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Lessons Learned: How One Accounting Department Evolved During Unusual Times

December 20, 2021
Accounting department

This article, written by Matthew Cleary, VP of Accounting Operations for Douglas Elliman Property Management, is an excerpt from our recent eBook “Expert Insights: The New State of Real Estate,” available for download here.

Over the past few years, my company’s accounting department converted communications and reporting systems with the ultimate goal of becoming completely digital. 

We invested more in hardware, software and automation to make our processes more efficient and our employees more productive. All was going smoothly. Then the pandemic hit.

Our company and finance team had to adjust to deal with the unprecedented circumstances, new market conditions and changing customer needs.

As one of New York City’s largest residential real estate property management companies we had to make countless unusual changes to serve a large set of customers (nearly 380 properties). We learned so much along the way. 

Out of all the lessons we learned, there are a few that stand out from a business and digital transformation perspective.

I’m going to share these experiences with the hope you’ll gain insights to improve your finance team’s productivity in the post-pandemic era. Then I’ll offer you a few efficiency tips I’m most passionate about.

People are more productive at home

Like plenty of other companies, we weren’t sure if the work-from-home paradigm shift would help or hinder our business. After all, our business has been around for more than 100 years, and in that span we hadn’t seen anything like 2020. 

To our surprise, we found our employees were more productive working from home because they don’t get interrupted nearly as often as in corporate offices. This isn’t a hunch. We have the metrics that prove this. 

For our business, productivity is key. So, this changed the game for us. It doesn’t mean all our employees will work at home all the time from now on, but it does tell us they can be productive, and we’ll be more open than ever to letting them do so more frequently.

This work-from-home productivity boost turned into one of the key reasons our company succeeded last year in exceptionally difficult business conditions. We succeeded because we made sure our employees had the technologies they needed to get their work done efficiently. 

I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were before with most, or all, of our employees working in corporate offices every day.

Scope jobs thoroughly, reallocate resources

As our finance team started moving to remote working routines, I discovered not every person’s job and associated objectives fit naturally into this new paradigm. I learned how important it is to scope thoroughly the tasks each worker is responsible for.

Taking this detailed approach, I figured out which employees could work from home productively and what I needed to help them with to make sure they could.

Along these same lines, I saw how important it was to reallocate resources — especially our workers. Until the crisis began, for instance, one of our accounts payable (AP) clerks had been doing AP work for 10 years. 

When the crisis began, we shifted this employee into a transitional role helping our board members, superintendents and managers adjust to work-from-home life.

We already used an automated AP system so we didn’t need all 30 of our AP teammates to approve and route invoices and make payments. Two people could handle all this. I restructured the accounting department to make sure everyone was assigned to do other important work such as worker’s compensation and insurance contracts and processing.

The crisis made our entire team more versatile as we adapted to new technologies in different locations. While it took a grand team effort over a long period of time, it worked because we reallocated resources extensively.

Face your biggest obstacles

As we reallocated, we also faced our two biggest obstacles. One was integration of our hardware and software. From a software perspective, I’m referring to the integration of AP software with accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. 

These integrations became obstacles because, technologically, they’re not trivial and often not straightforward. It often takes lots of time, money and trial and error to get the systems to run smoothly together.

If you don’t establish an easy integration, you won’t be able to transfer data between your various software packages and productivity will fall. In our case, we made integration a priority and that helped us achieve smooth integrations quicker.

Then we took on another major task: gaining buy-in from internal stakeholders on technology changes. 

As you may know, it takes quite a bit of time to roll out new technology and for people to accept and use it. To get people on board, I held seminars and frequently communicated with key stakeholders.

But that wasn’t nearly enough. You can talk to people as much as you want about the performance of an accounting or AP software, but to get an internal stakeholder to buy-in you have to show them the product in motion, how it actually works, what cost- and time-saving benefits it brings to the company and how it makes their lives better.

One of the most important groups to bring on board was IT leadership. It was crucial those stakeholders understood the accounting technology changes we made and how those would boost our company’s performance.

Be flexible in your evolving role

During the pandemic, I realized my role transformed. I took on more of the responsibilities of a technology support leader because our accounting department implemented new hardware and software.

I had to be more available to my colleagues and walk them through how to use AP software and other technologies. Why? Because there’s only so much our IT department could do to help us given the number of people in our company who needed support. 

My career experience has now broadened from accounting into the IT sector where I’m learning and applying a different skill set. This isn’t a career journey I planned or expected. It’s a surprise, but I enjoy the new type of work.

Digital transformation: The driving force of change

Coming out of the pandemic, you can see that we’ve learned so much and progressed so far. For us, digital transformation is at the heart of all these changes, new discoveries and positive momentum.

From our secure technology platforms, our finance pros can pay monthly maintenance fees, find reporting errors, and review financial reports – all online. Even during the pandemic, our accounting department continued to explore and invest in new tech.

Early last year – before the pandemic started – we migrated our co-op and condo properties to the latest version of our accounting software. More than half

of our company’s properties offer online applications, forms and a range of valuable information for sellers, buyers, legal teams and brokers.

Our state-of-the-art technology allows property managers and building board members to digitally review applications and collect fees instantly. This completely paperless system goes a long way towards cutting waste, protecting the environment and making life easier for everyone involved.

All this is to say progress has been good even during the unbelievably unusual 2020-21. And so much of it has occurred because of all we learned – and how we reallocated resources and used technologies – to deal effectively with the rarity that was the last 12-plus months.

Productivity tips

So how can your accounting team be more productive going forward?

Embrace the work-from-home phenomenon

It’s not a question of productivity. You don’t need to worry about that, fortunately, when you can use metrics to track performance. Going forward, be open to letting your workers stay at home when they need to or just want to. It’s not going to hurt your business. From a productivity standpoint, it may even help.

Understand change is going to be even more common in the coming months and years

Your finance team will change. Your role will expand. The skills you and your team will need will evolve. The pandemic taught us about the importance of being versatile and moving people around to different roles to get the job done. 

The more your finance team learns and takes on, the more productive your team is likely to be.

Make it a high priority for your finance team to become more tech-savvy

Digital transformation is gaining momentum all over the real estate industry and finance profession. You and your teammates will advance by becoming more technologically literate and versatile. 

Pay especially close attention to machine learning, cybersecurity and cloud computing technologies because they’re central to the future of day-to-day financial work.

Final thoughts: There’s no going back

Our business, like so many others and perhaps yours, is never going to go back to where it was a few years ago. Too much has changed technologically and culturally within and outside our company. 

We all enjoy seeing each other in the office again and feelings of hopeful anticipation are emerging. Looking back at the past year-plus makes it easy to see just how far we’ve come. Yet we recognize work-from-home offers a viable option for many of our employees. It’s a time of transition and re-assessment.

Our business, like so many others, is undeniably different than it was at the start of last year. Yet I have to tell you, it’s great to be here in this new place and time, moving ahead full throttle towards an all-digital, all-the-time business world.

About the author

Matthew Cleary is the vice president of accounting operations for Douglas Elliman Property Management, a real estate management company based in New York City. He has more than 20 years of experience in the finance profession.

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