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What will be important to CFOs in 2021?

Six topics that will shape the finance leader agenda

CFOs: Innovation, tech and better business partnering key to driving post-pandemic value

As CFOs look to deliver more value to the business, they’re poised to capitalize on two high-growth opportunities sparked by the pandemic: the flourishing digital economy and stronger collaboration with other functions. 

As keepers of an organization’s fiscal responsibility, CFOs play a particularly important role in the funding of tech investments and the return on investment (ROI), and they may flex this muscle as their companies continue to pursue digital transformation. And faced with the demand for more real-time insights, they’re also redefining partnership with the rest of the organization to better align on strategic objectives and be more agile and decision-ready.

For more insights on other topics important to CFOs in 2021, see our analysis and resources below.

What does 2021 look like for today’s CFOs?

Here are six topics that will likely be high on CFOs’ agendas in 2021, based on our PwC Pulse surveys and our roundtable conversations with CFOs across the country. This list offers a starting point of where CFOs can focus in 2021. Click through to learn more about each area.

Digital transformation

Digital investments will remain critical to company revenue strategies designed to keep up with changing customer needs. The shift to remote work for many people made it difficult to innovate and collaborate, underscoring the importance of new collaboration tools and workforce models.

Looking ahead:

Technology is driving business transformation, and investing in transformation continues to be a top priority for CFOs, for both top-line growth and operating efficiencies. They’re placing bets on data analytics, automation, cloud and customer transformation. CFOs see tech spending driving growth with agile sprints that can be done in a quarter instead of in 12 months. The goals: to better serve customers, have leaner operations, get digital right and be more resilient for any disruptions in the future.

Learn more about digital transformation:

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

Purpose and ESG

The pandemic presented companies with an opportunity to showcase their purpose — what they stand for and what their values are, and how they took care of their employees and communities. Creating value for a broad group of stakeholders, including investors, employees, customers and suppliers, while continuing to manage broader societal obligations is now more important than ever for companies. And environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues will continue to be high on the list of priorities for investors, employees and the C-suite alike.

Looking ahead:

This connection between business and society is growing. Employees — new recruits and long-tenured alike — are looking for companies that value purpose, and consumers want to believe in a company. Leading with purpose can distinguish one company from another, helping with recruitment and retention and attracting customers and building loyalty. ESG and human capital management disclosures can help improve transparency with investors and all stakeholders, though CFOs should expect more pressure around disclosures broadly and progress on their ESG efforts. Still, CFOs can use ESG as a springboard for collaboration with leaders in operations, human resources, tax and risk, as well as with the CEO.

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

Return to growth

A year after COVID-19 shut down the global economy, CFOs’ outlook on revenue and growth has turned around. After a dismal view last March, with no CFOs expecting any increase in revenue at all, things started to pick up as companies got a better handle on the pandemic and its impact on their business. The decisions CFOs made to unlock new revenue streams in the early months of the pandemic helped their companies survive, and by October, 28% of CFOs said they expected an increase in revenue in the next 12 months. Fast forward to March of 2021, and three times as many CFOs (87%) said they expect an increase in revenue.

Looking ahead:

CFOs will continue to focus on rebuilding revenue, customer strategies and scenario planning as they look to emerge stronger. They’ll keep making changes to products and services, pricing strategies and customer segments to increase revenue. They will also invest in data analytics, cloud technologies and automation to help spur growth and improve efficiencies.

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

Taxes, risks and regulation

US corporate tax policy under a Biden administration was the top concern for CFOs leading up to the election, and prospects for President Biden’s tax proposals got a boost with the Georgia Senate runoff election results. The US election didn’t seem to change CFOs’ perspectives on risks that might come with a Biden administration. Most expect risks such as compliance, third-party disruption, cybersecurity and brand damage to be just as pressing as they were over the last four years. CFOs are concerned about policy and regulatory risks, however: 67% say those risks will be more pressing.

Looking ahead:

Businesses will want to prepare for changes to tax policy, including a potential increase in the corporate tax rate, though the need for near-unanimous support of House Democrats and all 50 Democratic senators could limit the scope of any legislation. Certain provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are set to expire, and there will likely be continued uncertainty around global tax policy, particularly around international digital tax. Most CFOs are already planning to put more resources to tax scenario planning in 2021, and they’ll want to partner with tax leaders to understand the impact of any potential tax proposals that may come with a new administration. CFOs will also want to work with other business leaders to assess how Biden might advance policies through executive orders and agency rulemaking. They’ll also want to look to agency appointees for hints on policy shifts.

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

Diversity and inclusion

The social tension and unrest that were defining elements of 2020 helped spark many US company leaders to do more to better support their employees and communities. In recent months, businesses have ramped up their diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives.

Looking ahead:

Many business leaders, including CFOs, are planning to help bridge the divide underscored by the election. Around half of CFOs say they are increasing diversity and inclusion training for employees and creating new opportunities for them to have conversations about difficult social issues. Tolerance and unity help improve productivity and innovation while also helping build trust and transparency with employees and other stakeholders alike. While a D&I journey may be difficult to take on, such efforts are beneficial—to companies and to society broadly—and it’s the right thing to do.

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

Future of work

While many businesses are fast-forwarding their post-pandemic work plans, some employees are pressing “pause” before jumping back into a traditional work schedule. After a year of change, they’re continuing to struggle with anxiety, burnout and evolving family demands, and many say they aren’t getting what they need from their employers, which is affecting productivity. Others are moving or making temporary moves permanent.

As they step back to reassess their personal values and what they need to work productively in the post-pandemic workplace, their priorities are shifting when it comes to location, benefits and skills.

Looking ahead:

CFOs recognize the changing business environment and its impact on the workforce. In fact, they are as concerned about their employees as they are about consumer issues. And many are taking steps to help their people, including increasing support for mental health, investing in new tools and training to enable virtual work, providing childcare and offering new benefits to employees, such as flexible work schedules. CFOs can work with CHROs to better understand the urgency and employee sentiment driving the need for additional employee support, as well as how their companies are designing broader benefit options for their employees.

CFOs can focus on these issues to help prepare their people and themselves for the future. Finance leaders can use this list to understand what’s key to help bring success to the finance function and ultimately the company’s success.

PwC Pulse Surveys

Real-time surveys. Business insights.

To view data and insights from PwC Pulse Surveys, please see below.

March 2021 US Pulse Survey of C-suite executives

Election 2020: November | October | September

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CFO COVID

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J.C. Lapierre

J.C. Lapierre

Chief Strategy and Communications Officer, PwC US

Neil Dhar

Neil Dhar

Vice Chair - Chief Clients Officer, PwC US

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