OUT with brick and mortar and in with remote at-home work environment is a maxim that aptly describes the new but vastly transformed workplace – thanks in part to Covid-19, which has accelerated adoption of this phenomenon.
The reality is that our homes are likely to become a permanent feature of the work environment for the foreseeable future. Despite the shift in dynamics, expectations on output and delivery has remained the same and companies that were pioneers in adopting flexible work-from-home (WFH) strategies are coping with the sudden requirements.
“Companies, especially those in the technology space had a head start hence their agile adjustment to the new work environment,” says Patience Mushungwa, the executive for human capital for the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Yet for others, especially those in the services sector, whose employees’ daily grind requires extensive interactions with their clients, inadvertently increasing the possibility of contracting or transmitting the virus, the adjustment has required a delicate balancing act. It is managing this transition and associated risks that has thrust some leaders in the spotlight.
Mushungwa has been integral to ensuring the corporation’s seamless transition to new ways of working. Most important to the IDC has been the need to ensure that the transition does not impact productivity and the mental wellness of its staff.
“Although we were quick to activate our risk plans and in implementing a work from home structure, we were alive to the fact that human beings are social in nurture. Contact in the workplace helps to distress and this is part of our DNA,” she says.
Virtual meetings have replaced in-person interactions in the process eroding the distinction between a home and a workplace. The resultant captivity to the home environment and this transition is understandably proving a challenge.
However, Mushungwa argues that this phenomenon is not unique to South Africa but corporates world over. Change is constant.
“This pandemic is one of its kind because it has not only impacted the workplace but altered our social norms. Managing this pandemic, there were always going to be trade-offs, which is why we have had to give up our social liberties to save lives,” she says.
Against the backdrop of working in an environment characterised by a rampaging virus, how best can an entity use its staff in critical duty without risking their health?
Mushungwa says the IDC’s staff have been exceptionally resilient. They have persevered through the initial steep transition to working from home. The agile response of IDC’s IT and Risk departments has been critical to ensuring a seamless transition to the new normal.
“Only a fraction of critical staff can report at the office, and this is on a rotational basis. The idea is to ensure that only the barest minimum of staff is in the office at any time. Our office structure, including workstations, have been reconfigured for easy adoption of social distancing protocols,” she says.
To ensure consistency and quality output, IDC recently approved a subsidy for staff to acquire inverters or UPS systems, enabling them to cope with power outages.
“Through our wellness department, we continue to offer a variety of counselling programmes to help our staff cope with multiple demands – transitioning to out-of-office work, balancing the corporation’s need for productivity, serving our clients and being care providers during this unprecedented time,” she says.
The corporation has continued to render its core services including providing traditional business and tailored distress funding interventions to existing, as well as new clients, while supporting efforts to grow and transform the economy.
Of significance to Mushungwa, is that the IDC has been able to seamlessly keep its wheels turning – this despite its rapid adoption of the work from home structure.
She has extensive experience in the private and public sectors – including roles as executive director: human capital and transformation at the University of Pretoria (UP), and group executive: human resources and transformation at Denel. This has helped shape her experience and views on the importance of having an agile and responsive leadership team in the workplace. She says this is key to building and maintaining a sound employee and employer relationship.
Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between happy and connected employees and greater productivity levels.
“It’s something we should always strive to achieve,” she says.
Mushungwa cites the “Fees must fall” protests as a life-changing experience, which taught her a great deal about agility and conflict resolution.
“Serving as a transformation champion at UP at that time, I witnessed this student revolution unfold right before my eyes. While regrettable that some student protests turned violent, the message was not lost in translation. Education is a right and should not come at a price for the underprivileged in our society,” she says.
Acknowledging that all transformation journeys often meet resistance, workplace transformation remains an imperative in the South African context. The reality of resistance should not deter human capital practitioners from pursuing transformation ideals.
Mushungwa believes that we should also strive to achieve gender equity so that our workplaces become a reflection of our national demographics. The IDC has been consistent in its objectives of placing deserving women into positions of leadership within the institution, she says.
“I am very fortunate to be in a role where I can continue to contribute positively to helping the corporation to meet its gender equity targets including the development and empowerment of women. For us, this is a non-negotiable objective with our female employees now accounting for 55% of the IDC’s total staff complement.
“At an executive committee (Exco) level, which is the IDC’s highest decision making body, 55% is female, while the percentage of women at senior management level, or heads of units, stands at 30%. Admittedly this is one area in need of enhancement going forward.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must put on our own oxygen masks first before we can help others. We must role model good habits and relentlessly focus on our people’s needs, she says.
In conclusion, Mushungwa draws on the inspiration of luminary poet and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou, who famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel.”
“I prefer to be remembered for the latter,” Mushungwa says.