Executives share the innovative ways their organisations funded working from home

CFO South Africa webinar looked at how companies have managed the transition to work from home.

March marks one year since the first Covid-19 diagnosis in South Africa. It’s also the month in which countries worldwide shut their borders to curb the spread of the deadly disease.

Companies found themselves scrambling to equip staff with the necessary tools to continue operations from home, as employees had to set up makeshift office spaces.

During a webinar on financing work from home hosted by CFO South Africa, HR managers and company executives leading the expense claims process shared their experiences.

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever had to keep some of its factories open because some of their services and products are essential, but the rest of their staff had to work from home.

“Our main priority was the health and safety of our employees,” said Unilever Africa HR vice president Mechell Chetty. The company created a wellness app that allowed employees to record any symptoms they may have been experiencing. Unilever’s occupational health team then kept in regular contact with those employees and monitored their progress. The staff that began working from home received allowances or could submit expense claims for data and office equipment.

International engineering and consultancy company Hatch said that most employees wanted to take their office chairs home when news of the national lockdown broke. Hatch Africa CFO Craig Sumption said that was a tricky request from an asset perspective, but they did allow staff to buy their own chairs and submit an expense claim.

Craig personally oversaw the entire claims process and was in charge of providing guidelines for these expenses. “We had several people claiming for gaming chairs instead of normal office chairs. Gaming chairs were far more useful for them because of work and after office activities,” said Craig. He said some employees also wanted to buy raw materials to make desks, and the company had to debate whether it would pay for these requests. The country’s problematic power supply also meant that employees were submitting claims for inverters to continue working when the power is out.

Employees’ attachment to their office chairs was not unique to Hatch Africa; Mechell said many Unilever staff members made the same request. “We created an asset register and a drive-through process to allow employees to come to the office, and their chairs would be delivered directly to their vehicles without them having to step into the office.”

Deloitte Africa director of consulting Jen McDonald said the auditing giant had a slightly different experience. Ironically they were meant to be moving offices on 1 April. “It is supposed to be our flagship offices in Waterfall City, so April fool! Everyone was at home,” said Jen. But the transition to remote working was smoother than expected for Deloitte.

Jen, who used to be the company’s CFO, said they had begun digitising business operations in 2019. “We had just come from an Africa-wide digital transformation, and that programme saw us move to a common IT platform.” Operations moved to the cloud, and many formally tedious manual functions became automated. “The use of virtual tools and digital adoption definitely accelerated in lockdown,” she said.

Digitised operations allowed for a smoother claims process at Hatch too. “Our accountant’s payable team was still relatively paper-based, and they were printing out reams of paper,” said Craig. The company switched to cloud-based expense management tool Concur and has since been using less paper. They also managed to process the staff’s work from home claims faster and more seamlessly.

Positive company culture became a central focus for Unilever during the lockdown. One of the company’s more difficult decisions was whether to give staff their annual increases in April. Mechell said the in the face of uncertainty, the fear among their staff was palpable. She said it was essential to give their employees a sense of security and community at that time.

“We decided to pay staff and junior managers their increases and that we would hold back on paying directors and senior management their increases,” said Mechell. She said the company also provided care packs with essential supplies to their staff and factory workers at the beginning of lockdown. Unilever staff were apparently overwhelmed and were surprised by these gestures because they demonstrated that they were valued and supported.

“The more compassion you show your employees, the higher the productivity,” said Mechell.