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CFOs Look to Invest in Diversity and Sustainability

According to a recent survey by Grant Thornton LLP, most chief financial officers (CFOs) are focused on growth and turning the lessons from the pandemic into a road map for the future. The survey reveals that many CFOs plan to cut travel and real estate expenses in the coming year and beyond.

Of the 250 respondents surveyed in February 2021, 31% plan to minimize real estate and facilities expenses over the next year, while 32% plan to permanently decrease their company’s real estate footprint. Further, 45% expect a decrease in travel expenses over the next year, while 41% plan to decrease travel expenses permanently.

The survey, which is the first installment in Grant Thornton’s new quarterly CFO survey series, shows that finance leaders found unexpected upsides over the past year: More than 60% of CFOs pointed to improved flexible and remote work environments at their companies — and more than 40% reported improved collaboration. Similarly, 40% noted improved business processes and an ability to better focus on strategy. These findings came as something of a surprise in a year when businesses have severely curtailed face-to-face interactions.

“A year ago, CFOs were scrambling just to survive, but sometimes a crisis can accelerate positive change,” said Chris Schenkenberg, regional tax business lines national managing partner at Grant Thornton. “It’s clear that, especially among private companies, finance leaders haven’t settled for going back to the past. They’ve asked what’s possible, not just what’s wrong, and found new ways to push their organizations forward.”

DE&I AND ESG RANK AS TOP PRIORITIES
Racial unrest across the country turned the spotlight on DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) — while ESG (environmental, social and governance) concerns continue to be a top focus for businesses. More than 75% of respondents reported DE&I and ESG as being “priorities” or being “important” within their  organizations, with more than half planning to increase investment in these areas.

When asked how they plan to track DE&I investment, 50% of senior finance executives said they would use employee engagement tools, while 48% indicated recruitment practices. Just over half (56%) of CFOs said they plan to use software solutions to track ESG investment.

“Consumers and employees alike are demanding increased action and more transparency on DE&I and ESG issues,” said Enzo Santilli, Transformation Advisory Business Line leader at Grant Thornton. “It’s vital for businesses to invest in these areas, and that means learning how best to measure returns on them.”

INVESTMENT IN TECHNOLOGY AND CYBERSECURITY AS REMOTE WORK TAKES HOLD
According to the survey, the pandemic has also pushed senior finance executives to reprioritize technology investment: Fifty-three percent of respondents are prioritizing long-term foundational technology infrastructure investment over technology that addresses immediate business needs (47%).

When Grant Thornton asked about the dramatic expansion of remote work arrangements over the past year, 61% of companies indicated that they expect to increase investment in cyber risk and cybersecurity in the next year to safeguard against breaches attributed to remote work. This investment was followed closely by digital transformation at 60%. When asked to name the three biggest challenges facing their companies, 46% indicated cybersecurity risks, 46% chose technology upgrades and 30% said remote workforce issues.

“Striking a balance between solving immediate needs and longer-term technology investment that can transform a company is a critical challenge,” said Santilli. “Finding an iterative approach that delivers immediate solutions while still driving transformative change is the elusive North Star for most companies.” 

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