“Not my team,” you may be thinking. You’ve invested in smarter software and cloud-based systems. You’ve focused on developing talent on your team, adding increasingly specialized roles to keep pace with company growth. In fact, things are running pretty smoothly, and you probably won’t need to hire anytime soon.
This is the picture painted by most CFOs in our recent survey, Under Pressure: Operational Challenges for Finance Teams. In fact, 41% of CFOs described their finance processes as “Smooth sailing. Wouldn’t change a thing”—though only 26% of their team members reported the same. When we’re out talking to CFOs and controllers in growing companies, we see this pattern over and over again—the CFO says things are going great, but the controller paints a different picture altogether.
Our survey also illuminated the overall imbalance between operational tasks and more future-oriented work. When we asked respondents to rank common activities by how much time they spend on them, tracking down receipts and expenses came in first, followed by auditing expense reports, aggregating data, and analyzing spend. Controllers and other back-office roles like accounting, accounts payable, audit, and FP&A are truly on the front lines when it comes to tasks like chasing receipts and trying to keep spreadsheets up to date. Meanwhile, strategic analysis, cross-team collaboration, and critical process improvements—high priorities for CFOs—get pushed to the bottom of the list.
When finance is expected to be a strategic business partner, yet team members remain mired in more time-consuming transactional work than executives realize, the tension builds. Here are five steps CFOs can take to reduce the pressure and boost team engagement along with strategic impact.
1. Open up a dialogue with your team
It’s all too easy to get swept up in what seems urgent day to day, so be sure to carve out time to ask your team members which parts of their job are most satisfying (and most frustrating). As noted above, a lot of the work that finance teams take on is incredibly manual and repetitive, which can make it hard to keep employees engaged.
Keep in mind that different roles experience different challenges. In our survey we found that the top frustration for accounting, for example, is the time to produce reports, while the top frustration for controllers and FP&A was time spent on data analysis—which still involves plenty of time-consuming data aggregation and complicated Excel hacks.
Talk with team members about their roles may change in six months, one year, or five years from now to prevent burnout and help them visualize a clear development path. Consider how tools might change the equation and reduce manual effort. Some employees may be fearful that their jobs will change or disappear as technology automates more routine tasks. Others may be excited for the opportunity to transition into more strategic and fulfilling roles. Zooming out to the big picture will help with engagement, retention, and long-term planning as you think about the skills and tools you’ll need most, now and in the future.
2. Revisit your corporate card policy
We often hear from CFOs that they prefer not to distribute corporate cards to employees. The idea behind this philosophy is that employees will be more responsible with business spending if they’re “on the hook” to be reimbursed by the company. This is consistent with our findings that one of CFOs’ top frustrations was managing corporate cards.
You may believe that not having a corporate card keeps things simpler, but your team will likely tell you otherwise. Having employees use personal cards for business expenses ends up increasing the burden for everyone but especially for finance, since they have to track down missing expense reports, review them, reconcile accounts, calculate accruals for missing expenses, and set up reimbursements—you get the picture.
Implementing a corporate card program with clear policies and smart processes might be worth the increased visibility and reduced workload over time. Next-generation corporate cards allow for flexible controls and real-time tracking, with AI-powered software streamlining the overall effort required.
3. Take a closer look at your team’s expense report audit process
In our survey, 70% of CFOs reported that expense reports are audited individually, but less than half of controllers and accounting agreed—another indication of a gap between executive expectations and everyday reality. As a company grows, and the volume of expense reports grows along with it, it can simply be hard to keep up. Many controllers and accounts payable managers audit just a handful of the expense reports processed each month. There’s also a risk of manual audits becoming so cursory that they’re not actually effective.
If it’s your expectation that each report is audited individually, find out what a typical audit looks like. How long does it usually take, and what takes the most time? What are the most common findings? When reports are flagged or declined, is the problem typically out-of-policy spend, missing information, or something else? Could the top issues be addressed through a policy update or clarification, or built into an automated system instead?
It’s also worth taking a look at how much time your team spends auditing expense reports versus the overall approval (or decline) rate. Is the time spent manually auditing expenses resulting in significant return for the company? Could auditing software do the heavy lifting and free team members up for more impactful activities, like fine-tuning policy or coaching new employees around expectations?
In any case, talking about fiscal culture is key. Many companies treat policy violations as binary—in other words, it’s either in policy or out of policy. But there may be times when spend is within policy, but is not appropriate—or, on the flip side, when it’s out of policy, but appropriate. Encourage discussion around these gray areas to strengthen alignment and more clearly communicate expectations to the broader organization.
4. Make sure you’re thinking strategically about reporting
The other top reported frustration of CFOs was the time to produce reports, but they might not fully understand what it really takes for their team members to produce them. And as a business grows, it’s not uncommon for executives and boards to request an increasing number of standard and custom reports, which adds to the load.
Many teams reported that they’re using a number of different tools to gather, analyze, and present data, and those tools don’t always talk to each other. A sizeable amount of data may live in spreadsheets, which are particularly prone to errors and outdated information. It can take a huge amount of time to track down data, make sure it’s complete and accurate, and pull it all together into a single report. Understanding from your team what takes the most time, and why, can help you advocate for them and make sure the requests are reasonable and worthwhile.
Investing in cloud-based tools built around real-time data can also lighten the load tremendously, both by making it easier to gather the data and by making reporting self-service, so business leaders can get the info they need whenever they need it.
5. Give that next headcount request or job description some more thought
Less than a quarter of our survey respondents plan on hiring within the finance team this year, regardless of whether they need or want to. Only 35% of CFOs reported that they had no plans to hire, answering “We’ve got it under control.” Less than 10% of controllers agreed.
If your team is feeling overburdened, consider whether the best solution is a new tool or a new hire. When you consider the total cost of recruiting, hiring, and onboarding, people are often bigger investments than software. Every team needs to find its own balance.
If you are hiring, consider whether you need an entry-level position to manage daily tasks, or a more strategy-minded position to plan for the future. Manual tasks can be increasingly managed by automated systems, freeing your employees to focus on more strategic contributions.
As teams grow and technology evolves, it’s critical to stay in tune with what finance teams are truly facing day to day. By keeping the lines of communication open and regularly revisiting tools, processes, and policies, CFOs can strengthen alignment and engagement, dedicate resources to the highest-impact activities, and lead the way to increased strategic effectiveness throughout the organization.