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February 1, 2021 Article 6 min read

Things have changed since the start of the pandemic, and our operating procedures need to reflect that. It’s time for CFOs to move from short-term survival mode to long-term planning as we settle in for a long recovery. 

A CFO sitting at a desk taking a phone call.At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we envisioned a three-phase recovery:

  • “Respond:” Companies would act fast to adjust to a global shutdown, protect their staff and customers, and manage short-term issues like cash flow and supply chain interruptions.
  • “Restart:” The economy would open back up, and companies would quickly and carefully get back to business.
  • “Be ready:” Companies would dust themselves off and use the lessons of the pandemic’s master class in disruption to build a hyperflexible long-term strategy.

Today, however, we’re in a strange limbo between the “restart” and “be ready” phases. Most everyone who’s managed to hang onto their business has been back to operating for months, but big questions loom large and prevent them from moving forward: Will there be more financial aid? Will we shut down again? When will an effective vaccine be widely available? And will we ever go back to “normal?”

As companies continue operations amid a recession, CFOs must revise their short-term survival strategies and settle in to this new phase that’s at once creative, flexible, and precise about which critical business areas to address. Liquidity and cash flow concerns are still a top priority, but those shouldn’t be the only items on your checklist. Use these tips to continue to operate your business successfully.

1. Remain flexible: Address short-term needs but focus on long-term planning.

At the start of the pandemic, businesses went into survival mode — a necessary move, but not sustainable in the long run, so it’s time to pivot. New challenges will continue to disrupt your long-term planning, so make sure you’ve addressed the most critical near-term issue: cash flow. Ensure there’s enough cash and liquidity to prepare for the worst or most disruptive scenarios you’re likely to encounter to adapt strategically and with agility.

  • Even months into the pandemic, you still may not be able to produce at full capacity. Ask yourself, which products or customers generate the greatest cash flow? How low should you go when quoting to acquire business from a troubled competitor? Use intelligent cost and margin data to empower leadership and management to make informed, tough decisions with confidence.
  • Your workforce probably faced a difficult reintegration process as you reopened offices and facilities, and that may be continuing today. Do you have accurate out-of-pocket cost estimates for provisions and adequate safety measures to continue in-person work? Plan for these expenses as you review your workplace-readiness policies and procedures.
  • Review your current cost structure and find opportunities for more flexibility. Structured, fixed-cost organizations will be limited in their capability to act decisively and quickly, when creating and implementing more cost-efficient programs. You will likely need to consider additional cuts to your business in areas previously avoided, including more of your workforce. Agility and flexibility will be critical for planning to mitigate the impact of these changes.
  • Periodically reevaluate your ability to qualify for tax incentives, grants, and loans. Federal, state, and local governments are likely to introduce new, updated COVID-19 relief programs, potentially expanding who qualifies and how banks and businesses should calculate eligibility. Stay informed to take advantage of financial aid for which you may not have been eligible in the past.

2. Review customer collections and vulnerabilities in your supply chain.

It’s almost certain that your customers and suppliers are managing their own financial challenges and instability. Reviewing customer receivables, driving collections, and communicating with your trade vendors will remain a constant exercise as supply chain disruption issues rage on.

  • It’s critical to develop a methodology for modeling customer demand and the production, fulfillment, and/or delivery scenarios that follow. This will allow you to determine the impact on your own production schedule and create a plan for the best, most likely, and worst-case outcomes.
  • Make sure to strengthen communications with key suppliers to ensure you have access to the raw materials or services to fulfill your obligations. Vulnerable suppliers can put you at risk, and you’ll need to be prepared to pivot to an alternative source of supply.
  • Assess billing and cash collections for your customer base and classify risk levels. This will allow you to prioritize action items and respond proactively to any deferment requests you could receive.

3. Divert your best resources for real-time risk management.

You’ll be operating in a high-risk environment for the foreseeable future. It’s imperative to have the most capable leadership in roles to address potentially devastating gaps in planning and security.

  • Are your internal controls still in a strong position to prevent fraud and system failures, or do they need a review? Evaluate sudden changes in processes, access rights, workplace procedures, or other business areas you made to accommodate “new normal” operations. Any weak points can leave you vulnerable to fraud or costly oversights, resulting in major setbacks. Long-term planning must include the ability to rapidly assess your risks and address them.
  • Are you effectively supporting your analytics needs? This is an invaluable resource to help you predict and manage risk — you need to ensure your operational and IT teams can provide you with the best and most meaningful data, the nature of which is likely to change rapidly.
  • The risk of crippling cyberattacks has increased greatly — your CIO and IT leadership will need to assess the current environment and bridge perceived gaps in your infrastructure.
  • It’s likely that your operations and technology environments have changed a lot in the last few months and will continue to do so, especially as you scale up operations. Empower your staff to respond to weekly (or even daily) changes with confidence and agility. Continue to look for opportunities to improve operations. Now would be a good time to evaluate your future needs and make investments in technology that will increase future productivity.

4. Take care of your people.

Communicating regularly with your internal and external stakeholders is one of the easiest ways to keep them comfortable and safe. They need to know your plans, what they can expect from you, and what you expect from them. Failing to communicate with your internal and external stakeholders increases the risk of derailing critical plans and could jeopardize your organization’s ability to comply with changing rules and regulations.

  • As a CFO, you should be frequently communicating with your internal planning team. The margin of error and confusion is increased tenfold during times of uncertainty and high volatility. Outline a communication plan and process now so you’re prepared to provide critical updates efficiently and without delay.
  • Make sure you aren’t neglecting your external stakeholders and funding sources. Bankers and investors should be aware of steps you’re taking to successfully operate in the short term and manage risk in the long term.
  • Keep in close contact with your legal counsel. With workplace safety measures, travel restrictions, and limits to staff working on-site at customer locations, it’s important to understand your risk position. Are you exposing your staff, clients, and customers to excessive safety risk? Do you have a full picture of new state and local regulations and how you plan to comply with them? Failure in these areas could effectively halt your operations altogether, forcing you back to the drawing board.
  • Is your policy book up-to-date or gathering dust? It’s imperative that all staff be completely aware of all your policies and can easily reference them. For example, if you’re using remote work, do your policies reflect it? Regularly communicating with your staff is key for ensuring compliance.

Conclusion

Developing a  strategy for operating in this limbo period may seem daunting, but the most important thing is to put together a structured plan and closely manage its execution. The old ways of doing business are gone, so you must rethink how your business functions, both operationally and financially. Fast reactions based on careful, deliberate planning will be critical to ensure a brighter, stronger future for your organization.