By Alexandra Cain*
A more flexible working environment is a fait accompli for credit teams.
A combination of the increasingly multinational nature of the credit environment and a desire for a better work life balance means more credit departments are starting to offer staff the option to start early and finish early, or start late and finish late.
But enabling credit teams to work at home requires some planning given security and privacy challenges. Firms need to be assured hackers entering the system through their staff member’s home computer could not compromise their customer’s sensitive personal data.
While this is a particular challenge for credit team to work through, it is unlikely to be an insurmountable one. Nevertheless, this is one of the main issues credit managers are confronting as they plan the credit teams of the future.
Facing the future
Melissa Mann, National Credit Manager at Visy Industries, explains how she approaches flexible working with one of her staff members with a young family.
“One of my staff members starts around 7.00am and is finished around 2.30pm. The employee benefits because she is available to pick up her kids from school, and Visy Industries benefits as well.”
Mann says cross-training staff to do other people’s roles for coverage enhances the customer experience as the covering staff are aware in advance of some of the nuances of the customer and their trading account to ensure continuity of customer service.
She adds that the business is discussing how it might be able to offer flexible working to other staff. “The “best fit” arrangement needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. We’re all looking for a better work/life balance and we all have commitments outside work. The priority is to ensure that the solution is a win-win for both the employee and the employer.”
Aside from this formal flexible arrangement, Mann says it’s also important to be sensible about allowing staff to take time off to do personal tasks during work hours such as going to the dentist. Her belief is that in turn this leads to reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.
However, allowing staff to work from home proves to be a little more difficult. This is due to the associated licensing costs for VPN intranet, but incremental steps can be taken until a permanent solution is found. Visy recently switched its email from Outlook to Gmail so employees can access their email account remotely.
While her staff can’t access the business’s major financial systems or intranet from home, Mann, as part of the Visy Management team, is able to do this via VPN.
Says Mann: “we are all working toward a situation where we can enable staff to work more flexibly.” She believes advances in technology contribute to this.
“If we are going to be a progressive business in this space, these are the sorts of challenges we have to manage and work through because flexible working hours will be expected to a viable option in the not-too-distant future,” she says.
Peter Morgan, director, Byron Thomas Recruitment, says he has seen an increase in flexible working in credit teams in recent years.
“We work with a number of companies that do not have set start and finish times for their credit teams. This is not quite Virgin’s, ‘unlimited leave’ model of flexibility that was introduced in 2014, but it is going in that direction. Businesses expect deliverables as opposed to employees spending hours at their desk,” he says.
Morgan explains some international organisations already run a roster system to incorporate international time zones into their working day. This can be a win/win scenario for the company and the employee.
He says the most successful flexible teams have the right people to start with and are managed on deliverables such as process improvement, DSO and aged date.
Morgan notes offering flexible working creates a culture of responsibility and flexibility.
“If managed in the correct way with the correct people it can increase retention, engagement and results. Employees require a work/life balance and if a company can support them, the employee is likely to be more engaged and productive.” “But I have seen large credit teams go through teething issues if they offer too much flexibility to employees who are not ready for it. This is because individuals respond differently to responsibility. Some will take advantage of more flexibility and become less productive,” he says.
The best way to manage this comes down to making sure you have the right people in your business and clear metrics to manage performance. “If targets are not achieved then flexibility is tapered,” Morgan adds.
According to Tarnya Lowe, general manager of accounting, banking and finance, Randstad, flat conditions in the financial services sector has prompted more businesses to use more novel approaches to staffing. This is one reason why credit teams are looking into how to offer flexible working
“In the last two years some areas in financial services have taken advantage of contract staff who require flexible working conditions. These include people returning from parental leave,” she says.
Lowe agrees the home-hub model is yet to proliferate in any meaningful way in credit, but says it makes a lot of sense for businesses to be exploring how they could offer this.
“In this approach staff come into the business to do their initial training, but then work shift patterns that suit them. Employees are typically required onsite once a fortnight for team meetings and management link-ups. This is attractive to a workforce that is unable to conform to a standard work office environment,” she adds.
According to Lowe businesses that do allow staff to work from home enjoy healthy retention rates, particularly in contact centres that typically have high turnover. “I see this as being the next model credit and collection teams could offer.”
Successfully offering flexible working is all about setting up staff members to succeed, which starts from the on-boarding process.
Says Lowe: “You need to set expectations and allow the staff member to take responsibility and accountability for their own work performance.”
Managers also need the right combination of ‘tech and touch’ to make flexible working succeed. For instance, they require the right technology to monitor KPIs, call rates and productivity levels.
“Then you need regular link ups. It gives you that opportunity to talk to people so they don’t just feel they are just at the end of a phone, but that they are part of a bigger community,” Lowe adds.
Many credit team are already very used to offering flexible work options to staff, and all credit managers should have this as a watching brief as the modern workforce evolves.
Managing busy times
Credit managers must structure their teams to ensure they are appropriately resourced for the busy periods.
“The majority of larger companies will tend to carry a little extra fat in their structure and have a few employees or contractors trained up in all areas so that if someone is away they can fill in. This is also a good option for businesses to manage the situation when employees require extended leave for any reason,” Morgan says.
*Alexandra Cain is a freelance finance journalist who has written for many leading Australian and international business publications.