Sharon Martin: My experience as a finance leader during the pandemic

24 Nov 2020 Voices

In a blogpost written to coincide with Charity Finance Week, the head of finance at Cats Protection, Sharon Martin, offers a personal story of how she and her team coped with the turmoil caused by Covid-19

When we packed up our laptops and left the office one Tuesday back in March, none of us could have guessed that we wouldn’t return for what is now expected to be more than a year.

I am really proud of all 16 members of the finance team for adapting so quickly to remote working. No mean feat when we’d always considered that home working just wouldn’t be possible for most of the roles.

This pandemic has challenged our assumptions and expectations in so many ways. We’ve had to introduce some workarounds to our procedures, which in a few areas are slightly cumbersome, but transactions continue to get processed in a timely way. A skeleton staff go into the office on rotation to deal with post and other admin procedures that have not yet gone paperless, although new technologies continue to be explored to eliminate the latter.

To all intents and purposes, normal service for our internal and external customers resumed extremely quickly.

Accounting and forecasting

A significant change in managing the charity’s finances was the switch from managing performance against budget to also managing performance against cash. Cash flow forecasting rapidly increased in prominence. The demand from within the charity for additional, detailed financial information and predictions – fast – had never been greater, and the team produced a reforecast in record time.

Distilling the raft of support measures announced by government into what was applicable to the charity and the rules that applied was an additional complexity, and the various umbrella bodies did a fantastic job in setting this out clearly. As for most charity finance teams, all this was happening at the point that we were finalising the 2019 audit. I don’t think I have ever been so busy for such a sustained period.

Teams fatigue

Microsoft Teams has been an invaluable tool for facilitating our work, although it does have its downsides! We have introduced some protocols to ensure it works effectively; for example, having your camera switched on, for which there was a reticence at first (my analogy being you wouldn’t go to a meeting room and stand behind a whiteboard). As a charity, we are trying to address Teams fatigue by designating a daily time (12.30 to 2.00pm) as meeting free, otherwise you can be in back-to-back meetings the entire day.

I do find there are things that take longer on Teams – in the office, someone might stick their head around the door with a quick query dealt with in two minutes, but now we are all remote, a half-hour Teams meeting is scheduled instead. And my eyesight has definitely deteriorated from spending so much time staring at a screen.

Working remotely

Personally, I don’t enjoy working from home, although I am now used to it. I miss the office, particularly the social side of it, and even though I have a small commute, I miss the separation that it provides between work and home life.

I think as a manager, there is a lot you can miss out on by not being in the same room as your team. You may not notice subtle changes in behaviour which could indicate something is wrong. You also miss out on the jokes, talk about TV programmes, weekend activities, those small things that all help to build relationships. It has been difficult to keep this side going in lockdown without it feeling forced.

I was keen that the regular team meetings included normal office chat about non-work things as well as updates on what was happening in the charity. More recently, we have introduced team bingo to help keep the team spirit alive by bringing everyone together in a setting that isn’t about tasks and information sharing.

New routines

On a more personal level, like so many others, I had to balance work with sudden, full-time caring responsibilities. It was tough and there were tears. The first few weeks were particularly challenging, trying to juggle everything at a time when many of my normal coping mechanisms (socialising, travel, the gym) were simply no longer available.

I was strict with myself about not working in the evenings – I was too exhausted anyway – but this would mean that when I opened my laptop the next morning, the sheer number of new emails was sometimes overwhelming.

Attempts to keep up office-based routines, such as a lunchtime walk, soon slipped as there just wasn’t time. In trying to balance everything, unhealthy practices developed, such as clearing emails the moment I got out of bed, not taking breaks, not eating healthily, etc.

I found attending informal network meetings of fellow charity finance professionals extremely helpful. We may not have always had the answers, but hearing others were facing the same issues certainly helped prevent feelings of isolation. Other things that have got me through include decorating projects, taking up jogging and binge-watching boxsets. I’m not yet quite used to socialising via Zoom – excess Teams meetings make it feel too much like I’m still at work.

Things are calmer now; the new normal feels more settled. It has transitioned from being surreal to real. Slowly, the safety of a routine is returning. While I can look back on the last six months and think “I got through that”, it isn’t something I would relish doing again!

Sharon Martin is head of finance at Cats Protection

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