CHRO Community Conversation explores mobile workforces


Experts from ooba and One Circle provided a playbook for transitioning to remote work indefinitely.

This week’s CHRO Community Conversation, which was hosted in partnership with Workday, was about the mobile workforce. The idea of seamlessly blending between working from home and the office seemed to be a pipe dream six months ago, but thanks to the hard lessons of Covid-19, it is now a reality that many organisations have discovered is a better, more productive way of working.

ooba head of HR Linda Roos kicked off this week’s discussion, which was about finding a playbook to transition to mobile working on a more permanent basis.  

“From the moment we heard the president deliver his first ‘My Fellow South Africans’ speech, I have been searching for some kind of playbook or set of principles we can follow to adhere to this new world of working from home. I wanted to know where do you start, what investments are required, what the implications are for productivity and morale, and what different competencies our leaders need.”

Together with ooba head of strategic business enablement Etienne Minnie and One Circle founder Emma El-Karout, Linda drove the discussion in which HR leaders delved into the future world of work, the concerns they had around mobile work and how they plan to tackle them. 

“One of the things that compounded our challenges was that our lease agreement for our head office building expires in November, so we didn't have the luxury of time to do a long organisational development intervention,” she said.

The real work began before lockdown
Ettienne explained the process that ooba went through long before the national lockdown was first announced.

“Long before the lockdown was a reality, our biggest focus was business continuity risk in the event of somebody contracting the virus. We thought about how we would manage the time-critical functions and activities that would have to continue while dealing with an internal outbreak,” said Etienne, adding that they went through a risk assessment exercise where they made sure that those critical roles were able to be migrated out of the office on a permanent basis.

"We started with the tier 1 critical roles and then moved onto tier 2...and by the time the national lockdown was announced, we only had about 14 people that weren't able to work from home. So it was pretty much business as usual for us.”

Emma, whose company One Circe specialises in providing businesses with access to on-demand HR and is in the heart of the platform and gig economy, gave a brief overview of the mindset shift that has transpired since the Covid-19 pandemic began. She said that pre-Covid, businesses really struggled with the concept of remote working. It was perceived as a luxury benefit that is difficult to sustain because of different time zones and other such factors.

“When pandemic hit, it gave us a worldwide business case to re-examine the way work gets done and there have been some interesting stats around the impact of remote working. As per the Harvard Business Review, 88 percent of knowledge workers are now working remotely while.according to SHRM research, 34 percent of organisations did not have a remote working preparedness plan prior to Covid-19 pandemic,” said Emma.

On the positive side, she said remote workers tend to have increased productivity by up to 40 per cent, while organisations that are working remotely are 20 percent more profitable than others.

“Today, we are sitting with a lot of data that shows how most companies are not only doing this for health and safety reasons, they are actually doing it makes business sense.”

It's not all rosy

That said, Emma said making the transition to a remote workforce was not about as easy as flipping a switch. It needs to be carefully planned and executed because the transition can otherwise have an adverse effect on business. 

“It needs to be intentional,” said Emma. “Just because we are working from home, it does not mean we can forget about culture. You have to be mindful of burnout, which is a reality because it's more difficult to switch off now that people are 'not working from home but living at work' as they say. As we move from the 'workplace' to the 'workspace' so does the company culture. Today, as the workplace becomes a virtual 'workspace', the way you manage remote working practices shape your culture whether you like it or not."

Emma said companies with remote workforces are starting to think about how to measure performance. In a remote work setup, organisations must be designed around work and result whereby roles are structured with the desired output in mind. 

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Said Emma: “You need to break down individual pieces of activity that need to be done that collectively form a project. Then roll these up into a collection of roles. Then collect the roles together into ‘jobs’. In a remote working set-up, you nurture collaboration and establish a sense of community within your remote teams. Managing remote teams requires structure. Managing a high-performance team requires a clear vision for the team, clear objectives and key results, regular one-on-one meetings and team meetings, and a motivating team culture”.

She said building high-performing teams requires clear purpose and trust, communication, indicators of success and clear responsibilities. This means thinking about adopting a fresh approach to performance management that looks beyond quarterly or year-end performance reviews. 

It also means companies need to reward and recognise employees more regularly.

“Learning is another process that has to be carefully managed as it is not simply about taking existing learning interventions and making them available digitally,” said Emma, adding that there is a lot of social learning that has to take place. “Happy brains learn better and that means that, in order to encourage learning, companies need to ensure that they're taking care of your employee’s psychological wellness because working in isolation can take a toll on mental wellbeing.”

During the breakaway sessions, HR leaders had the opportunity to share their remote working plans and experiences with one another.

As a fast-food chain, KFC has not been able to do any of their core businesses remotely but Cheryl Whitaker, HR director at KFC South Africa, said that, from a head office perspective, they have made some great strides in shifting the mindset about the future world of work.

"We worked to change the mindset that people need to be seen in the office to be perceived as being productive and, since Covid, we have completed that mission because everyone, from the most senior leadership, downwards has seen how much more productive people can be when working from home," says Cheryl, adding that they have opened up their head office to a maximum of 20 people and have since seen huge cost savings.

At the end of the conversation, everyone came away feeling energised and ready to tackle a future where remote working is the norm.

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