CHROs share policy insight in second online CHRO Community Conversation

CHROs met online with others in their community to discuss the shaping of Covid-19 policy.

On Tuesday 25 March, seven CHROs gathered for the second weekly online CHRO South Africa Community Conversation, which will continue for as long as South Africa is under lockdown. It was clear from the lively discussion that executives need their community interactions and support more than ever.

The discussion gave CHROs the opportunity to share experiences, hopes and concerns, and, perhaps most importantly, to realise that the burdens that they are carrying at this time are shared by many others in the same role.

The conversation was joined by Candice Watson, group human capital executive, AECI, Dolores Mashishi, group executive: human capital, Altron, Matimba Mbungela, CHRO, Vodacom, Petro-Ann Beukes, national HR manager, Pam Golding Properties, Tswelo Kodisang, chief people officer, Discovery, Vinolia Singh, chief people officer, AdcorpJoël Roerig, MD CHRO South Africa, Nick Smith, sales manager, CHRO South Africa and Georgina Guedes, editor in chief, CHRO South Africa.

One thing was clear from the common experiences that all the HR bosses shared – that CHROs are truly business partners to their CEOs in this time. The “people” issue is front and centre as social isolation has been implemented and full lockdown looms. And people – every individual dealing with the challenges of enforced lockdown and an uncertain future – are the main focus of business leadership right now. While those in the session were positive about their roles, they are all feeling the burden of responsibility.

“The normal tempo of business still runs, so it’s exhausting,” said Candice. “It takes mental strength to try to navigate this uncertainty with a level of confidence so that leadership can trust the advice that you give them.”

Dolores said that while the pressure of being under scrutiny by staff at this time is real, that the corporate culture she and her team have been working at embedding has come with its own benefits at this time.  

“There are 8,500 people listening, so we have to be able to live up to our promise,” she says. “At Altron, we go back to what our culture is. One of our values at Altron is that we are building a company that has a social conscience – ‘Doing business while doing good’ – so basically everyone is an activist in their own right. The staff take responsibility for how Covid-19 affects them as a person, the person next to them and the whole of society.”

Tswelo, however, expressed that he was fortunate to be in the right business at a challenging time. “I am very fortunate to be working for Discovery. There is lots of capability that medical insurance partners have. As the CPO I can pivot off them from clinical support – understanding and protocols – perspective. So instead of feeling that I am carrying the people burden, I’ve been part of a great leadership team and am feeling supported by the entire organisation as we face the Covid19 epidemic.” 

Interestingly, while the conversation started out with a general “check-in” on how the Covid-19 outbreak was affecting each individual personally, it quickly pivoted to a technical discussion about the realities of developing policy for lockdown. CHROs shared their own decision-making processes, as well as the expert advice they had sought, in developing policies for their organisation.

Everyone agreed that there is no precedent for this situation, so there’s no blueprint to follow, but a few salient guidelines emerged. One of the CHROs explained that her company had classified low-income-earning staff as “vulnerable”, and their incomes cannot be affected by Covid-19 policies. Thereafter, staff who weren’t able to work from home were asked to take a combination of special leave (provided by the company), annual leave and, in the case of those who have to care for small children at this time, family responsibility leave.

The CHRO said that there has to be a “meeting in the middle, to ensure that there is a company to come back to that can keep paying salaries into the future”. While the specifics of each company’s policies differed, most of the CHROs were taking a similar approach that combined empathy with pragmatism.

Another aspect of the situation that emerged was the fact that CHROs have been taking a crash course in remote working, having to get to grips with the policies and technologies that support this. Some started earlier than others.

“One of the things that’s helped me a lot is that I am an early adopter, so I pushed the organisation in this direction,” said Matimba. “We saw what happened in Italy and started communicating and sharing insights early – as early as the mid-February. We are privileged to be part of a global organisation that was able to share insights from earlier in the curve, before there were even any cases in Africa, and also then put together a medical panel to provide insights.”

Vinolia has been carrying the CIO portfolio in addition to her HR role, and so has been actively involved in preparing the technology for people to work from home. She says that this has added a deeper perspective along with greater stresses to the challenges she faces at this time.

“I’m taking it in my stride, but I also constantly ask myself, did I do enough, was there more that could have been done?”

However, she mentioned after the session that she felt she had received affirmation from her peers that she’s doing the right things.

In addition to the personal benefit that the CHROs said that they gained from the session, they also expressed their determination to “not let a good crisis go to waste”. They were certain that the lessons learnt now will support their companies and employees well into the future, and that the world will be a very different place when we all get back to work.

Candice was particularly certain that South African citizens have what it takes to pull through: “We’re a very resilient nation. I think we’re going to be surprised by what we learn from this. I don’t think we’ll go back to the way we were. It’s important to consider what’s coming down the pipeline in this scenario – we’re not even at the middle yet, but we will come out the end of this.”

Want to get in on the conversation? Contact Joël Roerig on [email protected]