The role of accountants in business is transforming, and as finance teams across industries strive to become leaner and more agile they are often told to ‘work smarter, not harder.’
The goal of working smarter is about adding value to the organisation by raising productivity – performing faster, better and cheaper. However, there is also a risk that ‘work smarter’ initiatives may end up as little more than the cutting of corners and glossing over of details – an optimisation of quantity at the expense of quality. Accountants need to ensure that campaigns to work smarter genuinely add value to the business and take into account its long-term success.
Nowadays, the pressure to become more agile is on every team in the business, finance included. Technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and big data present both a challenge and an opportunity. Accountants are perfectly placed within the business to ensure that agile initiatives raise productivity in a sustainable way.
Company accountants are often involved in IT upgrades, such as systems handling employee expenses, procurement or revenue recognition. Such investments aim to reduce the time spent in processing information while also increasing its accuracy and availability. However, when implementing an IT solution, accountants should consider the impact it will have across the business.
In his seminal study of resistance to change in corporate settings, published in the late 1960s, Harvard Business School professor Paul Lawrence found that what people resist most is the social aspect of how their work changes. Their concerns are not so much about learning new skills as about not wanting to have their established relationships with colleagues disturbed or altered.
There is no doubt that introducing new technology is a step in the right direction towards working smarter. But it is important to watch out for the complex web of social relations that exists in every organisation. Fear of losing authority, power and control, or resistance to increased transparency, are enough to derail the most ambitious plans for transforming the business.
Many talented managers suffer from burnout simply because their skills and expertise are too much in demand
The key points in assessing agile working options are:
- Do not ignore the intangible social fabric within the company, and make sure to understand interdependencies between teams. Countering resistance from an unhappy workforce will cost time and money, both of which are scarce resources that should not be wasted.
- Working smarter should not be about getting things done faster by burning out the organisation’s best performers. The transfer of knowledge within teams needs to take place continuously – it will enable all team members to perform at their best and fuel overall productivity.
- Initiatives for working smarter do not require office partitions to be torn down. Improving processes and shedding activities that don’t add value may be much easier to implement and far more beneficial than reconfiguring the workspace.
Don’t punish productivity
The navigation of behavioural resistance is one issue to consider in assessing how to work smarter. Another is the need to avoid punishing productivity. Writing on the topic of employee burnout, Bain consultant Eric Garton argues that the phenomenon is a common one, responsible for an estimated US$125bn to US$190bn a year in healthcare spending in the US, but one that companies tend to treat as a talent management or personal issue rather than a broader organisational challenge. He says that many talented managers suffer from burnout simply because their skills and expertise are too much in demand. As everyone wants to get hold of them to tap into their knowledge, talented employees end up not only having to complete their own work but also to assist with the workload of their colleagues. The work is done in a ‘smart’ way only because it has all been piled – again – onto the same individual.
Working smart is not smart at all if it is about exhausting the most scarce and valuable resource a company has to create value – talented employees who care. Modern accountants are knowledge workers whose rise was predicted by management consultant Peter Drucker. Knowledge workers not only require years of formal education, but are also expected to continue learning throughout their careers. Devising ways that more skilled and experienced colleagues can share their expertise without compromising their own workload needs to be on the agenda if teams are to work smarter and become more productive.
The good news for cost-conscious budget holders is that working smarter does not have to be all about investing into complex or expensive work environments and reconfigurations. For years, the holy grail of open space design was increased productivity and collaboration. However, a 2018 study by Harvard University professors Ethan Bernstein and Stephan Turban at the global headquarters of two Fortune 500 multinationals showed that redesigning traditional offices as open spaces reduced face-to-face collaboration between co-workers by 70% and had an overall negative impact on productivity.
There is more than an office’s physical walls keeping employees from achieving their full potential: red tape, internal politics, and unending meetings for the sake of meetings are also critical factors. Moving towards working smarter should start with a thorough and honest review of current processes. Investing in a smart office certainly has value, but eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and rooting out activities that don’t add value are far more likely to deliver greater productivity more quickly and at less expense.