As the omicron variant of COVID-19 leads more companies to walk back return-to-office plans, CFOs are often in the room where the decision happens, helping to assess the move’s risks and costs, according to Steve Gallucci, global and U.S. CFO program leader at Deloitte.
It is just one of the growing number of strategic demands that have been placed on CFOs in recent years — and particularly in the pandemic. The involvement underscores a long-time broadening of the role that stretches well beyond the balance sheet, he said.
“It’s been a trend over time that we’re seeing CFOs be much more commercially focused,” Gallucci told CFO Dive, adding that there remains a false perception that finance executives are only charged with protecting assets and an accurate stewardship of the company. “That is still part of the job. Don’t get me wrong. But they are much more being asked to be at the center of business decisions,” which range from M&A to workforce decisions.
In many ways the pandemic has been much more demanding on financial executives than the 2008 financial meltdown because the problems that stemmed from the earlier crisis were squarely in CFOs’ wheelhouse, he said.
“It was a credit crisis at its core and CFOs were called on to assess what a company’s liquidity would be and whether there were any debt covenant issues," Gallucci said. “It was really about shoring up the balance sheet.”
But the pandemic has more broadly strained all aspects of a company's business model, from supply chain to labor. “It really touched all of them,” he said. Indeed, some saw the CFO role as the company's conscience highlighted as they shepherded their companies through the initial shocks of the pandemic and redirected funds in big and small ways.
While exactly who drives decisions on back-to-work or work-force operations will vary, most companies depend on a combination of executives from human resources, talent leadership, the general counsel's office and finance to weigh in. “Most companies, from what we see, have managed this on an executive committee level because it’s impacted all parts of the business,” he said.
For example, the general counsel might be tapped to weigh in on laws and regulations related to COVID-19, he said. Meanwhile finance executives, already keenly aware of the labor shortages and focusing on employee retention, weigh in on the cost and risk to worker safety and operations, assessing whether a return to the office will result in more workers being exposed to the virus.
There’s no shortage of companies that have had to shift gears as the latest variant surged. American Express last week announced it was postponing the launch of a new approach to employees working from home and the company’s offices. And major banks, technology firms and others have simply given up trying to predict when they are going back to the office after many false starts.
In planning for work disruptions, CFOs can take a number of steps, according to a Deloitte report on managing through COVID-19. They need to consider how the chain of command might be affected by staff who are unable to work for a period of time and ideally should assure that there are protocols for accessing key files should that happen. They also need to work with human resources and IT to make sure staff can interact virtually, and need to make sure IT has the funding to support remote work initiatives.
Finance executives have already worked through several phases of the pandemic, now in its second year. Initially, for the first few months in 2020, they were in response mode, focusing on "keeping the trains running on time" and making sure they could close the books and protect supply chains from disruption. They then moved into a recovery mode and were able to get back to thinking more broadly. But the variants have prolonged the need to respond to uncertainties, he said.
“We’re in a time when things continue to be fluid and CFOs are being asked to display an extra amount of agility,” Gallucci said. “They’re dealing in real time with some of the challenges that continue to reveal themselves.”
B2B payments company Payoneer CFO Michael Levine is among the executives who have had to pivot. His firm recently decided to hold off on implementing a hybrid work model in New York as virus cases surged.
“It was a combination of executive management, the HR team, the CEO and myself really thinking through the tradeoffs of bringing people together and people getting sick and possibly being out [of work] at the same time,” he said, adding that he sees the recent setback to the recovery's momentum as temporary. ”Once the omicron surge is past we'll see that demand for people to travel and meet again."