Remote work is one of the most important trends shaping the 21st-century workplace.
40% of companies now offer employees the choice of whether to work in-office or from home. Another 16% of companies are fully remote, meaning they’ve done away with the idea of “the office” altogether.
Remote teams (also referred to as “distributed teams”) come with a number of benefits, from increased job satisfaction and lower turnover to cost savings and better access to talent.
But working on a remote team is not all mid-day gym breaks and trading funny GIFs over Slack. For the finance department in particular, remote work—with its distributed decision-making, and more flexible reporting structures—can be challenging.
- How do you coordinate questions on critical projects when a quick stop by a coworker’s desk is out of the question?
- How do you share complex financial information with stakeholders across departments when you can’t call a team huddle in the company conference room?
- How do you keep a firm handle on spending decisions when they’re being made in multiple “offices” spread across different time zones?
We wanted to know how companies handle finance for teams that are spread out across the country, so we went straight to the source: finance leaders at some of the top remote companies in business today. Sharing their insights with us are:
- Jenny Bloom, CFO at Zapier, a workflow automation company with 100+ team members spanning fifteen countries
- Jenny Terry, Senior Operations Manager at Buffer, a social media management company with 200+ team members across twenty different countries
- Tanya Crino, Finance Director at MeetEdgar, a social media scheduling company with thirteen team members working in the US, Canada, and the UK
- Preston Graham, VP of Finance at Auth0, an authentication and authorization platform with 475 employees working in 30 different countries
- Max Rice, CEO at Jilt, an email marketing company with 25 team members working remotely in six different countries
- Simon Telling, Director at Vestd, an equity management platform with ten team members working across the UK
- Noah Barr, VP Finance & Business Operations at productboard, a product management company with 70 employees split between San Francisco and Prague
Across all of these experts’ insights, a few clear trends emerged:
- Communicate intentionally
- Share information transparently
- Automate what can be automated
- Put team members in the driver’s seat of their spending decisions and give them the guidance and guardrails they need to succeed
Communication: Find the right channels
In any conversation about navigating the complexities of the remote workplace, there’s one word that’s virtually guaranteed to come up: communication.
With in-person offices, a high volume of information gets exchanged via face-to-face interactions over the coffee-maker, or as you’re passing by a coworker’s desk.
When a team works remotely, those serendipitous “drive-by” interactions are off the table. In their place: a lot of asynchronous communication via email and other online channels.
As Zapier CFO Jenny Bloom points out, asynchronous communication isn’t a problem—until an issue comes up that is time sensitive.
“The biggest challenges are dealing with banks and credit card companies, when they need verification from more than one person,” she says. “In an office, I would walk down to another person’s desk and see if they are there. In a remote environment, you can ping someone in Slack but you don’t know if they are there or in a meeting.”
20% of remote workers cite collaboration/communication as their biggest struggle with remote work. [Source: Buffer]
“Our biggest challenge is around communicating expectations and policies,” adds Tanya Crino, Finance Director at MeetEdgar. “As a remote team without daily face time, we have to be extra vigilant and proactive with our communications.”
With the amount of communication that happens asynchronously, hiring skilled written communicators becomes the name of the game. “Good communication skills are so essential to success as an entirely remote team,” says Bloom. “When your writing is clear, direct and intentional, it helps minimize delays and miscommunication.”
Have the right communication tools in place
Even the best communicator will have a hard time getting their message across without the right tools to get the job done.
When it comes to communication for remote teams, there are two tools in particular that our finance leaders mentioned again and again: the messaging platform Slack and the video conferencing platform Zoom.
“Our entire company works in Slack,” says Bloom. “Our finance team has multiple channels, which each serve a specific purpose. This allows us to answer questions from other departments—for example, ‘Does this home office purchase fall within my budget?’—and have team discussions, without relying on lengthy email threads.”
Slack integrations like Teampay make it easy to monitor and communicate about spending in real time.
Slack has been called the “office of the remote workplace.” And if Slack is the “office” of the remote work world, then the video conferencing tool Zoom is its conference room.
“We live in Zoom,” says Preston Graham, VP of Finance at Auth0. “I’ve been with other companies in the past where conference calls were more popular, but doing everything in video conferencing generates a higher level of engagement across teams. You’re able to pick up on visual cues that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Bring the team together in person
As advanced as the options for communication tools have become over the past decade or so, there really is no substitute for good old-fashioned in-person interactions. That’s where team retreats come in.
At Vestd, the entire team gets together for a company retreat once every six months. And it’s not all team-building exercises and trips to the karaoke bar. “We cover a range of issues, including deep dives into performance,” explains Director Simon Telling.
And now and then, those in-person get-togethers raise questions and insights that get lost in translation.
“We had a team retreat a few months ago, and were going through our medium-term financial goals,” remembers Telling. “A member of the team realized that he had no idea what our trading performance was, and the implication of that for our strategic priorities. It completely changed his understanding of what we were doing and why.”
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Transparency: Build trust and confidence across the team
Managing person-to-person communications is one challenge facing remote teams. Communicating bigger-picture financial information with the whole team is another.
But in a business environment where decisions that impact finance are increasingly distributed across departments (and, on remote teams, across time zones), keeping team members up to speed on the bigger financial picture is more important than ever.
“Transparency with finances builds trust with the team,” says Tanya Crino of MeetEdgar. “They know the decisions that are being made, and how they affect our bottom line. It also allows the team to make better spending decisions, which is critical for a bootstrapped company like MeetEdgar.”
The Buffer team has developed a reputation for extreme transparency. So much so that they’ve made their monthly revenue and the salaries of everyone on the Buffer team available, not just internally, but to the whole world.
That commitment to transparency extends to sharing the company’s financial performance across the team as well.
“Each month, our Director of Finance shares an update internally with the team through a tool called Threads,” says Buffer Senior Operations Manager Jenny Terry.
Included in Buffer’s internal update:
- Revenue highlights
- An overview of their operating expenses
- An overview of their operating profit (including EBITDA)
- Links to budget-to-actuals for the entire company and by area (saved in Google Drive)
- Links to all of their financial statements: B/S, I/S (saved in Google Drive)
“The team also has full and ongoing access to our budget and financial models that we update regularly,” Terry adds.
Just as important as sharing financial information across the team is ensuring that everyone is able to access that information when they need it. At MeetEdgar, the team uses Tettra as their documentation and knowledge-sharing tool. Buffer recently adopted the collaboration tool Notion.
“Having one central place where we store all financial reporting for the company and our financial guidelines has been a huge help in ensuring that the information doesn’t just exist, but that it is accessible and approachable,” says Terry.
Sharing key financial information across the team is important. But in order for that information to be meaningful, team members need a solid understanding of what the numbers mean.
At Zapier, employees get a crash course in financial literacy from Day 1. “New hires complete financial lessons as part of the onboarding process,” explains Jenny Bloom. “The goal is to ensure employees understand our business metrics, how to read financial statements, show how the company is performing and demonstrate how individuals can impact growth.”
Simon Telling, Director at Vestd, offers this formula for keeping the whole team aligned on financial priorities: “Keep it simple, repeat it often, but allow for deep dives occasionally to get everyone on the same page.”
Automation: Stay small and nimble, and prioritize growth
Zapier team has a saying that we love: “Don’t be a robot, build the robot.”
Like the distribution of spending decisions, automation is a trend that’s influencing financial operations across the board. A recent survey we performed found that automation is a major strategic goal for top-performing finance teams of all shapes and sizes.
On remote teams, knowing which tasks need your undivided attention and which tasks can be put on autopilot is even more essential.
“[Automating tasks] has helped us keep our finance team small & nimble while growing revenues substantially each year,” says Max Rice, CEO of Jilt. “We identified and implemented high-quality vendors and tools that help us get a lot done with a small team by automating or outsourcing most of the work.”
Jilt is not the only company that has tapped into the power of automation-powered efficiency in order to run ultra-lean finance teams. All of the companies we talked to are taking advantage of automation to unlock increased efficiency for their teams.
- Jilt runs finance operations for a team of 25 with three people.
- Vestd also has one finance team member for a team of ten.
- productboard manages finances for a team of 70 with a team of three.
- Buffer has three finance team members managing everything for a team of 85.
- Zapier takes care of finances for a team of over 200 with just five finance employees.
As for the tools remote teams rely on to keep the finance engine chugging along smoothly? Rice gave us this rundown of Jilt’s finance stack:
- G Suite (especially Sheets & Docs) for ongoing reporting and analysis
- QuickBooks Online for accounting
- FreshBooks for invoicing
- Sush.io to connect Stripe to QuickBooks
- TransferWise for international payments with low fees
- TriNet for US & Canadian payroll and benefits
- Zapier to connect everything
For more on the tools favored by top-performing finance teams, download our report on The Finance Stack of Top Performing Companies.
Purchasing and expenses: Democratize access while maintaining control
We’ve talked before about how spending behavior is changing within remote teams across the board. A major difference is that purchasing decisions are now being made by individuals across an organization rather than a centralized purchasing department. (You can listen to Teampay’s CEO, Andrew Hoag, talk about it here.)
On remote teams, the distance between the people making spending decisions and the people responsible for monitoring those decisions puts finance leaders in a tricky position.
“You want to find the right mix of empowering people and maintaining control,” Noah Barr, VP of Finance at productboard says. “Too little oversight, and things snowball out of control quickly. Too much micromanaging, and you’re just being annoying.”
The key to striking that balance: setting clear rules and guidelines around how spending decisions should be made.
“We’ve found that lack of clarity around what teammates can expense can create a lot of anxiety,” says Jenny Terry of Buffer. “Over the last two years, we’ve really tried to lean into providing clear guidelines so teammates know exactly what they can submit for reimbursement. Clear guidelines mean that our team is freed from the guessing game when it comes to submitting expenses each month, and the finance team has a better pulse on anticipated spend.”
What do those clear guidelines look like?
“Each area has a budget and this allows a lot of freedom for teams to make purchasing decisions throughout the year,” Terry explains. “We do ask that for any purchase that requires an upfront payment of more than $5,000, that finance be looped in, so that we can keep a pulse on large cash expenditures impacting cash flow. But for the most part, having area budgets in place has allowed our budget managers the ability to make decisions that are best for their area without worrying about checking with finance first.”
MeetEdgar has a similar philosophy when it comes to empowering team members to make their own expensing decisions.
“We allow autonomy on most day-to-day purchasing decisions,” says Crino. “We have a Tettra page, ‘How to Use Your Company Credit Card and What’s OK to Charge,’ that lays out guidelines and examples. And we have a second Tettra page that provides guidance on ‘How to Make Spending Decisions.’”
MeetEdgar’s “OK to charge” list includes tools employees need for their day-to-day jobs, such as software subscriptions and home internet. But it also covers home office supplies and work perks, such as snacks at the employee’s local co-working space or coffee shop and even monthly house cleaning.
MeetEdgar’s willingness to cover things like home internet and coffee shop snacks makes them something of an anomaly among remote companies. According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work Report, only 25% of remote companies cover at least part of their employees’ home internet and just 13% cover drinks or food at coffee shops.
Remote workers are footing the bill for home internet access. [Source: Buffer]
“For purchases under $200, the team is free to make the decision on their own for items within the “What’s OK to Charge” guidelines. Above $200, team members should consult with their team Advocate. We also provide additional guidance for Advocates for larger items like conferences, freelancers, or paid ads.”
Putting team members in the driver’s seat of their spending decisions is not without its challenges. “Following-up for receipts has been an issue at times,” reflects Tanya Crino of MeetEdgar. We’re flexible on some charges, like those that recur monthly, but for others, like Amazon, it’s important we get the receipt to know what the expense is for and record it properly.”
Here, again, having the right tools and automations in place makes the difference. We didn’t ask them to bring this up, but productboard uses Teampay to ensure they are keeping tabs on what money is being spent where without having to waste time tracking down receipts.
“The key for me, at a high level is, when you’re moving fast, you want to do delegated responsibility as much as possible,” says productboard Finance VP Noah Barr. “The vast majority of what people need is pretty small stuff. So the idea is, push spending authority down to where the decision is actually happening. Don’t hold onto it centrally. It’s about democratizing access, while maintaining control.”
Embrace remote possibility
Remote work presents some unique challenges for finance teams, but as Zapier CFO Jenny Bloom points out, many of the core best practices of in-house teams remain the same.
“It is really no different than the best practices in an office. Make time to build relationships with your team. Hire the right people that can work independently. Have great documentation on all processes and procedures.”
With deliberate communication, transparent knowledge sharing, strategic automation, and clear policies around spending and expenses, finance teams can set their teams up to work—and succeed—from anywhere.