As the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic draws to a close, I have been taking stock of the past 12 months, which have, by many accounts, been some of the toughest our country has faced in many years.
People around the world embraced 2021 with the hope that things would soon return to ‘normal’. Instead, we were hit with a second wave in January 2021 and a third in June. By July, our country was embroiled in riots. Almost no businesses or families have been left untouched by Covid.
I’m not the first person, and I won’t be the last to consider how Covid has shaped and changed us. However, I do look at the world, and business in particular, through the very specific lens of culture, and that is how I’ve been analysing the past year and asking where to from here?
The fierce grip of uncertainty
Right now, almost everyone I meet or work with is in some form of survival mode, trying to deal with the uncertainty of a pandemic that has already dragged on much longer than anyone anticipated.
What does that uncertainty look like? For businesses, it’s taking the form of retrenchments, battening down the hatches and refusing to take risks. It’s leadership teams still trying to navigate remote working, and in many cases, insisting that people come back to the office so that they can return to the watchful eyes of management – whether they want to or not. It’s fear that the next wave will cause even greater disruptions and that customers will continue to reduce their budgets.
For employees, life is equally uncertain, which is manifesting itself in different ways. Unsanctioned absenteeism is at an all-time high across industries. Many businesses and HR teams do not know why or what to do about it. On the one hand, it seems counter-intuitive when South Africa’s unemployment levels are at their highest that those who are employed would risk disciplinary action.
I have a different view. When people do not feel safe, they cannot give their all to work. I have always maintained that the purpose of work is to serve others. This aligns with wanting to add value to your customer’s life. But if that purpose is shaken, if an individual is living with uncertainty, anxiety and fear, it only stands to reason that they lose all motivation to go to work. A pay cheque is important, but it will rarely, if ever, override an individual’s sense of purpose.
Other employees are working around the clock, too scared to not be available 24/7 in case their managers or clients need them. Families and personal health are being neglected in pursuit of an ‘always on’ lifestyle. It’s been a hard, non-stop year, and for many people, burnout is becoming inevitable.
Finding a light in the storm
Of course, this isn’t true of every business or every individual. Some teams are thriving. They’ve used the challenges of the pandemic to forge stronger bonds and build robust cultures. They have trimmed away unnecessary processes and streamlined how they work and engage with clients. And they have refocused on what matters most: serving customers. Leaders of these businesses have put the emotional and physical well-being of their employees first. They have focused on being Culture-Driven Leaders who exist to support their employees. And the business and its clients have won as a result.
Many individuals have made life-changing decisions as well. Families have moved out of cities, and parents have changed their lifestyles to free up more time for their children and loved ones.
We can use pandemic success stories as a guide for how to use disruption to build back better. These are some of the areas that I am thinking about as this year draws to a close and which I urge leadership and HR teams to think deeply about ahead of the new year as well.
How can we re-engage our employees? We need look no further than our municipal elections to see that South Africans across the country are suffering from a deep sense of apathy and hopelessness. When people feel they have no control over a situation, they stop engaging.
No one can pretend we have control over the pandemic, but we can remind ourselves that our actions matter. The more responsibilities and decision-making capabilities you can give to your teams, the better. How can you instil this from January so that everyone feels they are active participants in the business rather than subject to every whim and fluctuation of the world, the economy and clients?
How can we build resilience? The 7 Cs of resilience are competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control. A business cannot be resilient if its people are not resilient. You will notice that almost all of the 7 Cs come down to culture and training.
A strong culture encourages, recognises and rewards contribution and is the foundation for connections and helping people to both cope and control how they show up at work. Training builds competence, which in turn leads to confidence. And everything feeds into and supports character. How are you building your culture to support these traits?
How can we put people – and not profits – first? Salaries are the highest costs in most businesses, and therein lies the problem. If you need to reduce costs, you start with people. This is why retrenchments are currently so high and why uncertainty plagues most workforces. Who will be next? Except people should not be viewed as costs. They are profit generators. They are the core of a business. They are the people who create what you sell and who serve your customers. Stop thinking of them as a drain on your bottom line, and remember that without them, you have no bottom line.
If you have to trim back, have a candid discussion with your people. Perhaps everyone can sacrifice a small percentage of their salaries to keep your teams whole. Brainstorm how you can increase revenues in the business. Get your staff involved and in control of their own destinies – you may be surprised at the results.
Focusing on the future
It’s far too challenging to predict what the new year will bring. On the one hand, maybe 2022 will finally be the year that we bid goodbye to Covid-19. Perhaps not. What I can tell you is that you have far more control over what is happening in your life and business than you might think. We all have the ability to transform our mindsets, and as leaders, this transformation has an exponential knock-on effect when we help our employees to transform themselves in turn.
My end of year advice? Take this time to focus on what matters and think deeply about yourself and your people. They are the future of your business.
Finally, remember, change starts with you. In the words of Rumi:
Yesterday I thought I was clever, so I tried to change others.
Today, I became wise, so I tried to change myself.
Ian Fuhr is the founder of The Hatch Institute and Sorbet Group and author of Get that Feeling, The Soul of Sorbet and Cultureneering.
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