Michelle Bilalakis (left) and Lesley Dougans (right) are two of the finance staff who have been working from Burnabay campus.

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From paper to .pdfs: SFU’s finance department keeps money moving during COVID-19

June 18, 2020
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By Natalie Lim

This article is part of a story series that thanks SFU staff still working from campus during COVID-19. You can read more stories here.

Every March, employees in SFU’s finance department spend weeks processing endless invoices and transactions as they close the year-end books and prepare to report SFU’s financial statements to B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education. In any given year, the team makes a herculean effort to complete the annual financial audit and meet the government’s strict reporting timelines. 

This year, they did it all while navigating a global pandemic. 

From paper to .pdfs

The finance team’s biggest challenge has been keeping critical workflows running while most of the SFU community works off-site. Although the team is working towards automating all its processes, when COVID-19 hit in March, the systems for processing some payroll categories and employee invoices, among others, were still paper-based; the team depended on receiving invoices and other documents through inter-campus mail.

Staff quickly pivoted to an electronic system, accepting digital scans of documents or email attachments, while simultaneously inventing a process for performing their year-end audit remotely. Additionally, staff dealt with an increased workload due to COVID-19-specific requests, such as faculty members seeking reimbursement for cancelled flights or research labs ordering urgent supplies as they joined the fight against COVID-19.

Despite these hurdles, unlike other post-secondary institutions, SFU submitted its audit on time.

Daniel Blue, director, financial services, wants to thank not only his team, but contacts across the community—from staff who completed expense reports on time to finance and administrative staff in various departments and faculties—for their cooperation during the audit process.

“Across the university, I never heard a group saying, ‘I can’t do this’,” says Blue. “People were stressed about making changes on the fly, but the spirit was always, ‘Let’s figure out how to make it work.’ It was amazing to see.”

Finance staff still working from campus

Some portfolios in the finance department are now working from home, such as the procurement team, which has been securing supplies and services to support research labs and the transition to online work. However, as many finance processes remain paper-based, some employees have been working on campus on a rotating basis since the pandemic began. They need continuous access to paper records kept in their offices and, of course, cheques cannot be printed from home. Because the office needs to keep a record of all financial transactions, the team is also charged with digitizing paper documents.

Lesley Dougans, assistant manager, payment services, and Michelle Bilalakis, assistant manager, payroll, are two of the finance staff continuing to work from the Burnaby campus.

Dougan’s team deals with payments to suppliers for goods and services, as well as employee expense claims, while Bilalakis and her team ensure that all SFU employees get paid on time. Several employees have been working extra hours and weekends to support the community.

“As a team we’ve been impacted by COVID-19 significantly, but we’ve worked hard to make sure the community hasn’t been,” says Bilalakis. “Everyone is worried about their finances right now. We didn’t want to add to that anxiety.”

“At first, being on campus was strange,” reflects Dougans. “Although it is peaceful up here with the odd deer grazing nearby, I am starting to miss the buzz of students and seeing our whole finance team back together.”

“Coming in to work every day like normal has really helped me emotionally,” adds Bilalakis. “We have a wonderful team, and it’s so nice to see familiar faces.” 

Gratitude all around

Mary Aylesworth, director of financial operations, is responsible for SFU’s “spending” processes–procurement, payments, and payroll—and she takes special pride in her team’s efforts.

“Over this period, none of SFU’s 6,000-plus employees have needed to worry about whether or not they were going to get paid,” says Aylesworth. “It’s a real tribute to our team. From completing the audit to ensuring invoices get paid on time, everyone in finance has gone above and beyond their normal duties these past few months.” 

Like Blue, Aylesworth is grateful for the SFU community’s support during this time.

“None of our work is done in isolation,” she says. “We’re all part of the great big puzzle of SFU. It’s been a challenge, but together we’ve made it work.”