Written by: Mint Group CFO, Yvonne Dias

It has been three months of lockdown in South Africa, and whether fortunate or unfortunate, it has also been Mint Group’s budget cycle.

Every year we sign off our budget on the last business day in May. But the big question for all our teams was – how do you plan amid so many unknowns?

I recently watched visionary thinker and NY Times best-selling author Simon Sinek, as he addressed South Africans in sponsorship of the non-profit youth upliftment organisation, Africa Tikkun. He was brilliant, and the one thing he said that stood out was that he did not understand why businesses were so unsure and uncertain of what to do during these uncertain times.

There is always uncertainty in business, from recessions to Y2K and, as such, we have always led our business through uncertainty! COVID-19 did happen at a faster pace, but it is still an uncertain time. And with life and all events, it is not about the event or how it happened, but what counts is how we, as organisations, lead our employees through it.

Businesses all over the world have adapted and reshaped their lives to ensure their long-term sustainability. A Chicago-based pizza shop shifted its focus to making face shields as opposed to pizza during the lockdown as they realised that the heat of the ovens could make other items.

Motivational speakers, psychologists and trainers are moving to online events and classes, proving that the ability and time to adapt is critical for business sustainability. Thinking outside the box and changing paths can be hard and has led to many business failures, highlighting the need for leaders to reflect on lessons learnt and ensure corrective actions where needed.

For me, reflecting over the last three months highlighted the following lessons learned:

  1. Remote culture

As a CFO, the teams that I work with the most comprise Finance, Operations, IT and Project Management, all of which are mostly office-bound staff. We were used to seeing each other daily and quickly going to a person to resolve an issue.

However, adapting to online meetings was easier than expected as we have trust in each other to do the right thing. We found a rhythm that worked for each team and established a daily stand up for Finance due to the volume of the work. Operations has a weekly call, and the Project Management Office has three weekly touch bases in the evening.

Every Friday all teams come together and meet. Each person is given the opportunity to discuss how their week went, share plans for the following week and raise where they need assistance. A crucial aspect of this call is the time dedicated to team building where we do fun tasks, such as designing a meme and explaining it to the team, or creating and presenting a time capsule. We used our online catch-ups to ensure team members get to know each other better, connect and learn in a fun environment.

Over the last three months, we learned what frequency and forms of communication team members prefer; some people want a daily chat via phone, some prefer a daily check-in via Teams and others only want to talk once a week or when they need help.

However, needs are clear, enabling us to define expectations properly. Critical for each team is knowing what is required by when and to measure outcomes accordingly.

  1. Billability

Being a service business in this time has been interesting as people are used to being with clients to gather requirements and present progress. Others still logged their full day but broken up into hours that worked between homeschooling and other personal commitments.

The advantage we had as an IT business was that we were already working online and from home when needed. Staff were assigned their work and know what they need to deliver for the week. When and how has always been up to them.

Staff not assigned to client work were allocated to building new solutions, training material, and creating new IP that could be value adds to clients.

In terms of new business, we had several signed agreements that continued, but we did see a slow down on new signed work in our focus industries. However, this just made our sales team double down, finding new clients in new areas we would have never considered before.

  1. Costs

As with most businesses, we have spent a massive amount of time looking at our costs. We cut nice-to-haves, such as travel, refreshments, entertainment etc. We also reviewed the number of parking bays at our main office, as well as every subscription across the Group.

We took the view that job security was critical, and we wanted to get through the crisis with no job losses. As a service business, staff are the bulk of costs, so we have taken a very conservative cash and cost view.

We also identified which costs will return over time, such as travel, but being cost conscience will remain.

  1. Staff health

COVID has managed to bring out some great positives from people, such as spending quality time with their families, learning to cook new cuisines and sharing recipes, and taking on new hobbies such as crosswords. People learned to make time for themselves. I think, prior to COVID, we got so busy; always rushing from place-to-place and to the next event vs now where we have a pause to appreciate life and what we have.

The flip side has been the stress of the unknown and the reality of the new known. One of our staff members lost a parent to COVID, another passed away due to a health condition, and many of our staff have spouses who lost their jobs. Therefore, the need for more team talks and collaboration has increased to understand what each person is going through and offer the needed support.

  1. Opportunities

The digital world is the 4th industrial evolution – while that was often said over the last few years, COVID has made it a reality. Businesses were forced to adapt or die on a global scale.

Restaurants now have takeaways with online ordering and delivery, and massive organisation have sent their staff home to work remotely for the rest of the year. As such, businesses are looking at tech companies to help them embrace the correct systems for their business and to digitally transform.

Some of the challenges presented comprise learning new skills when dealing with new clients in the absence of social queues and expressions. Therefore, finding a new way to ensure people ask the right questions and are on the same page is critical. Use of camera’s when talking and follow-up demos and presentations can aid information flow.

  1. Remote-ready

Remote working has also been a hotly debated subject with some conservative views questioning how staff productivity can be measured when the staff cannot be seen. How productive are people if they are not working from eight to five?

Other fears centered around data security and on-prem data access with questions around infrastructure strain and internet speed also adding to the uncertainty.

However, South Africa has adapted, but the quality of access was and continues to be an issue; Some people have only their phones to work on; some have poor internet connectivity – all of which impacted the quality of communication and collaboration. To embrace a pure work-from-home view, South African organisations need to standardise access to systems and connectivity.

The major takeaway that I took from the six lessons learnt during the global pandemic, is that organisations must be agile and flexible to make the most of current opportunities while ensuring sustainability through good basics.

As such, we completed Mint Group’s budgets as usual this year – focusing on the current knows, current trends, past trends and data, areas of opportunity, and the new focus areas, and we signed off budgets on the last working day of May.

In conclusion, it is not okay to make lemonade if life wants you to make lemon meringue pie. You can make more with lemons than lemonade; make it your own!