HR and Finance: Community Conversation looks at doing good by doing right

Since the hard lockdowns of 2020, the relationship between HR and Finance has evolved significantly.

The first CHRO SA Community Conversation for 2022 was a unique experience for attendees and speakers, as HR leaders had a rare opportunity to hear finance executives from different industries speak frankly about the unintended consequences of Covid-19.

Brad Wentzel, CFO at Douglasdale Dairy and Jo Pohl, CFO at iOCO, explained their personal experiences of supporting employees and their organisations through the crisis that hard lockdowns brought about.

For CFOs, the crisis meant thinking about capital allocation, revenue generation and cost reductions. At the same time, it also meant close collaboration with HR leaders to ensure job security and employee wellbeing.

Brad explained that Douglasdale Dairy was classified as an essential service during the hard lockdown in March 2020, which meant that about 600 employees still needed to get to work every day during that period.

Although Brad joked that the cows didn’t care that there was Covid-19 and were still producing milk every day, he said this meant the business had to move quickly to understand the impact and priorities.

“We took a three pillar view: people first, then purpose, then profit. The lockdown was hard on people, there was fear and uncertainty. At that stage, if there was one Covid case, that area had to shut down for two weeks. That can kill a business. It was frightening,” he explained.

A lot has changed since then, as Brad noted, “This morning I received a mail from the HR manager, noting that if people are asymptomatic there is no need to isolate.”

Now, as he looks back on the situation, Brad said, “It has made us more people focused and we will take these learnings into 2025 and beyond. The HR manager and myself work closer now.”

Jo admitted that the start of the pandemic was an emotional journey for business, peers, clients and employees.

“The key was understanding our interconnectedness. For us to survive, our employees, clients and suppliers had to survive. The intersection of business, Finance, HR and our partner functions is where the magic happened. We enabled our employees to work remotely, supported our clients to work from anywhere and were on site for critical clients, with the right governance, process, and structures in place to support business continuity and quality service,” she said.

She added, “People data became financial insights which we leveraged over time to make our purpose, our people, and their resilience a priority as a more agile organisation. It gave us in the Finance division, a deeper appreciation of the HR role. There is little you can argue with an excel spreadsheet or when modelling, but it is different to have an employee sitting opposite you who has been impacted on this journey or worse just lost a family member to Covid-19. Empathy towards our key assets – our human capital, remains paramount as we are human first.”

HR leaders who attended the Community Conversation made valuable contributions to the discussion, having experienced the same close collaboration with their CFOs and COOs during the Covid-19 crisis.

An interesting takeaway from the informal chat was around whether the changes brought about by the pandemic would result in changes to key performance areas and indicators with a move away from pure hard KPIs in terms of financial metrics to softer KPIs like employee engagement.

Makgotso Letsitsi, executive director at KPMG, said, “From my experience, we can start see that things like evaluation in terms of KPIs where soft skills will also need to be evaluated. It impacts on the way we communicate to staff, the transparency that goes with it. Will we start to see things like employee engagement scores and employee wellness incorporated given equal weighting into KPAs like financial performance KPAs?”

Lettie Basani-Phume, group human capital executive at Momentum added, “We should make peace with not returning to normal. Wellness is no longer an appendage, it is right at the centre. It is important to create a sense of psychological safety: employees are scared of losing jobs and being vulnerable. This talks to how we’ve managed our most important assets in the past.”

“The biggest challenge is how to capacitate leaders to build psychological safety, it's not an HR thing alone. The relationship between finance and HC has become strong. Now it's about how we overlay the HR agenda with the financial agenda,” she added.

Both CFOs and CHROs left the conversation with good ideas on how to keep their businesses sustainable while putting people first.