CFOs and finance professionals focused heavily on people issues when the COVID-19 pandemic buffeted companies and businesses with challenges unlike any that have been faced in a generation.
Data trends from various Association of International Certified Professional Accountants’ Economic Outlook Surveys show the efforts that finance leaders in business and industry undertook to take care of and manage their people.
In the early days of the pandemic, health and safety of employees and customers was the biggest concern of finance leaders, according to data collected in 2020 via the Economic Outlook Survey.
Accordingly, finance leaders pursued strategies that included mandating masks in the workplace, providing socially distanced workspaces or areas for customer interaction, providing personal protective equipment, screening workers daily, staggering worker shifts to minimize contact, and upgrading filters and improving HVAC systems. As business conditions continue to evolve, their focus has extended to mental health and wellness of employees, along with recruitment and retention strategies and adjusting to hybrid working arrangements.
“My direct team, we’ve hired a lot of people in the last two and a half years. There isn’t really any going back,” Maurice Kuykendoll, CPA, CFO, Group Insurance for Prudential Financial, said at the recent AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference. “There’s us all figuring out how this new thing is going to work. And that’s in culture. That’s in the way that we manage and lead our teams. There’s just a group of people who we need to onboard into something new that we need to be thoughtful about as we transition.
Some CFOs also had the emotionally challenging task of furloughing (20%) and laying off workers (18%) and implementing pay cuts for senior leadership (17%) and employees (13%).
But more than half (61%) said they maintained their current employment level and pay.
“When COVID hit and the world shut down, our COO, CEO and myself got together and we made a decision,” Ralph Bender, CPA, CGMA, CFO of broadcasting group Manship Media, said at the recent CFO Conference. “Nobody was losing a job and nobody was going to lose a paycheck or a benefit, no matter what. Our employees have been with us through rough times, and we were going to be with them through rough times, and we let them know that right out of the gate.”
Focus on employees
Even CFOs who have been able to reassure their employees about their job security have seen mental health issues multiply during the pandemic.
Kuykendoll said his industry is seeing increased claims from people suffering from anxiety, depression and burnout.
“We’re seeing employers responding across the board and providing more tools and benefits for employees to be able to manage it,” he said.
He said child care and elder care issues have added to the stress employees have faced during the pandemic.
“Thirty years ago when we were doing disability claims, we were talking about manufacturing,” Kuykendoll said. “We were talking about not being able to do the physical demands of the job. But, increasingly, we’re seeing much more complicated diagnoses and impacts to workers’ productivity because of the invisible impacts of the pandemic.”
Manship Media has encouraged the use of its employee assistance program, provided virtual therapy options through the Talkspace app in addition to standard health care benefits, and offered time off for wellness reasons.
“We’re really trying to provide a little bit more of that flexibility and the resources that the employee needs,” Bender said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many CFOs and finance strategists moved their organizations toward remote working for health and safety reasons, with plans to shift back toward in-person activities once the pandemic ends. One hundred percent of finance professionals participating in the Economic Outlook Survey for the fourth quarter of 2021 said their workplace was deployed remotely at least part of the time in the first quarter of that year.
But more than one-third (35%) had gone back to all in-person work in late 2021, and 36% said they would be exclusively on-site after the pandemic. That still means that almost two-thirds will have people working remotely at least some of the time even after the pandemic ends.
Summer Redmon, CPA, vice president for finance and accounting at health care provider Vera Whole Health, said her company recently reopened its office but is letting employees decide whether they want to return or continue working remotely.
Employees who want to work three or more days a week in the office will get an office or desk. Those who plan to spend two or fewer days in the office will be able to reserve a desk for a given day through a digital system.
The company has invested in audio/visual technology for meetings to make the hybrid experience smooth for employees who are in and out of the office.
“It’s really kind of exciting to see that we are starting to have that in-person capability again,” Redmon said at the CFO Conference. “But I think it’s just really important to us to meet the employees where they are [whether at home or in the office].”
The difficult part for CFOs is that the upheaval is not over, even after more than two years of dealing with the fallout from COVID-19. Many businesses in China, a key part of many supply chains, continue to experience pandemic-related shutdowns that cause a ripple effect across the global economy.
And many CFOs find themselves confronting a vexing combination of high inflation and workforce challenges. In the two most recent Economic Outlook Surveys, conducted in the fourth quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of this year, inflation was ranked as the top challenge businesses are facing, followed by the availability of skilled personnel.
Even as inflation raises businesses’ costs across the board, employee compensation may need to be increased to address the workforce issues, as 53% of the first-quarter survey respondents said they were having at least moderate difficulty with recruitment and retention.
Almost three-fourths (71%) said they are raising wages and 23% are offering signing bonuses.
“Cash money,” Kuykendoll said when asked to describe retention strategies his company has used, particularly with employees who have to work in the office. “There are retention bonuses and pay increases. And really a connection to mission; our leaders are modeling the [in-office] behavior and being in and present with [employees]. But really, it’s been difficult and it’s been about the cash.”
That’s an issue CFOs are well-positioned to address as they continue to help businesses navigate a difficult environment.