“We were preparing for the pandemic and we didn’t know it” – How AIR got remote-work ready
September 20, 2021
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
In March 2020, the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) had to adapt to a stark new reality. As with companies across the globe, they had to ensure business continuity while their small team (then just 30 people) could no longer go into the office.
This was not nearly as hard as it might have been. AIR, the professional organization for institutional researchers on college universities and campuses, had already gone through a process of digitization long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“From early 2019, we started moving everything online so that it could be accessed remotely,” said Charlie McCumber, Director of Finance at AIR. “When the pandemic hit in March 2020, it wasn’t a big lift for us to transition completely to online work.”
“We had been preparing for the pandemic without knowing it.”
– Charlie McCumber, Director of Finance, AIR
For the finance team, flexibility was critical. It consists of McCumber the CFO and one other accountant, through which all functions including accounts payable (AP), accounts receivable (AR) and audits must pass. “99% of what we do now is online, and we were heading that way before the pandemic,” McCumber said. “We had been preparing for the pandemic without knowing it.” The organization switched to Beanworks to automate its AP tasks more than two years ago. Nevertheless, there were still some paper-based processes that had to be dealt with once the office had closed.
“Some people were still sending paper checks to our office if they weren’t using our lockbox address,” McCumber said. Another challenge was finding a secure way for contractors to send details by email that contained sensitive financial information required for tax purposes.
The biggest challenge for the organization was holding a huge annual conference virtually instead of in person. AIR also had to decide what to do with a building the organization owned in Tallahassee. Originally, the plan had been to move everyone back from a rented office block to this property – but now that working from home seems here to stay, it will be sold. Zoom fatigue, a familiar problem for office workers in the past year, was another issue.
“I think there is still a lot of learning to do on the virtual meeting aspect,” McCumber said. Connection issues and the etiquette of when to use video must be resolved. A perfect substitute for being able to drop by someone’s office is yet to be found.
The automation solution
Things may be easier now, but they were not always that way before financial operations were automated at AIR.
“One of the issues that we used to have was that not all of the program leads who approve things were in every day,” McCumber explained. “Some were permanently remote. Having to email them copies of things and say ‘can you approve this’ and sometimes having to print out the emails was very cumbersome.”
“Going to Sage AP Automation with Beanworks made things a million times easier. People can send documents around within the system, and reject them and kick them back if needed. It’s very manageable for the small accounting team that we have.” People seem less daunted by a list of items in their approval queue than a stack of paper documents on their desk,” he added.
The whole process from receiving an invoice to making payment typically took a week before Beanworks. “We love the ability to process things the same day if needed.” Vendors send their invoices to a specific email address. The accounts team processes them and then they are routed electronically to the approvers. This has saved not only time but money, as AIR no longer cuts expensive checks to pay vendors.
Another advantage of using Beanworks is that the reporting function gives you an overview of what you have been spending. “I can choose a date range – the first quarter of the year, for example – and see a total. All that data and all those invoices are in a single, digital location, and there is no need to flip through filing cabinets,” McCumber said. Time spent filing has also been saved. The annual tradition of hauling three or four boxes per year over to a storeroom has finally come to an end.
Five things AIR’s finance team learned during the pandemic
- Time management skills are essential: without a physical separation between home and office life, managers and employees alike must decide how best to manage their own time. “I’ve learned that things are not always as urgent as I thought they were,” McCumber said.
- Trust your employees: managers cannot oversee their workforce in the same way as before, but must trust them to get the job done.
- Use technology to manage assignments: tools such as Trello or Tasks in Microsoft Office can help keep track of projects when everyone is working remotely.
- Be flexible: perhaps your day is not a nine-to-five anymore. If the work still gets done, that is ok. Being open to new ways of working is critical. At the same time, managers must stagger change so that people do not get overwhelmed by too much at once.
- Automate it: AIR was able to adjust to the pandemic relatively easily thanks to automated AP with Beanworks and a team that was used to working from home.
McCumber wanted to employ an additional member of staff long before COVID-19. The uncertainty brought by the pandemic made that impossible, but the team member who manages daily accounting operations is able to do so because everything has been digitized and moved into the cloud.
“If it wasn’t all online, and easy to create reports, move things around and get approvals, we would probably have to have additional staff – at least a part-time person – to help get our work done in a timely manner,” McCumber said. As it is, using Beanworks along with other apps, the finance team can manage.
AIR was able to reap the benefits of their early digitization program, but the improvements will not stop there. McCumber has ambitions to make the month-end quicker and to implement new budget processes. Beyond that, he emphasized the importance of recognizing the stress that employees have been through and continue to experience.
“Not everyone has the capacity to work an eight-hour day because they are tired from the nightmare of dealing with this pandemic,” he said. “Not everyone has a great home office location.” Understanding this has been key to AIR’s approach to change over the coming months, but one thing is for sure – their team has benefited enormously from automation and remote working so far.
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