CPA INSIDER

Trust and technology keep productivity up during pandemic

With uncertain timelines and offices working completely remotely, this is how one company is thriving.
By Amanda Abrams

Editor's note: This article is part of the "Profiles in Productivity" series featuring insights from finance leaders across industries about the tools and techniques they used to motivate and lead their teams to productivity in 2020.

In mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic forced managers around the world to suddenly send their staffs home and figure out how to make it work. Some have succeeded, with their workplaces not only functioning but thriving.

Commonfund is one of those companies. An asset management firm overseeing investment programs for universities, foundations, museums, and other cultural institutions, the company is headquartered in Connecticut with offices in New York and San Francisco.

"It's going amazingly well," says Mark Anson, CPA (inactive), CGMA, Ph.D., J.D., Commonfund's CEO and chief investment officer. The organization's 160 employees are now all working remotely. "Productivity hasn't sagged; I haven't seen any diminution of that at all."

Succeeding during this era of uncertain timelines and lean budgets has required, unsurprisingly, a heavy reliance on technology to maintain bonds between employees. But Commonfund managers have also found a way to magnify the strengths of remote work, by employing a more informal check-in style and building on technology's democratizing effects.

Leveraging technology to strengthen output

Like so many other companies, Commonfund dabbled in remote-work options in the past, but this is the first time its workforce is fully immersed in a work-from-home environment.

It hasn't been seamless, Anson says. "As much as CEOs might say they were prepared, no one was. There's no best practices to prepare for a pandemic — it's all new territory for people."

Still, Commonfund did get a small head start. When the coronavirus began looming on the horizon, the organization canceled its annual forum, which was scheduled for March. Instead, its leaders ran a full dry run of its backup and contingency plan, then eased staff out of the office over a few days. A week later, all three states in which Commonfund has offices went into lockdown.

The company's IT team already had strong tech tools in place. And immediately after heading home, all employees took virtual Microsoft Teams training and have been using it ever since.

Even as the pandemic has dragged on, employees are still engaged and say they have what they need to do their jobs well.

"It's so easy, with Microsoft Teams, to pull someone into a videoconference, as opposed to having to check first if they're at their desk. That's enhanced our collaboration — people have taken ownership of decision-making a lot faster," Anson says.

And with more staff taking responsibility, he says, there's been a flattening of the hierarchy within the organization and new voices speaking up. "When everyone has an equal amount of 'screen space,' it dampens egos while allowing everyone to have an equal say on whatever project you're discussing."

Anson has come to recognize the value of technology to the company moving forward. In the past, he might have considered spending extra revenue on real estate, but today, he says he would instead elect to invest in technology.

"This has taught me that we can stay connected regardless of where we are. Office space or adding on will be less of a priority."

Trust is critical — and was already there

Anson and his leadership team felt an initial urge to maintain frequent contact with employees by sending emails more often and holding more virtual meetings. But his managers were able to resist that impulse, largely because they deeply trust their people.

"But that trust needs to be built before you go into a virtual environment — it's hard to build through computer screens," Anson cautions. "Those casual interactions you have in the office, that human interaction, that's where trust gets built up. It was already embedded in our culture."

Today, communication between managers and workers is frequent but informal. "There is less of a need to schedule formal check-ins. It's so easy to dial up team members on Microsoft Teams to ask a few questions and then get back to work," he says. "Trust and communication go hand in hand, and the video technology simply enhances that dynamic."

As a result, the company is flourishing. Anson and his leaders haven't detected any signs of work falling through the cracks, and clients — who've needed more hands-on assistance during the pandemic — have remained very satisfied.

Despite the uncertain future and a need to keep budgets low, Anson said he's not considering investing in any significant automation to boost productivity. After all, he says, Commonfund's clients want to know that real people are deliberating over key decisions and poring over the data: that's the company's value.

"I'm always thinking about ways to save money, but I'm not thinking about how to cut labor and replace it with technology," Anson says. "You can't take a personal relationship and turn it into an algorithm. Our clients want to know that it's full service, all hands on deck."

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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