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On reimagining life and work in South Africa

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Covid-19 has thrown unimaginable challenges at businesses and changed much of life as we know it. What happened, what has changed and how could it affect the way we work and live in future? Iza Trengove finds out.

In the past two years, following the start of the pandemic and the different lockdowns that rocked our country – and the world – some businesses have had to close shop and others have had to make massive adjustments to stay afloat. Lower-skilled workers were hardest hit; those businesses that did survive showed amazing grit; many had to change from working mainly in the office to working remotely.

One such company is PLP Group, a diversified service business. Its COO, Adrian Zanetti, explains that their business focuses on providing reward and recognition programmes for corporates, which is enabled through an app called Hey Jude

“We employ 420 people here and abroad. Fortunately the majority of our staff was able to work remotely but we had to enable them to do so very quickly by providing employees with 3G cards, laptops and even office chairs, something that the business, like all other businesses affected by lockdown, didn’t foresee or had budgeted for at the beginning of 2020.”  

Coping with load shedding was another challenge for the business since the majority of employees didn’t own generators, which directly impacted on their ability to work remotely.  

“Initially our productivity was high but as time passed we found that employees started suffering from fatigue as they had to cope with work and home (-related) stress, and the blurring of lines between office and home started wearing them down. We have learnt many lessons over the last year when we had to deal with the challenges that Covid-19 and lockdown brought on. For example, we have realised that remote work is possible but that there has to be a lot more effort and focus from the business leadership to ensure that the culture and employee energy levels are maintained.”

Rudd van Deventer is a professional architect who specialised in designing office space for large corporations. This meant examining how an office functioned and designing a building and interior space that met their unique requirements. Van Deventer’s design work was wiped out with Covid-19. To survive he had to go back to renovating buildings.  

He explains that before the pandemic it was difficult to convince large enterprises to spend money on expensive IT services. “Now ubiquitous connectivity and secured IT services have taken precedence. This has changed the priorities of how much and what type of spaces an organisation needs.

Activity-based working

Since Covid, flexi working hours and activity-based working have gained momentum. The latter implies that certain locations are better suited for specific work functions. Presenteeism is no longer regarded as a measure of a person’s value and this switch affects the design of office space. In future, buildings will be designed to accommodate only 40% to 50% of employees simultaneously.

As people become more conscious of healthy environmental designs, green buildings will gain acceptance: increasing daylight, proper ventilation and nice views (that give a sense of space) will become the primary focus and replace deep-space, sealed buildings with no fresh air.”

Rizwana Butler, Capitec’s HR executive, says the pandemic fast-tracked the company’s digitisation strategy. 

“Prior to 2020 some office staff were already working flexibly between home and office. During lockdown, work-from-home became the norm. To ensure we were able to provide continued support for our clients, we enabled all our office employees, including call centre staff, to work remotely. We armed them with 3G cards, desktops or laptops. Soon everyone was working as efficiently as in the past. Daily meetings, mentoring and onboarding new employees and training are all happening virtually.” 

She adds: “The biggest challenges facing our people during this time are dealing with illness, loss of loved ones and financial concerns. As a growing business we were able to protect the livelihoods of all our people. However, many of their family members have not been as lucky. We have amplified our support structures in the form of our employee assistance programme to support our people on mental and emotional wellbeing challenges. We have also created a dedicated email address to address employee queries and concerns.”

Butler also notes that working remotely requires a different leadership style. In fact, leaders are now encouraged to adopt a more empathetic and human leadership approach towards their people. “This means developing strong individual connections and helping people unlock barriers and navigate complexity.

“I am confident that this hybrid approach of working between office and remotely will continue. Our teams have proved that working remotely is possible and surprisingly productive, but a large part of what happens at the office, such as collaboration, co-creation, brainstorming and coaching, including casual social interaction, cannot be reproduced remotely. For now, everything is up for exploration and we are ready to adapt as required.” 

For Anthony Herring, the owner of Palletised Equipment, it was an entirely different story, since manufacturing steel equipment made it impossible to work remotely. “During Covid we had to supply pharmaceutical and food industry companies with equipment to move their products from warehouses to retailers. This saved us. 

“Once we were issued with essential service permits, our biggest challenge was to put plans in place to keep staff safe and train workers to comply with sanitising protocols. We split the factory in two, which meant staff worked shifts, two days on and three days off. Those who were forced to take public transport couldn’t come to work during the strict lockdown. Fortunately, workers stayed loyal and with the help of the government’s Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) no retrenchments were necessary. However, since then contracts have dried up because big companies are scared to spend,” he says.

Now, he doesn’t think that once the pandemic is over they will be able “to go back to where we were before”. 

Herring explains: “Manufacturing is no longer feasible and Covid and electricity supply issues have accelerated our plan to stop manufacturing. It is much more rewarding to import. Our industry is very labour intensive. What Covid has taught me is to run the company on a shoestring. We cannot afford to employ anyone who doesn’t pull their weight. Some have been encouraged to take early retirement. It is sad that we are in this situation because we have phenomenal guys, but once a person retires they are not replaced.”

The impact of lockdowns on mental health

Professor Irma Eloff, educational psychologist and professor of education at the University of Pretoria, says Covid-19 has placed mental health higher on the agenda of policymakers and allowed for thinking afresh about the importance of mental health issues in an environment of growing inequality.

She notes that the economic and social lockdowns have affected people differently. There has been a jump in mental health issues such as anxiety, loss of social connection, fear of being infected or dying, coping with grief and complications that arise from domestic arrangements. Financial uncertainty and job losses have caused massive mental and other health problems.

Addressing mental health and the wellbeing of individuals has become a priority in many organisations. This may include kindness projects, flexible schedules, spending time outdoors and “getting back to basics”, such as slow cooking, listening to music, physical exercise and creative outlets. 

Despite the increase in mental health problems, a study conducted for the 2020 World Happiness Report found that people had surprising resilience.  Although it varied considerably between countries, there was little change in the overall rankings from previous years. South Africa’s happiness ranking improved two places from 78 (2017 to 2019) to 76 in 2020 out of 95 countries.

On this, one of the most important predictors of wellbeing is the quality of relationships. In some cases it need only be with one other significant person; it could be a family member, friend or partner, but in essence, a relationship where you know they will be “there” for you. It is also important to stay engaged with daily tasks in a meaningful way and create a sense of small achievements daily; small successes are critical in overcoming adversity.

Eloff says employees who continue to work from home could make small changes to thrive and prevent burnout or loneliness. 

This includes setting clear boundaries between work and personal time,  allocating technology-free zones and time slots regularly, connecting safely with friends and colleagues and pursuing those long-postponed interests to balance the stress and anxiety that can be caused by constant online interaction.

One of the advantages of the pandemic is the boost it has given to telehealth practices and access to psychological services. Embracing open and frank discussions on mental health issues has become much more visible and acceptable. In the same way that you would seek advice from a doctor for a physical problem, advice should be sought for mental health challenges. DM/ML

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