Lessons from Covid and remote working

Sage FD Jordaan Burger: Companies that went digital before lockdown were prepared for Covid-19.

On 6 October, CFO South Africa hosted a webinar revealing how CFOs can keep their businesses resilient, based on lessons learnt from Covid-19. Sage Africa and Middle East FD Jordaan Burger and FutureProof SA CFO Lerato Nkabinde revealed that companies who were already investigating ways to digitally innovate and enhance workflow were ultimately more prepared to weather the storm of Covid-19.

Jordaan said that Sage South Africa, with its more than 1,000-strong workforce across the country, had to act quickly. “When we saw that we were heading toward this Covid-19 path, and potentially into a nationwide lockdown, we had to act very quickly to get our workforce working remotely.”

He explained that the company followed a shotgun approach that enabled them to make decisions quickly. “The shotgun approach was in terms of data and data providers, so we literally got all the data providers to give us whatever SIM cards they had, because there was a shortage at the time.”

From a commercial offering point of view, people were signing up in their personal capacity, and companies had signed up with these data providers. “We paid stipends to some of our colleagues to get Wi-Fi in their homes and just before the lockdown started nearly 100 percent of the workforce was already working from home,” Jordaan said.

Lerato said contact businesses had the biggest challenge of having to go online overnight. Some of the biggest learning curves came from one of her clients who runs a training business. “It’s a 90 percent contact business; they relied on seeing the customer and providing the service, and within a week they had to take all their content and put it on an LMS system so they were able to reach customers and still provide human interaction.”

She said she was impressed by their ability to adapt and learn how to use the technology in a short space of time.

Lerato added that another contact business in the construction industry also turned to technology to keep the lights on. “That company hadn’t been building for four months, so they used accounting software to help them plan financially and help them understand where they could cut costs.”

Jordaan explained that smaller businesses would have been able to adapt much faster and quicker than bigger corporations, and this is especially true in finance. CFOs found themselves relying heavily on the finance teams having to do the management reporting.
“These reports have to be sent out to executive members via email, versus them having to see what is happening in real time on a dashboard,” said Lerato.

CFOs also had to suddenly learn how to manage these teams remotely. “You have to make sure that the customers are still getting the same level of services they were getting before, ensure that productivity levels remain the same, and deal with new challenges in terms of cyber security,” said Jordaan.

Lerato said she maintains her edge by continuous personal and professional development. “You have to have business acumen, which involves having an understanding of all areas of the business, being cross-functional. This helps you make decisions, rather than waiting for other people to decide.”

A big advantage is having the right technology that supports decision making. “The most crucial thing to get is the cash by week forecast, a technology that allows you to make well informed, reliable, trustworthy decisions quickly, using real-time data and insight,” said Lerato.

Jordaan said he’s noticed an unsettling trend by some businesses. “A lot of people seem to be waiting out the storm, where you see we came out of lockdown gradually. We know that internationally, there has been a second wave, and Europe was hit by a second wave, so it’s very likely South Africa will go in the same direction.”

The question is, are businesses better prepared for a second wave and another severe lockdown situation? “If your strategy was to just wait out the storm, I think you might be ill-prepared for what’s coming,” said Jordaan.

He advised using cloud software because it has more agile and flexible solutions, and maintaining old school principles like putting the customer first, so that services can still take place even if the country heads into a second lockdown.

At the same time Jordaan cautioned against upgrading too fast too quickly. “Technology is not a quick fix. It’s not about just throwing in software into any system and thinking the technology is going to solve everything for you. You need the right people in the right positions that know how to use the technology, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

It’s easy to emphasise the important role that technological advancement is having in the finance industry. Finance professionals of the future need to know how to work with big data sets and analysis. “But the human element is always going to be there. Finance professionals have the added advantage of understanding the story behind the numbers, so there is room to develop soft skills, focus on creativity and problem solving, and being a more compassionate leader.”

In recent times, finance leaders are becoming more than just number crunchers. There’s an emphasis on being more people orientated, and developing social skills is just as important. “Get a mentor, find a leader who is more conscious than you. I’ve got a mentor and I call him all the time when I have people issues and I don’t know how to handle it,” said Lerato. “I went to school, I learned accounting and audit finance tax, and I was put in a position where I had to lead people, and no one had taught us that.”

Jordaan concluded that:

“The most important thing for me is to be invested in those relationships. I don’t take my mobile phone into meetings. I keep it in my pocket so people have my attention.”

Covid-19 doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. So for now companies will have to get comfortable with most of its staff working from home. Remote working requires more effort from everyone, to create a supportive working environment away from the office.Having work and department related WhatsApp groups with open and honest communication, or even little things like keeping cameras on during Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, is important to staying connected and on making sure everyone is on the same page as we continue to weather the pandemic.