Paul Leigh, chief financial officer at Focus-Trust, discusses how school closures, and the impact of COVID-19, has changed the way his trust works – and why he thinks these changes should stay
Just when I thought schools were entering a period of relative stability after years of funding pressures and cuts, in late March 2020, the nation went into lockdown due to COVID-19, and schools across the country closed.
The future now feels even more uncertain than it has ever felt, and this was clearly going to be a real test of the finance team’s leadership, resilience and agility. So, as the trust’s chief financial officer, I decided straight away that the best thing I could do was to ensure that the finance function did not just cope, but stepped up to the mark to help support school leaders as they grappled with the impact of the virus.
The finance function needed, above all, to maintain the payment of salaries and suppliers in a timely and accurate manner. Strong financial control was just as important, especially as fraudsters were beginning to use the vulnerability of the situation to increase their fraudulent activities. Furthermore, the timely production of monthly management accounts became paramount to ensure the impact of any changes was managed and controlled.
March seems, to me, like a long time ago; a lot has happened since, and I have had little time for reflection. This article covers what I have learnt and how these lessons will positively impact the future.
From the outset of the lockdown the transition to remote working went relatively smoothly because our finance systems are all cloud-based and can be accessed remotely. The central finance team and business managers all had laptops, not desktops, so could easily access the finance systems.
We tried to get more of our suppliers to send their invoices electronically and this enabled us to pay them on time. We have seen more readiness from smaller suppliers to oblige, even if this means them scanning in their printed invoices and emailing them to us for payment.
Over the years the trust has made significant progress in reducing the number of cheques it pays, as its preference is to pay by BACS. This really helped payment processing times during lockdown because BACS is purely electronic, as is the remittance advice which is a PDF emailed by the finance system. We will now aim to eradicate the use of cheques altogether – after all, during lockdown who could go to a bank to pay a cheque in?
All of this continuation of transaction processing meant that we could continue to produce meaningful monthly management accounts, on time, to maintain effective financial control and governance. Whilst we still have more to do to become fully electronic, the challenges from the closure of schools and lockdown has demonstrated how important it is to do this, not just for efficiency, but also for financial resilience and the management of risk.
Keeping up with the team
A key challenge of remote working during lockdown was keeping up team spirits, productivity and motivation. Under normal circumstances remote working risks reducing engagement, and can lead to a drop in trust, as the ever important face-to-face aspect of human relationships disappears.
So, very quickly, we jumped in at the deep end and fully embraced video conferencing technology, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Properly done, we found that our engagement did not suffer – and we even managed to do some remote socialising such as quizzes for a bit of fun. Wellbeing is really important to Focus-Trust and the use of video conferencing technology ensured nobody felt forgotten or left out.
Our proficiency in its use was faster than we could ever have imagined and very soon I was confident enough to carry out fifteen budget review meetings with a number of colleagues remotely.
I found that, apart from the obvious savings in time travelling to and from locations, cost savings and no travel tiredness, we were able to share documents and finance systems on the screen for all to see, and make any changes in real time. This new remote videoing format was very effective, and positively received.
From a governance perspective, the trust was determined to maintain its strong governance and oversight and the video conferring technology was effectively used to run our audit committee, operations and finance committee and board. Given that our trustees are unpaid, and very busy people, we found that the video conferencing technology provided additional flexibility to attend meetings as there was no travel involved.
In fact, I found no real difference in how I could present financial papers and reports to the committee meetings remotely, and the trustees found they could still provide strong scrutiny, challenge and support.
The use of video technology also enabled the trust to quickly establish, and run, a series of COVID-19 committees to help school leaders navigate their way through the crisis. The remote video technology enabled the committee to meet frequently, and at short notice when required, to deal with emerging issues and developments. The speed, agility and responsiveness this enabled the committee to demonstrate was very much welcomed by our school leaders.
Change is here to stay
My key takeaway is that, when things get back to the ‘new normal’, we will not just automatically go back to face-to-face meetings for everything. We have been forced into using new technologies, and introducing new ways of working, by the terrible circumstances of COVID-19.
But this will not be in vain. We will take the best of what we have learnt and use this to build a ‘blended new normal’ of face-to-face and video conferencing technologies working together in harmony, just like paperback books and e-readers and like film streaming technologies and cinemas. Who would have thought?