Covid-19 brought doom and gloom, but the future looks bright

The Finance Indaba Online heard how companies are prioritising digitisation and employee wellness post-Covid-19.

As much as the Covid-19 pandemic brought chaos and disrupted the world of work, it shifted the focus for a number of businesses and forced them to innovate and come up with ways of dealing with uncertainties.

The Finance Indaba Online this week looked at how the pandemic changed the way companies operate and the lessons learnt during the period.

Sharing how in a blink of an eye, things changed during the pandemic, Rika Hopley, divisional CFO at Hollard Insure, said the company had celebrated its 40th birthday in February 2020. At the event, Rika provided an overview of the company, including sharing its new medium-term plan. She also shared with the staff that there was a new risk on the horizon and that was the novel coronavirus.

“We did not imagine that it would have a devastating impact on the economy,” she said.

The pandemic, she said, forced the company to make operational changes, including providing laptops to staff so they could work from home and organising permits for those who would need to work from the office.

“We also did an analysis of the entire value chain. The period presented a lot of uncertainties. There was a focus on employee wellness: it became one of the top priorities.”

Challenges intensified with the extension of the lockdown and more restrictions. “With prolonged exposure [to the pandemic], our customers started struggling financially. Their needs changed. We had to address these types of challenges.”

The changes Hollard had to make to help their customers included offering relief payments and bulk discounts. “The changes warranted a review of our current plans. The focus was on cost containment. It was important to manage the cost base,” said Rika.

The investment strategy also had to change. “The finance team had to re-perform their budget. There was focus on cash flows and liquidity. We had to look at the work environment. Hollard had to adopt the hybrid work model,” she said.

For a company whose primary mandate is to preserve the wealth of its clients, said Tinyiko Sihlangu, CFO at Royal Bafokeng Holdings, their focus shifted to ensuring their shareholders, being the community, received dividends for the whole year..

“We went to a situation where most of the income we were depending on was not coming. Our priorities shifted to our shareholders, to our lenders – making sure we had the right structures in place for our debts. The markets went into turmoil and we were heavily exposed,” she said.

The company had to relook at its budgets and income. “We had to look at whether our business is fit for purpose,” she said. And, since the pandemic was emotionally and financially draining, the company had to adapt to their staff needs.

Biggest lessons learnt during Covid-19
Remote working was one of the lessons both companies learnt during the pandemic. Both Tinyiko and Rika shared that their companies had to show more compassion to their staff members.

“Understanding that we are all in the same storm but in different boats, so being able to adjust your sales accordingly depending on the nature of the business is important,” said Tinyiko.

It was also important for both companies to look at the bigger picture.

Changes carried forward beyond Covid-19
Rika said the company had decided to continue with improvements it had made in terms of disaster recovery as well dealing with change effectively: “That speaks to the governance around it, it speaks to the processes, and the actual operations and the policies that we do change.”

Tinyiko said the company would continue digitising its operations post Covid-19. “We encourage our employees to not revert back to the old way,” she said. “We must adapt to the new normal. Covid-19 has taught us that we can progress.”

The hybrid model is also a definite for Tinyiko’s company: “One of the things we would have was weekly calls to check on people, so it is important to not lose that. Our investment going forward is to automate as far as possible.”

What’s next?
Rika said their new plans are now centred around employee wellbeing as employees had to endure a lot during the pandemic. “Skills development is something we need to focus on,” she said. “We also need to do some skills development. There are certain risks that increased because of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the IT security risk, so we had to plan around that and increase security. Our customers’ needs have changed and we need to innovate and make sure we meet the customers’ needs.”

Tinyiko’s company is looking into diversifying more and making its portfolio more resilient in case the world faces another pandemic in the future. “Focusing on our talent is very important: making sure we retain the people we have, growing the resources we have and moving with the times.”