Community Conversation: insights on HR hot-button topics

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At an open-mic session at the recent Community Conversation, CHROs took time to reflect on topical issues.

Community Conversations serve as a powerful forum where HR leaders and CHROs come together to delve into the most pressing issues in the HR community. This particular Community Conversation was unique in that it was an open forum, welcoming any topic that HR leaders wanted to discuss.

The agenda was shaped by the concerns, insights, and experiences of approximately 30 leaders in attendance. This allowed for a diverse and dynamic range of topics to be explored, reflecting the dynamic nature of HR in the modern workplace.

Work from home, flexibility and office environment

The conversation began by recognising the mixed results of remote work after the pandemic. While some employees have thrived in the virtual work environment, others grappled with infrastructure issues, a lack of work ethic, technological constraints and loadshedding. These disparities in remote work experiences underscored the importance of finding the right balance.

Bongani Phakathi, Assore’s executive: HR and public affairs, stated that it has become apparent that the success of companies cannot be solely attributed to exceptional management skills. Instead, it is often influenced by the strength of the economy and the self-directed nature of the workforce.


He said, “This realisation became clear when we transitioned to remote working, revealing our shortcomings in basic team management, both in-person and remotely. As a result, our primary focus is to revisit the fundamentals of team management, with a concentrated effort on fostering deeper connections and unity within the team, ensuring their productivity, and unlocking their full potential.” He acknowledged that this challenge has been substantial as they assess their ability to effectively manage a large number of individuals while maintaining a meaningful presence in their lives.

The conversation among HR leaders revealed a common thread: the pandemic had fundamentally altered employees’ perceptions of work and wellbeing. Many, having experienced the flexibility and autonomy of remote work, found the prospect of returning to a traditional office setting unappealing.

Personal anecdotes shared by HR leaders shed light on the challenges faced by employees upon returning to the office. Daily commutes, once viewed as a mundane routine, now loomed as a significant source of stress and time commitment. Employees began to question the impact of workplace culture on their overall wellbeing, recognising the toll that long hours and rigid schedules could take on their mental and physical health.

In response to these evolving employee needs, the concept of a hybrid work model emerged as a potential solution. This approach seeks to strike a balance between the flexibility of remote work and the benefits of in-person collaboration. By offering employees the freedom to choose where and when they work, companies can foster a workplace culture that prioritises wellbeing and work-life balance.

Sana-Ullah Bray, the group executive: human capital at Sanlam, explained: “We’ve adopted a hybrid work model with three designated office days, two of which are flexible. Based on my observations, Mondays and Fridays are often preferred for remote work due to various reasons, while Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays tend to be the busiest days at the office.”
Despite the parking challenges and the occasional scheduling hurdles, the hybrid model has fostered improved engagement among colleagues. “We’ve seen an uptick in our culture scorecard, which reflects employee morale,” he noted, adding that, “To gauge staff sentiment, we conduct regular pulse surveys. This approach has proven to be quite effective.”

Work-life balance and toxicity in the workplace

A recurring theme was the presence of toxicity and office politics, which is cited as an issue that dissuades employees from returning to the office. Where there is toxicity, employees often find reasons not to come in, such as citing illnesses or excessive workloads, ultimately opting for remote work.

Leadership’s role in addressing toxicity in the workplace was a focal point. HR leaders acknowledged the importance of courageous conversations to tackle toxic behaviour and maintain employee trust in the organisation. Toxic cultures were seen as a significant impediment to employee engagement and overall workplace wellbeing. By leading by example and being proactive in addressing toxic workplace behaviour, organisations can create a more positive and productive work environment.

Themba Chakela, the chief people officer at BlueSky, said, “Enforcing a hybrid work model without consistency among leaders is a recipe for failure. For a hybrid culture to thrive, it requires buy-in from the top down. If CEOs and other executives are exempt from the same guidelines they expect from employees, resentment and disengagement will inevitably follow.” He emphasised the importance of leaders leading by example. “When employees see inconsistencies between the policies they’re expected to follow and the actions of their leaders, it undermines trust and erodes morale,” they explained. “If the goal is to have employees return to the office, it must be done in a way that is respectful, considerate, and consistent across all levels of the organisation.”

Upskilling the workforce for future readiness

The concept of upskilling took centre stage in the conversation, and with good reason. In the ever-changing world of work, it is imperative to equip employees with skills that will remain relevant in the future. This includes skills that enable them to adapt to evolving job requirements and technological advancements. The leaders spoke about shifting away from traditional role-specific training and instead focusing on upskilling employees in areas beyond their usual duties, preparing them to be a more dynamic and agile workforce.
Avanthi Maharaj, Google’s HR cluster head for SSA, emphasised the crucial role of HR and managers in fostering an environment that allows for flexibility and growth. She highlighted the importance of HR avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape that can hinder employees’ potential. She said, “This agility and forward-thinking mindset should be at the forefront as we consider the needs of our organisations, regardless of their size, whether it be a small team of five or a large corporation of 50,000.”

Chanel Smailes, human capital executive at KAP, shared a specific example around upskilling related to AI integration in a previous role. She says the approach focused on identifying opportunities to automate repetitive manual tasks. This practical approach resonated with employees who were eager to embrace tools that could streamline their work and free up their time for more strategic initiatives.
“We facilitated a shift where employees could eliminate non-value-added tasks and focus on higher-impact projects that were previously not feasible due to time constraints. This transformation was truly remarkable as it fundamentally altered our approach to employee upskilling and training,” Chanel shared.

The Community Conversation provided profound insights into critical HR issues. It underscored the necessity for flexible work arrangements that prioritise work-life balance and mental health support. The toxic culture at work emerged as a pressing concern, warranting brave and proactive leadership.

Moreover, the emphasis on upskilling was a common thread, recognising the importance of equipping employees with the skills needed for the future. These discussions offer a comprehensive roadmap for HR leaders as they navigate the ever-changing landscape of work and talent management.

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