COVID-19 has thrown construction industry back offices for a loop. Trying to get employees equipped to work securely from home; figuring out how to make manual processes work when everyone's working outside the office; applying for and administering PPE loans to keep paying salaries for unionized workers—all of these were prominent topics of conversation in the chat rooms at Viewpoint Collaborate 2020, the maker of construction accounting and project management's signature event, which we attended virtually in September.
The conference, which we've attended annually since we partnered with Viewpoint, is as good a place as any to see what's on finance professionals' minds in the industry--perhaps even more so this year since the virtual event was free. Previous years have hosted around 1500 people, with most of them being customers or prospects. With free registration and no required travel, over 7000 people attended the event this year—a good indication of a broader interest in bringing technology to the back office.
While it was difficult to get a feel for the increased attendance from our home offices, there was still a sense of the community coming together with more interactions between attendees over chat than would happen in person. It was definitely a different experience, but not without its benefits.
It's taken construction longer than some industries to find their way to a new normal. Now they're looking to digitize and automate sooner rather than later. To move forward, companies need to figure out a priority order for applying technology to back-office processes.
Things can't continue as they are. Everybody's known this, but the field has focused on a lot of technology investment for several years. Field personnel are set up to be mobile, but nobody was really prepared for working remotely in the back office. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call.
We heard stories from conference-goers about how they sent employees home with a printer from work to print checks because that person didn't want to come into the office and potentially get exposed. We heard of tag team check run days where someone would come to the office in the morning, print the checks, and put them on the CFO's desk. They'd leave and let the CFO know the checks were ready. The CFO would come into the office, sign the checks, leave and let someone else know to come in and stuff the envelopes and get them out the door.
Those are not good continuity plans, especially when you've got accounting responsibilities spread out across different offices across the country. It's not just invoices and checks; there are so many paper documents that used to be exchanged just by walking down the hall--lien releases, insurance certificates, etc.
Viewpoint has been on mission to connect the entire construction ecosystem – including owners, architects, engineers, and contractors – through integrated, cloud-based, and easy-to-use products. To that end, they announced they are incorporating estimating and procurement, detailing and fabricating, and resource management into their products. Another key announcement was the integration of Viewpoint ePayments powered by Nvoicepay into all of three of their ERP products.
Now that the initial overwhelm of 2020 has passed, people are finally lifting their heads and finding more sustainable business continuity plans. That's where automating accounts payable fits in.
There are three parts to consider: Invoice ingestion, invoice workflow, and making the payments. This whole process is still manual in the vast majority of construction companies. There are several ways to automate it:
We're obviously biased in favor of options one and four.
Option number one can be accomplished through the Viewpoint integration with Nvoicepay. You get all the functionality of Nvoicepay through the system you're already using.
Number four is still elementary to accomplish—much easier than numbers two or three.
There's a push in the industry to automate the approval workflow, making logical sense in that process precedes payments, but automating payments is actually easier to do. The process is fully contained within accounts payable, so it is not disruptive to the larger organization. It does not require integration. We can take a payment file of approved invoices from whatever accounting, ERP, or invoice system you have, now or in the future. Because there's no intersection where these systems need to talk to each other, the implementation only requires a few weeks and a few hours of IT time. Because of our supplier network, you're able to pay a much larger percentage of your suppliers by card, so you will start generating rebate revenue immediately.
COVID-19 has made it clear that back-office automation has to happen. It also seems like the kind of automation project construction finance departments can easily take on as we close out 2020.