Moving to a Virtual Financial CloseHow to successfully execute complex processes in a remote world August 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic drove many companies to transition their employees to a work from home (WFH) environment. For most, first quarter 2020 was also the first fully remote financial close they experienced. As a case study for how insurers dealt with the transition to virtual work and, in particular, the first completely virtual close, Pacific Life shares its Q1 2020 experience in this article. This case study provides insights into how organizations can prepare, challenges that companies will and have faced, and keys to successfully executing complex processes in a virtual world.
Pacific Life achieved a fully remote financial close and was able to hit the internal deadlines that were set prior to WFH. This success was achieved through strong collaboration across actuarial, finance and information technology (IT) functions, combined with significant pre-planning efforts and a strong business continuity structure.
With corporate headquarters based in Southern California, where there is a constant threat of earthquakes, business continuity is taken seriously at Pacific Life. A general concern includes damage or unavailability of a specific building or an area impacted by natural disaster or some other localized event. Part of the contingency plan includes the utilization of an off-site location to keep processes moving. However, the current pandemic impacted all locations at the same time.
Preparing for the Financial Close
Transitioning to the WFH environment two weeks before the quarterly close raised uncertainty regarding the ability to hit internal deadlines. The greatest uncertainty was around staff connectivity and the ability to perform normal quarterly processes on a timely basis. The IT department proved to be an effective partner in working through the technology issues.
As the team started WFH, the focus of the first week was on connectivity and testing close processes, as well as increased pre-planning meetings. The team members tested their quarterly close procedures to ensure they could still access and run their processes. Not surprisingly, some team members encountered connectivity issues, including slow and/or dropped connections. Due to the looming close, issues were elevated quickly to the appropriate response team. IT was available to diagnose and solve connectivity issues quickly, and by the end of the week, most were experiencing reasonable response times.
Here are some of the key challenges we encountered, and how we responded to those challenges:
Establishing Remote Connectivity
Remote connectivity was one of the initial challenges identified. There was a preexisting setup established before the fully WFH environment that allowed workers to work remotely occasionally. However, this virtual desktop setup was not ready at first to handle all users working remotely concurrently. IT quickly resolved the issue by expanding capacity for all users.
Another challenge related to the virtual desktop setup was the extended system runtime to perform functions remotely. With certain processes, the runtimes significantly increased. For example, the extended runtime for certain valuation runs, which generally can take hours, was considered a significant setback. Similarly, select processes with system limitations were never accessible remotely prior to the WFH environment. These processes needed to be run directly from a desktop located in the office. But due to physical distancing restrictions that limited access to the office, the actuarial and IT functions collaborated to develop alternative solutions. Ultimately, IT was able to enable these processes to be run by employees remotely with runtimes consistent with being in the office.
Fulfilling Hardware Requests
Additional computer hardware for the WFH environment was required—many workers needed hardware similar to what they used in the office to match their previous levels of efficiency. This included large and/or multiple monitors to manage the spreadsheets that are part of the financial close process.
Establishing Process and Prioritization for Ongoing Communication of Issues
Each step along this path was dependent upon clear communication and escalation of issues. The financial close personnel were given a high priority with issue resolution. As issues were encountered, they were quickly escalated to the IT performance team with the appropriate competency to help resolve the issue.
Additionally, while the teams tested the system and technical issues associated with our remote close, numerous pre-planning meetings were held across the organization to ensure we had other contingencies in place, such as evaluating scenarios where a large portion of the close team was potentially infected with COVID-19. The internal controls, operational risk and functional leadership teams did an excellent job emphasizing control consciousness throughout the close.
During the Close
During a normal close, staff and team leaders chat frequently—including over cubical walls—to quickly deescalate emerging issues. Due to WFH, we needed to maintain a level of frequent communication and connectedness even though we were not physically next to each other. This required more intentional communication than if we were in the office.
There are normal interdependencies between the actuarial and finance functions during a close with regular communication. Often, communication involves stopping by someone’s desk, checking to see when information might be available or understanding any potential challenges. The virtual close required active check-ins and more communication between the two areas to understand workflows, timeframes and any issues encountered. The communication was done at all levels by leveraging the company’s digital collaboration tools.
The virtual financial close highlighted the flexibility of the teams’ WFH environment. Whether it involved children at home or a spouse working in the same area, it was necessary to adjust to meet the needs of others and the timing of the events. Often during a close, someone may need to wait for data before a processing task can begin or continue. In the WFH environment, this provided the employee flexibility. It was an opportunity to take time away while waiting for the data and come back to the work when the data was available. It increased the efficiency and focus of those involved and allowed for an extended workday to accommodate business needs without being “in the office” the whole time.
WFH also made it easier to touch base with staff after “normal” working hours. Due to the flexibility of schedules and the need for some to adjust their work hours, reaching someone in the evening became more practical. Staff at home would regularly check email or check in on the status of events in the evening. This allowed people to touch base as needed, oftentimes sooner than waiting until the morning of the next business day.
A New World
WFH has changed the way we think about work and day-to-day activities. It has given more focus to activities and processes that previously may have been taken for granted.
Documentation of processes has always been important due to an actuarial student rotation program and workforce changes. However, specific and precise documentation has now become more important than ever. In the past, a rotating student was able to sit next to the current processor and watch as they walked through the steps. Now there is distanced learning involved, and more detailed documentation is needed to transition from one processor to the next.
WFH has created a greater need and understanding that things be documented and kept digitally. Most physical files have stayed in the office, so we’ve had limited access to handwritten notes from past projects or tasks. It has also highlighted the importance of good electronic filing and organization. The best digital documentation needs to be easy to locate.
The pandemic also highlights the need for good cross-training and the quality of process documentation. As we started WFH and the threat of the pandemic loomed, we were asked if our area could function in a potential scenario if 40 percent of the staff were out sick. This would be an unusual event in normal circumstances, but a possibility during a pandemic.
Many of the actuarial runs are computationally intensive and/or require access to large amounts of data. The typical laptop used when WFH would not have the computing power to complete the task or analysis. The virtual desktops and transitioning to the cloud solved most of the challenges. As part of a larger focus on data analytics, the company has set up a virtual desktop that is designed to perform heavy data processing and is loaded with the appropriate data analytic software. This is a place where actuaries can access large amounts of data and have the computer power to push through the analysis. The virtual desktop can be accessed from anywhere once you are logged into the company’s network.
Building the Foundation for Success
The success of our virtual close was based on three main technology strategies that form the foundation of our business resiliency:
- A long-term shift to using more partners to perform technology work (and its supporting infrastructure)
- A need for more employee mobility
- Shifting on-premise technology to run in the cloud
The shift to effectively use partners to perform technology services has required us to enhance key elements of the supporting infrastructure. These key elements include: secure remote access to partners located around the world; protecting Pacific Life’s data; and digital collaboration tools such as Skype, Microsoft Teams and SharePoint, in addition to email and phone access.
Pacific Life has been working to provide a high degree of mobility to employees. We have a large field sales team that works remotely most of the time, several full-time remote employees in many departments, and employees who occasionally WFH. To support them, we employed many of the same technologies used to provide secure access to our technology partners. These include Citrix virtual desktops, a virtual private network (VPN), and remote access to email or files through Microsoft Office 365.
Over the past several months, Pacific Life has embarked on a program to migrate on-premise systems to the cloud. The primary goals were to take advantage of cloud economics, scalability and reliability. Moving actuarial data, collaboration tools, data analytics and other information to the cloud also made our systems more accessible from any internet location.
These three strategies played directly into our business continuity plans, highlighting the reliance on remote access as the single most important capability. In most disaster scenarios, even when employees cannot access the building, we find the systems and data are online and available.
Despite the challenges presented, the first-ever virtual close for our company was a success. There were concerns about its viability on a short timeline, but the foundation laid by the collaboration between actuarial, finance and IT supported a quick transition to WFH.
A large part of our successful virtual close may be the part that you can’t see. It’s an element of our company culture and our employees’ commitment to do well. It is the collaborative nature of the company and the strong relationships that have been forged. It is a culture where timely and transparent communication is expected. And it is having pride in our company and the willingness to go beyond the expected to get the job done well.
Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.