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Six ways the corporate finance function is changing in 2021

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2020 wasn’t a great year for Canadian businesses. As noted by Bloomberg, prior to the second pandemic wave late last year the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) sounded the alarm with warnings that more than 225,000 companies could permanently close.

But it’s not all bad news for Canadian companies. With summer 2021 on track for a semblance of operational normalcy, there’s potential for CFOs and finance departments to find their footing and get finances back on track. The caveat? Continual challenges over the past year have fundamentally changed the finance market — to succeed in the “next normal”, CFOs must be prepared to adapt.

Here’s a look at six emerging trends in corporate finance function, and how Canadian companies can come out ahead.

Trend #1: Prioritizing Digital Processes

As noted by Torys LLP, the COVID-19 crisis drove a surge in digital transaction across industries and markets. The result is an increased need for financial digitization to support a wide variety of payment types and processing preferences, while simultaneously ensuring that digital transformation doesn’t expose customer or corporate data to potential risk. For CFOs, this requires a prioritization of digital processes including cloud-based storage and compute solutions, best-of-breed ERP offerings and AI-driven analytics. In many cases, finance teams are best served by partnering with reliable and reputable providers to streamline process integration at scale.

This is especially critical as current finance frameworks are called on to close the gaps between remote and on-site work requirements — most Canadian companies simply don’t have the time and resources available to build, test and deploy their own digital solutions from the ground up. By partnering with industry leaders, firms can kickstart digital transformation without sacrificing current performance or productivity.

Trend #2: Recognizing Regulatory Risk

The Torys piece also points to the increasing role of regulatory bodies — such as the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) — in evaluating customer concerns and taking appropriate action. This is especially critical as post-pandemic supply chains remain unstable. If businesses can’t deliver on B2C or B2B agreements due to supply shortages or staffing issues, the results could be more than lost revenue; fines, sanctions and even reputation damage are all potential realities.

To sidestep possible problems, CFOs must both recognize regulatory risk and ensure they have financial software solutions in place capable of proactively detecting potential compliance concerns, suggesting actionable solutions and enabling staff implementation of critical changes.

Trend #3: Embracing ESG Expectations

According to PWC Canada, CFOs should expect an uptick in environmental, social and governance (ESG) expectations across their chosen market. From customers and employees to suppliers and business partners, there’s now a widespread push to ensure that Canadian companies do more than simply meet contractual obligations — stakeholders want to business with companies that recognize their role in society at large and take steps to ensure they’re delivering ESG value wherever possible. Here, CFOs must be prepared to lead discussions around current social and environmental best practices and entertain ideas that could help improve ESG outcomes. Even if they come with additional costs, the positive public impact generated is often worth the investment.

Trend #4: Solving for Remote Realities

While remote work was born of necessity, it won’t vanish when pandemic pressures taper off — in fact, just one in five Canadian employees say they’re ready to return full-time when offices reopen. This evolving work culture creates a significant shift in finance function for CFOs. To succeed with teams working in disparate locations, finance officers will need to ensure the right people have the right access to critical finance data while simultaneously safeguarding key corporate assets. In addition, CFOs may need to change their thinking when it comes to hiring new talent; technology savvy and experience with hybrid work environments are now critical to create agile finance teams.

Trend #5: Reducing Corporate Complexity

With staffing numbers starting to rebound and some team members still working remotely, managing employee-side financial frameworks — such as time sheets and scheduling— is rapidly becoming more complex. And with many companies still relying on manual data entry and verification to ensure accurate time sheets and pay stubs, this complexity can lead to both significant time and resource commitments, especially if data entry errors necessitate revision or correction across multiple employees. Here, AI-driven financial solutions can help automatically populate time sheets and ensure accurate data recording to reduce stress on CFOs and help minimize operational complexity.

What does this mean in practice? Consider the deployment of tools such as Sage Intacct Intelligent Time, which leverages advanced AI to reconstruct the work week across multiple projects, allowing finance teams to capture all billable hours. Along with more accurate project costing to improve future forecasting and contract negotiation, Sage Intelligent Time also make it possible to recover up to $10,000 in annual billable time per employee that’s often lost to human error.

Trend #6: Leveraging Long-Term Strategy

2020 required substantive financial agility to navigate evolving lockdown restrictions and make best use of government business assistance programs, but Canadian CFOs must now consider the long-term when it comes to facilitating financial success. As noted by CPA Canada, this starts by looking beyond liquidity to focus on the creation of frameworks that support business objectives both immediately and over the next few years.

For many finance departments, leveraging liquidity became commonplace as cash injections offered a straightforward way to keep the lights on and keep staff employed, but as federal and provincial assistance programs slowly taper off, it’s critical for CFOs to take a bigger-picture approach to success that focuses on sustainability over time.

Navigating the Next Normal

While 2021 won’t be entirely smooth sailing for Canadian companies, there’s already a marked departure from the previous year’s approach — instead of simply surviving, businesses must now find ways to effectively navigate the next normal of finance functions and deliver sustainable success. For CFOs and finance teams this means delivering on digital transitions, recognizing potential risk and embracing new expectations to support remote employees, reduce corporate complexity and build sustainable long-term strategy.

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