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Now’s the time for CFOs to lead on culture, not just numbers

October 28, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Robynne Sisco, president and CFO of Workday.
Robynne Sisco, president and CFO of Workday.
Michael Short—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Culture matters. It’s a well-known fact. However, in my role as CFO and president, helping to shape an engaging culture is now more important than ever. 

I’ve long been an advocate of investing in people and helping to cultivate cultures that create a sense of belonging, connectedness, and support. And forward-thinking finance leaders have, for many years, harnessed the tools and data at their fingertips to help nurture such cultures—in partnership with other leaders across the company. But the events of the past 18 months have cemented the critical connection between culture and company success, catapulting it to the top of the finance agenda. Here’s why. 

2020 brought with it a global pandemic, social justice movements that resonated worldwide, and an acceleration in the shift to remote work and digitalization. As it all unfolded, employees gained a fresh perspective on what’s important to them, and what they want and need from their employer. This includes increased flexibility in how and where they work, tangible progress in creating a more diverse workforce, and a commitment to creating positive change in the communities in which they live and work. In fact, these factors have rightly become so important that they can often be the deciding factor for people choosing whether to stay with their company or leave for a new organization that more closely aligns with their values. 

These changing employee expectations, in addition to pent-up demand from the pandemic, have resulted in what many are calling the “Great Resignation.” What’s more, the latest Ernst & Young Empathy in Business Survey revealed that around half of U.S. workers have left jobs in the past because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work, or at home. While some workers may be leaving for better opportunities, many are departing because they don’t feel that their companies support them, that they have a culture of belonging, or that their leaders have been empathetic to their evolving needs during this extraordinary time. This is why investments in culture are so critical at this moment.

Let’s be clear. Culture has never just been the chief human resources officer’s job. And while many finance leaders have already invested in this area, these recent societal shifts have highlighted the need to double or even triple down on culture. 

And as we look ahead, the light on employee experience will shine brighter. Business leaders are navigating new working models, evaluating new strategies for sustaining corporate culture in remote environments, and want to keep employees engaged and motivated throughout this process. For CFOs this presents an opportunity. By continuously listening to our people—now and in the future—not only can we help prevent attrition and attract new talent, but we can also play a leading role in constructing a sustainable and successful future of work. 

As CFOs contemplate their approach to culture at this critical juncture, here are a few elements to consider: 

Unlocking the value in culture

The cross section between finance and culture has been clear to me throughout my career. I’ve always highly valued culture and understood that it cannot be treated by finance as an add-on or “nice to have.” After all, there’s no quick fix or perk powerful enough to fundamentally change the way everyone feels about working for you. 

To unlock the true value of your culture, your company must make sure a people-first mindset is institutionally ingrained, top-of-mind for all leaders, and baked into every strategic decision. At Workday, for example, our employees are our No. 1 core value, and we recognize that our global workforce’s collective brain trust is our biggest asset. For me, that means collaborating with all members of the C-suite, and considering the cultural implications of everything we do, from investments in belonging and diversity, to supporting career growth and mentoring, or even working on a new office design. 

Using people insights to guide financial decisions 

While the cultural imperative is greater now for CFOs, so too is the technology that’s available to help guide and support us. Increasingly, technology is helping finance teams free up time by automating mundane tasks. And seamless access to multiple data sets helps us to quickly prove the ROI on a culture-based investment, for example, or track the progress of our hiring strategies. But now technology can also help us get a deeper understanding of what our employees want, and why. 

At Workday, we use technology to continuously understand the needs and sentiment of our more than 13,000 employees worldwide by leveraging brief and confidential surveys every Friday. The surveys only take a minute or two to complete, but they provide valuable, real-time insights into how employees are feeling on a variety of work-related topics. Having this pulse on employee sentiment, whether we’re in the office together or remote, enables us to more quickly identify and address issues before they fully manifest—or turn into attrition.

For me this tool has given my team a safe place to share candid feedback about how they are feeling, and what they’d like to see more or less of in the future. And by acknowledging or responding to their confidential comments, I’ve been able to let them know they’ve been heard and build two-way trust by taking relevant action. With their feedback in tow, not only am I better able to support employees through periods of uncertainty, but I’m also better equipped to shape a new future work model. The world of work can’t just return to “normal”; we have a responsibility now to reinvent it so that it works better for everyone and benefits the business too. 

Making culture as commonplace as counting

While it’s true that recent events put company culture in the spotlight, organizations must not fall into the trap of thinking about this as a short-term shift. Culture is not something that can be turned off and on again. It takes time and consistency to change a culture and to establish yourself as an employer of choice. What’s more, the workforce is not static; employee expectations are always evolving and therefore require continuous attention. 

But it’s not just about being consistent. It’s about winning trust by acting with integrity, every single day. It’s about being intentional too—finding moments to peel back the work layers, taking interest in the unique situations of the individuals on your team, and reminding yourself of the importance of doing this, whether in a virtual or an in-person environment. 

As CFOs, it’s true that we’re ultimately responsible for the numbers. But it’s also true that a strong company culture goes hand in hand with engaged, productive employees, lower attrition, and a greater likelihood of reaching your strategic goals. For me, nurturing a positive and appealing culture is a priority—not just today, but every day. You will have heard much said about “the changing world of work,” and nothing could be truer than the reality we’re all living in. So, if your culture really is the heart and soul of your company, ensure that—even as everything else transforms around you—your culture remains intact. 

Robynne Sisco is the president and CFO of Workday.

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