CHRO Day 2023 panel discusses nurturing deep emotional connections with employees

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During the session, HR leaders explored inclusivity, safety, and wellbeing in challenging times.

In today’s fast-paced and dynamic world, creating communities of belonging within organisations has become more crucial than ever. A CHRO Day panel discussion delved into the importance of establishing deep emotional connections with employees and fostering inclusive spaces that address their diverse needs.


The panel highlighted that from navigating stressful times such as pandemics and power shortages to tackling the quiet quitting phenomenon, it is essential for HR leaders to proactively address concerns around inclusivity, safety, and overall well being.

Communities: inclusive or exclusive?

One of the fundamental questions that arise when discussing communities is whether they are inclusive or exclusive. Do they cater to specific demographics such as women or black individuals, and inadvertently leave others out? The challenge lies in creating spaces that embrace diversity without excluding anyone.

Mikateko Nkuna-Valoyi, head of talent and capability at Vodacom SA, shared her personal journey of feeling like an outsider when she first entered the workforce. “As a young professional, I often felt misunderstood and overlooked. However, my perspective changed when a senior colleague took a genuine interest in me and asked me about my career aspirations. This interaction made me feel acknowledged, valued and included.”

Drawing from her own experiences, Mikateko emphasised the crucial need to foster inclusivity within organisations. She firmly believes that the responsibility for creating an inclusive environment should extend beyond the confines of HR departments. Instead, inclusivity should be seamlessly integrated into every facet of business decision-making.

To achieve this, Mikateko advocates for open and honest conversations with line managers. “These discussions should delve into the complexities of inclusivity, ensuring that it is not treated as an afterthought, but rather as an integral part of the decision-making process.”

Understanding the workforce

Sana-Ullah Bray, CHRO at Sanlam, highlighted the practicality of inclusivity. He pointeds out that, for instance, current financial pressures have compelled numerous workers to explore side hustles as a means of supplementing their income. Moreover, external factors such as loadshedding further exacerbate the already precarious financial situation in which many individuals find themselves.
To address this issue, Sanlam has collaborated with Tyme bank to establish a programme that enables employees to access a portion of their salaries in the middle of the month. This initiative aims to provide temporary relief, preventing individuals from falling into debt or resorting to loan sharks, which can have severe consequences.

He suggested that inclusivity entails engaging in crucial conversations and developing innovative solutions when addressing matters such as finances, as these discussions often expose the disparities between individuals with financial stability and those without.
He said that by collecting information through surveys and feedback sessions, organisations can gain insights into the needs and desires of their employees. With diverse staff spread across different jurisdictions, it is vital to adapt strategies that address common issues while considering regional nuances.

Avoiding silos and promoting learning

Sana-Ullah pointed out that while the intention of creating specific forums for various groups like women, youth, and individuals with disabilities is well-meaning, there is a risk of inadvertently creating silos. “Disabled individuals, for instance, may feel boxed in due to the assumption that their abilities are limited. Inclusivity is a continuous learning process, and organisations must facilitate opportunities for employees to learn from one another, breaking down barriers and promoting a sense of belonging.”

The role of leadership and HR

Tamara Parker, CEO of Mercer, emphasised the crucial role of engagement within organisations. Shifting the focus beyond mere productivity, she highlighted the significance of fostering social connections and cultivating an environment that instils a sense of belonging among individuals.

“HR leaders face the challenge of striking a delicate balance between commercial objectives and the wellbeing of their workforce, equipping leaders with vital skills like empathy, enhancing inclusivity, or inadvertently fostering exclusivity.”

Expanding the definition of inclusivity

Participants from the floor suggested expanding the range of inclusivity to meet the diverse needs of employees, especially during times of national disasters or changing macro-economic conditions. Some noted it is essential to rethink benefits, compensation, and organisational culture to ensure fairness and address the loss of disposable income. Remote work has its challenges, and organisations must strike a balance between flexibility and the social importance of physical interaction.

Other points raised included that as technology continues to reshape the workplace, discussions arise regarding its inclusivity or exclusivity. Technology can enable remote work and flexibility, but it can also create barriers to meaningful interaction and connection. HR leaders must find ways to balance technological advancements with the human element, ensuring that employees have access to spaces and resources that foster engagement and prevent isolation.

Building trust and authenticity

The panellists agreed that building a community of belonging requires trust, authenticity, and vulnerability. HR leaders must engrain empathy into the fabric of their organisations, making it a fundamental measure of success. While communities are often seen as an HR initiative, it is important to involve leaders from various departments and empower them to create inclusive environments.
Creating communities of belonging is not a one-size-fits-all approach but a mindset change that permeates every aspect of an organisation. HR leaders play a central role in fostering a sense of belonging for every employee, transcending mere job satisfaction.

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