution also lowers the burden on the former card owner and CFO or founder, since there is visibility over spend and allocation.
The adoption of new processes always face resistance, however, the COVID-19 outbreak is an opportunity to generally improve on processes that will help the company in the long run. We have seen these changes help our users in keeping their teams engaged and empowered to quickly adopt the tools needed to do their jobs.