The pandemic has been tough on everyone in different ways, and while the end is in sight, we are not there yet. But, as we approach a year and a half of work from home, we can look back with a bit of hindsight and maybe a bit of pride in how we’ve adapted and changed. During this time, many people and organizations have discovered that they are much more agile, creative and resilient than they had ever imagined.
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I can see it in the accounts payable I have worked with. The double challenge of finding a different way to make payments and learning to work remotely has been daunting, but people have found ways to get the job done.
Perhaps more than any other function, AP was a strictly office job, mainly because of all the paper-based processes they had in place. Invoices arrive by mail. They must be opened and entered into the accounting systems. Some companies have machines and OCRs (Optical Character Recognition) to facilitate this process, but many always follow manual processes. Checks should be printed, placed in envelopes and put through a postage meter before mailing. Security and checks are also often paper-based – safes are kept for blank checks and sensitive information.
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It seems incredible to think that a year and a half ago it was business as usual for the vast majority of organizations, and few of them intended to change. But the change they have.
A new way of thinking
No one had a plan for sustained remote work. They may have had a short-term disaster recovery plan – for one or two people to work off-site or to cover the absence of a key employee. But no one expected the entire PA team to be out of the office indefinitely.
The initial struggle was to be able to continue processing payments on time. People have brought home their laptops, but not all of their setup. They continued to send small teams to the office to manage paper-based processes. The idea was that we had to hang in there for a short time. We all know how it happened.
Towards the end of April 2020, we started to see people planning for the longer term. Businesses have set up home offices and all the security and connectivity they need. They had to find new ways to communicate and collaborate. They had to figure out how to be productive at home, in many cases while juggling childcare and home schooling.
At the same time, they started to seriously switch providers for ACH payments. According to recent data from Nacha, the National Automated Clearinghouse, ACH B2B payments to suppliers jumped 11% in 2020. They had to find new processes and new ways to secure information. Both are heavy loads, which is a big part of why paper has persisted for so long.
It has been difficult to say the least, but I think the AP teams should be proud of the way they have adjusted.
Where to go from here
Probably not back in the office – at least not five days a week. According to to a recent Upwork report, about one in four Americans will work remotely in 2021. By 2025, 36.2 million Americans are expected to work remotely, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that, given the option, more than half of employees say they want to continue working from home even after the pandemic is over.
Employers are increasingly comfortable with the idea and are even seeing certain advantages in it, including access to a much larger talent pool and the possibility of offering flexible working hours as a benefit. This could help AP cope with the long-standing talent shortage.
The most important opportunity, however, is to continue to think differently. I would be surprised if very many AP services decide to revert to the old paper-based processes. The main reason people stayed with these for so long was because they were “working”. It’s hard to say now. It’s also hard to say that accounts payable work can only be done in the office because we have been doing it out of the office for a year. The considerable delay in processing payments that some expected never materialized. AP had to find a better way, and they did.
They shouldn’t stop there. PA organizations should seize the opportunity to bring in technological partners to automate the entire payment workflow, respond to growth fraud and security risks associated with ACH payments and ensure the resiliency of payment workflows in a remote working world. They should seek to automate the ingestion and processing of invoices and integrate with other transactional systems, eliminating manual labor once and for all.
No one likes to be forced to change, and that is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the experience we have all had over the past year. Now that AP teams have proven that they have the resilience and ability to manage any changes imposed on them, they must seize the opportunity to become drivers of change and key players in leading their organizations towards success. to come up.