Women’s Event reveals that women need to keep resetting boundaries

CFOs share how they have had to reset their boundaries since working from home.

On the evening of 4 August, 120 leading women in finance and HR gathered virtually for a unique online immersion event in honour of Women’s Month. Each leader also had the opportunity to bring along their mentees.

The annual Women’s Event, which took place online for the second time this year due to Covid-19, celebrated everything the attendees had achieved and learned over the past year and which of these lessons they would take into the “Brave new workplace” of the future.

After a brief welcome and thank you to the partners who made the event possible, including Workday, CaseWare Africa, Dimension Data and Momentum Corporate, the virtual floor opened up for some of the women attending to share their experiences over the past year.

Happy Women’s Month to the amazing women on the call and to all the women in our communities,” said WebberWentzel CFO Aneshree Naidoo. “I think it’s a wonderful time to recognise the heavy lifting that we do.”

Aneshree, who changed jobs from Deloitte Consulting to leading law firm WebberWentzel during the Covid-19 lockdown said that she had changed roles and organisations before, “but off course never during a pandemic when you virtually meet, connect with and lead your new teams”. She explained that “the experience of changing roles during this time was a learning experience”.

Along with the usual questions one asks when changing roles, like whether there is an alignment of the firm's values and yours, Aneshree weighed in on understanding team structures to proactively plan virtual connect sessions. She wanted to quickly and effectively onboard her new environment and start delivering on strategic projects with her team. She also clarified flexible work arrangements, which has always been important to her and more so having recently become a new mom at that stage.

“In relation to my team meetings, I really had to stop to think about how to meaningfully connect...virtually,” she said. And while connecting isn’t a new topic for leaders, she explained that she had to map out her interactions and prepare alot more so that meetings were meaningful and productive. This included “scheduling virtual calls and not prescriptively discussing the agenda topic, but also taking time to get to know the person on the other end of my screen.”

Aneshree added that “business matters are important and necessary, but getting to know who it is I am talking to, where they come from and how we work together to deliver great results is important too”. Relationships were established mostly over virtual (coffee) meetings these past eight months. There is value in asking a simple but impactful question like "how are you?" at the start of a call...this applies during this pandemic period and beyond!

She said that she would carry these important transition learnings forward. Effectively (re-)connecting with teams in our current virtual workways is dynamic and relatable to many leaders and perhaps more so now in our current spaces as we create new workplaces and newer ways of working.

“Very seldom is an event, technology or a product this disruptive on its own,” said iOCO CFO Jo-Anne Pohl. “Rather the interconnectedness and shift that this triggers helps us make strategic choices as the catalyst that informs our attitude and how we react.”

She explained that Covid-19 has allowed business and leaders to “properly rewire”, and for her this meant trying to find the balance between working from home or living at work.

Jo said she learned that driving to the office in the morning and home used to be where she could recalibrate, to adjust her focus and maintain her perspective. This is particularly relevant when the going gets tough, “If it was a bumpy start in the morning, you could drive to the office and reset. Or if it was a rough day at work, you could almost switch off on the drive home.”

However, with lockdown restrictions and working from home, not being able to drive or being deliberate about the transition points in a day blurs those boundaries between her role at work and her role at home. “So I had to think about how I could create those boundaries and reset them regularly,” she said.

Jo added that trying to get that balance right hasn’t always been easy, particularly as we are passionate about our people and the businesses we serve. Her children have been key around reminding her about why and how she recalibrates. “They have taught me that not only must I talk the talk, but I must also walk the talk.”

She said her children often remind her that she encourages her colleagues to spend time with their families, but then she works day and night and as such how she demonstrates her commitment to better balance is almost permission for the team to do the same. “They will pass me notes in the day to check in and hold up flashcards to count down to dinner, or that it’s family time. We remind each other of the commitments we made to each other, understand when things go awry (and there are days I get this very wrong) and agree to reset together.”

After ambassador Nozipho January Bardill delivered a powerful keynote address, she was joined by four panellists to discuss how to build a future workplace that is sympathetic and accommodating to the needs of both men and women.

Read more: Use your influence for change – women execs gather for inspirational event

Avashnee Ramdial, who has had to juggle being a single mother and executing her role as the CFO of Stanlib, said that even under normal circumstances it’s quite difficult to get that work-life balance, but once Covid-19 hit, resetting the boundaries of home and work was really difficult.

“The wonderful thing we’ve learned from Covid-19 is how resilient people can be and how you’re able to adapt and work with what you have been given,” she said.

Like Aneshree and Jo, she also had to redefine and set boundaries to help her balance working from home. “I start work at 9am and finish at 4pm, and I try not to schedule back to back meetings to give myself the breathing room, so if there’s a crisis at home, I am able to go and help them.”

She added that it’s important to communicate with the people around you. “We’ve been very lucky at Stanlib where people have been very understanding when your child walks into a meeting. It takes away the anxiety and allows you to be present.”

Avashnee said that the world has changed. “We have the opportunity now for our lives to be totally flexible to work from home when we want to and organisations are recognising that. Organisations who don’t recognise that aren’t going to be able to retain and attract people.”

The last segment of the evening was an interactive session facilitated by leadership practitioner Inge Walters, which encouraged the attendees to discuss their greatest challenges from the past year and what they wanted to change.

Competition Tribunal CFO Devrani Moonsamy said one of her biggest challenges was that she wasn’t able to socialise anymore and break away from the pressures of work and home life. “I used to go out for drinks or coffee with my friends to relax and blow off steam after a tough week, but since lockdown I’ve been in this one space all the time.”

One of the mentees attending the evening, Swissport finance manager Neena Harri, however, found the lack of social responsibility refreshing. “I’ve realised that over time we create so much business and craziness in our lives through social commitments and running errands that by the time Sunday evening draws around I feel like I’ve just had a full week within two days,” she said.

Neena explained that, during Covid-19, no one was hosting parties, weddings and dinner, so she could sit in her garden on a Friday night and appreciate the peace and quiet of nature. “That has helped me to cope through the busyness of work during the week.”

DPD Laser CFO Auvasha Moodley said that, on the one hand, she was missing out on family nuances, like seeing the kids grow up and the fun things they are doing. But on the other hand, from a business perspective, she found herself forced to take off work because she had Covid-19. “Normally, I would never have stepped away from work, but it’s a space that I found quite refreshing, albeit a bit lonely and unknown.”

She explained that the time away from work gave her an opportunity to think about things she never would have thought about and to introspect on the things that are important in life. “Initially I felt guilty about leaving my work, but I learnt to get over it and things didn’t fall to pieces, they went on.”

PPC finance manager of projects Lauren Fullerton said that the new way of working has given her an opportunity to prove herself at PPC and move from a consultant role into a more permanent role. “It was a risk to move from being a contractor and having the flexibility it afforded me, to becoming a permanent employee,” she explained. “I think one of the reasons I’ve been willing to take that risk is because of the flexibility that working remotely during Covid-19 has shown us is possible.”

She added that risk-taking takes on a new dimension when you can balance more. “But obviously making sure that you try and define boundaries, which I have to admit I am battling with.”

Auvasha explained that finance people are inherently risk averse, but that the pandemic has forced them to really stretch their boundaries. “Our normal approach to risk needed to be changed. Having been in the finance industry for over 20 years, that has been a massive learning curve for me.”

As the women reconvened in the Zoom main room, they all agreed that their “Brave new workplace” included new boundaries that might not have been there before, and that it was important for them to keep resetting those boundaries.