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Four lessons for working remotely in finance

One of the biggest shifts to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was the move to remote work. Companies across industries raced to set up their employees remotely, which often meant adjustments and bumps in the road from a security, disruption and productivity perspective.

Critical finance and accounting functions, as well as year-end audits and quarterly reviews, had to be done virtually — a challenge for employees who could not be physically on-site with clients and teams. However, with the right technology, tools and skills, some companies were able to navigate this transition to virtual work smoothly and successfully.

Many firms now realize that there’s no going back to the way they worked before. Some functions will likely stay virtual, even as companies start to plan out a physical return to the workplace. In a PwC survey in June 2020, 54% of US CFOS said they expected to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it. That’s a big change from just a few months prior: In our March 2020 CFO survey, 63% worried about the productivity hit due to remote work. Today, 73% of financial executives surveyed say the work flexibility that was borne out of the crisis will make their company better down the road.

Setting up for short-term virtual work is one thing; having a virtual work operation that allows you to consistently deliver quality experiences for clients and employees is another. Here are four lessons PwC learned during our own successful transition to remote auditing and other work during the COVID-19 crisis. These lessons can help you establish your long-term virtual plan.

Which of the following is your company planning to implement once you start to transition back to on-site work?

(Select all that apply.)

Change workplace safety measures and requirements
Reconfigure work sites to promote physical distancing
Make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it
Change shifts and/or alternate crews to reduce exposure
Improve remote work experience
Accelerate automation and new ways of working
Reduce real-estate footprint
Evaluate new tools to support workforce location tracking and contact tracing
Offer targeted benefits for on-site workers in affected areas
Provide hazard pay for on-site workers in affected areas

Source: PwC US CFO Pulse Survey
June 11, 2020: base of 330

1. Technology isn’t a one-and-done effort

Tech is key to helping enable remote work, but it’s not enough to roll out new tools and applications. You need to take a longer-term view and commit to continuously innovating and equipping your people to make the most of it. For example, communications and workflow automation technologies have made it easier for our auditors to work remotely since the beginning of the crisis, and that’s largely because that tech was already part of their day-to-day work. Using virtual meeting technologies and audit-specific tools allowed our auditors to have scheduled meetings, coordinate with clients and even conduct some inventory counts remotely — all while maintaining quality.

For years, we have been innovating how we audit, including by using smart technologies to extract data remotely, analyze it and uncover insights that we can share and analyze with clients, where appropriate. And we’re always looking for new tech-enabled solutions: Of the utmost importance right now is the health and safety of our people as they migrate back to the workplace and client sites.

Key to achieving that goal are automatic contact tracing apps, which allow companies to get near-real-time information about employees’ risk of exposure to the virus, easing worker concerns while protecting their privacy. This approach of continuous innovation is key to enabling a company's technology efforts to keep up with — or ahead of — what's needed.

2. Empowered and upskilled people are the key

In order to conduct virtual business effectively, you need a workforce that is up to the task. At PwC, the transition to remote working was smooth — in part because of our firm’s $3 billion New world. New skills. upskilling commitment, which equipped all 55,000 US partners and staff with essential tools, digital acumen and new ways of working. As a result, our workforce was prepared when COVID-19 hit and was able to deal with the sudden shift to a virtual environment when they all moved to remote work.

Over the past two years, our people have embraced citizen-led innovation, using their new skills to develop tools and bots that have helped enhance the audit process and make it easier to do virtually. For example, one PwC audit team member used automation tools to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the testing process, while another developed an extraction bot that helped enhance substantive audit testing of property, plant and equipment.

During COVID-19, that process didn’t change, and many viewed the new way of working as an opportunity to solve new challenges with the skills they’d honed. The digital mindset that our people have developed is crucial to being ready for what’s next and being willing (and eager) to try new things, such as using virtual reality for soft skills and compliance training.

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3. Communication is about much more than video chats

In order to make up for a lack of in-person contact, it’s critical to prioritize communication and collaboration in a virtual work environment. And that requires more than just having a video meeting here and there. It’s about establishing transparency and connection when you can’t be face to face.

Digital collaboration platforms can help with collaboration, supervision and review among teams, can help centralize and simplify communication flows and integrate third-party chat, email and calendar tools. It’s not just about communicating with the team — communication with clients and other stakeholders is equally (or even more) important.

4. It’s important to revisit controls and account for a virtual close

Your company’s and customers’ control environment likely changed over the course of the pandemic, including the move to remote work and process flows, as well as changes to business conditions and work volume. So it’s critical to evaluate internal controls as you move to a hybrid model that combines both remote and on-site work.

Leverage technology to move toward virtual processes, both internally and externally. Review your manual processes and controls and establish a process to use digital tools to execute those tasks when possible. Confirm that your team has remote access to key systems and data. Redesign finance processes to account for a virtual close, confirming there is a robust close checklist with clear owners and dates.

For many companies, the move to virtual work may become permanent, even after COVID-19 recedes. Having the right blend of people, processes and technology will help your company deliver what your clients want and need.

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Wes Bricker

Wes Bricker

Vice Chair - US Trust Solutions Co-Leader, PwC US

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