As lockdown eases, don't lose focus on your employees - TechCentral

As lockdown eases, don’t lose focus on your employees

Ovations Group human resources manager Leoni van Tonder

Now that South Africa has moved to level 1 of lockdown, more employees will be returning to the workplace. Employers are advised to handle this process with care, ensuring employee mental health and taking note of what returning to work will actually mean for the business and its employees.

Leoni van Tonder, human resources manager at Ovations Group, says Covid-19 has had a big impact on people’s mental health. “Research released at the end of August by Ask Afrika showed that 61% of South Africans are reporting a loss of income and that their fear of unemployment is higher than the fear of contracting Covid-19.

“People are uncertain about job security, their safety and health, and that of their families, and lastly, their finances. No one has ever experienced something of this nature. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and people need to continue to perform their daily work remotely.”

Although employees feel that they are more productive working from home, some are experiencing higher stress levels and doubts. There is a big impact on their work and the demands on their personal life as well as their mental well-being and health. However, simply returning to the workplace isn’t a panacea: Employees are experiencing uncertainty and worry they will contract Covid-19 and take it home to friends and family.

A survey conducted among Ovations Group employees found that they didn’t miss working at the office, but they did miss interaction with colleagues. “Your work environment is not created by a building of bricks and mortar; it’s created by the people who work in the building. Imagine being able to set up a virtual building where employees can congregate? That would be ideal for people who are reluctant to return to work and have grown accustomed to the new way of working, with an entirely new routine.”

Back to the office?

When would be a good time to return to the office? Statistics show that 50 of the biggest companies in the UK are only partially returning to work, while 21 of the biggest companies are going completely virtual. “We’ve seen positive impacts in the form of less traffic and reduced electricity usage in South Africa, and many companies have proven themselves able to adapt to the required change and remained productive during the lockdown,” says Van Tonder.

How companies manage the return to work should be determined by the environment. “Not all companies are able to remain remote. For instance, a manufacturing business cannot go virtual. Most companies are staggering their return to work, with those who that able to remain productive remotely staying at home, while only those that can’t function virtually returning to the office. This trend is likely to continue until January. There have even been cases where some companies have decided to become completely virtual, embracing the change and adapting to the new way of working.”

Working remotely has resulted in improved productivity. However, this is often at the expense of employees’ personal lives, resulting in increased stress levels. “Employee burnout can have a huge cost implication for a company, not only owing to a loss of productivity, but also because the employee has to recover from that burnout. A better work/life balance needs to be the focus.”

To improve performance, management needs to remain cognisant of the fact that people know when their productive hours are and – in a virtual environment and where permitted – they should be encouraged to work during their productive times and to take a break during their unproductive times. This will motivate and stimulate employees to perform even better.

Van Tonder says it’s key for companies to support their staff to help them cope with the new challenges they face. “One of the big issues is fear and suspicion from management that people are not working, although the indications are that people are working a lot more now than they did previously. The only way to address this is to shift from monitoring the number of hours an employee spends in the office to tracking the number of outcomes delivered by the employee.”

Measuring performance by outcome and not by the amount of time spent at a desk represents a major change for most companies because, as much as they claim to be measuring outcomes, they still judge people for the number of hours they spend in the office. Businesses need to alter their mindsets to realise that employees are being more productive in the hours that they do work, as well as setting clear expectations and agreements of what those outcomes need to be as well as deadlines for when they need to be completed. In brief, says Van Tonder, managers need to learn to trust their employees more and set clear expectations and timelines to avoid a loss of productivity.

Supporting staff

But what initiatives can companies introduce to assist their employees? “Firstly, the business should try to understand what the underlying issues are and how they can be addressed. This can be done in a weekly employee engagement session that allows for channels of communication to be opened so that if someone is struggling they know that they can reach out and there will be someone to support them.”

Providing employees with access to a coach or wellness consultant will assist the business in identifying underlying issues that could become problematic. “It’s also key to ensure that leaders are available to their employees – and that management has access to the support individuals — as strong decisions have to be made in times like these and management needs the support, too.”

Van Tonder says the business has to trust and empower its employees so that they can shape their work and let them achieve their best results, but always in agreement with their managers. “You must provide an environment in which employees have what they need to be successful. All employees need to be catered for and taken care of, especially if they have to work remotely and virtually.”

Finally, she advises companies to re-evaluate their employee value proposition, which should include trusting and empowering employees, ensuring that they have all the tools needed and providing support to them.

Companies can support their staff by adopting the following initiatives:

  • Embracing flexibility: Understand what your employee’s productive times are and ensure that they function at those times.
  • Re-imagining the employee experience: It may no longer be a nine-to-five office desk environment.
  • Bringing compassion to every conversation: Be kind, you don’t know what battles people are facing.
  • Continually focusing on developing talent: Ensure virtual productivity.
  • Measuring and ensuring that employees are thriving: Provide continuous support.

Van Tonder concludes by saying that as much as all of the above may appear to be an human resources imperative – and HR may well be the custodian to make sure that this is being done – the entire structure of the business must support these types of initiatives. “HR is there to support employees, leaders and management.

Every employee plays a part in driving employee engagement that is fostered by the company culture, and that ensures performance and inspires resilience. A culture of caring needs to be adopted.”

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