What will be important to CFOs in 2021?

Six topics that will shape the finance leader agenda

A look back at 2020

2020 dealt a heavy blow to companies, from the COVID-19 pandemic and related health crisis and economic upheaval to widespread social unrest and an intense presidential election. The first few months of 2020 were on track to continue a booming economy and unprecedented levels of employment across the country. Then COVID-19 disrupted everything.

For many business leaders, the health and safety of their employees was the top priority as they navigated through the pandemic and other challenges. CFOs’ concerns about COVID-19 and its impact on operations, liquidity and capital resources eased somewhat over the year as companies focused on a return to business growth. But a wave of infections in the fall reignited concerns about the pandemic and its effect on business.

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.

1. 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-elect 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.

2. Return to growth

Seven months after COVID-19 shut down the global economy, CFOs’ outlook on revenue and growth turned cautiously optimistic. After a dismal view in 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. These hints of a return to growth were also evident in the decline in CFOs who saw a decrease in profit.

Looking ahead:

CFOs will continue to focus on rebuilding revenue, customer strategies and scenario planning as they look to emerge stronger in the new year. They’ll keep making changes to products and services, pricing strategies and customer segments to increase revenue — and about half of CFOs see returns coming in early 2021. They will also invest in data analytics and automation to help spur growth in the next year.

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.

3. Workforce

The many stressors of 2020 — the pandemic, election, economy, social unrest and divisiveness — are weighing heavily on employees’ well-being. Many found themselves in a quandary as work and school went virtual, having to manage a new working environment while juggling childcare, home schooling and other family demands. After nine months of dealing with pandemic-related stress, employees continue to struggle with anxiety and burnout, and many say they aren’t getting what they need from their employers, which is affecting productivity and morale. Many employees also feel forced to sacrifice their personal safety to stay employed, according to our November PwC Workforce Pulse Survey.

Looking ahead:

CFOs recognize the gravity of the current business environment and its impact on the workforce. In fact, they are more concerned about their employees than they are about consumer issues. And many are taking steps to help their people in the absence of more federal stimulus, including increasing support for mental health, providing childcare and offering new benefits to employees, such as reduced hours, caregiver support and temporary leaves of absence. 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.

4. Digital transformation

Customer needs and expectations changed dramatically as a result of COVID-19, and digital investments will remain critical to company revenue strategies designed to keep up with those 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:

Investing in transformation will likely continue to be a top priority for CFOs in 2021, for both top-line growth and operating efficiencies. They’re placing bets on data analytics, automation, cloud and customer transformation. How will this tech spending actually drive growth? With agile sprints, shorter efforts that demonstrate value along the way, that can be done in a quarter instead of in 12 months. The goal: to better serve customers, have leaner operations, get digital right — now, and be more resilient for whatever may come in 2021.

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.

5. 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. Despite the devastation from and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, companies recognized the importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues throughout. 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.

Looking ahead:

This connection between business and society will likely continue to grow in 2021, and companies should be ready. 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. Key to all of this is transparency. ESG is fast becoming a key part of business strategy, so companies will want to tell that story: how ESG trends are impacting strategy and operations, and what their processes are to manage ESG risks. ESG and human capital management disclosures can help improve transparency with investors and all stakeholders, but CFOs should expect more pressure for disclosures to show companies’ progress around their ESG efforts and for more standardization.

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.

6. 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, equity and inclusion (DEI) 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. Such efforts are beneficial to companies and to society broadly: Tolerance and unity will help improve productivity and innovation while also helping build trust and transparency with employees and other stakeholders alike.

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.

Election 2020: November | October | September

Workforce

CFO COVID


Contact us

Contact us

J.C. Lapierre

J.C. Lapierre

Chief Communications Officer, PwC US

Neil Dhar

Neil Dhar

Vice Chair - Chief Clients Officer, PwC US

Follow us