Dark Fibre Africa’s Portia Thokoane talks rethinking the HR role in a pandemic

Portia says it took some strategic thinking for HR to pivot and adapt through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid has presented significant challenges to employees and employers alike, and many companies are still having to think of ways to recover, while showing kindness to their employees. Chief HR officer at Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), Portia Thokoane, says they really had to rethink their role as HR practitioners and craft a workable approach to dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

DFA has close to 700 employees, and when Covid-19 struck, Portia says, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. Like many other businesses they had to implement work-from-home capabilities at breakneck speed.

“During that time no one anticipated what was coming: like many, we didn’t quite know how long it will last,” she says. “We had to look at our business-continuity policies to see if they were relevant and sufficient, and we had to set a clear roadmap of how to respond to current and possible challenges at the time. Once we had a clear map, the transition became much easier.”

The IT division stepped in to make sure everyone in the organisation had connectivity. But in the first few weeks we realised that employees were spending inordinate amounts of time in online meetings, and this placed undue strain on them.

“We took a decision to discourage early morning and late meetings. We asked everyone to try their best not to schedule meetings with colleagues between 12.30pm and 14.00pm every day to allow everyone to take some time out,” she says. This was a welcome relief, particularly given the effects of the pandemic on everyone’s emotional and mental well-being.

Covid-19 cases in the workplace
With regard to the direct impact of the virus on DFA employees, Portia says there have been 59 cases of Covid-19, and two deaths so far. “We know there are three people that are struggling to get back, but we are thankful that the rest had recovered quickly.”

She adds that they are aware of the existence of long-Covid, where people still struggle with fatigue and other symptoms long after recovering from the illness. “We focus more on saying, ‘Take time out when you are not well; do not stress about whether your job is safe or not,’” she says.

Trusting individual employee experiences
Portia explains that from the onset they assured employees that they would figure out this new reality together. “There was anxiety and people were looking for strong leadership.”

“We also had really powerful and open communication about the real-life experiences of different people. Usually when companies look at employee experiences, there may be a tendency to provide blanket solutions, but with Covid-19 we have found that there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Every employee has different circumstances and challenges. We needed to find out what the biggest need of each employee was and see how we could address it specifically.

She adds that HR needed to ask themselves what really mattered and how they could make employees feel cared for and safe.

Wellness and wellbeing
Portia highlights that it was very important for HR to take care of their employees during this time. One of the things they did was to take all their learning online and make tools available so that employees could better manage working remotely and deal with mental-health challenges.

“We quickly recognized that the concept of employee wellness could not be limited to the workplace but had to extend to employees’ lives at home because that could affect their happiness and productivity at work.”

“Some of the challenges we picked up included parenting challenges, particularly at the time when there were reports of bullying in the country.”

The DFA HR team designed and launched a Teen Squad programme that focused on giving teenagers life skills, such as how to deal with bullying, mental health, sexual education, and drugs. This programme is available to all teens whose parents work at DFA.

“We have partnered with psychologists, mentors, and youth champions in the country,” says Portia. “This programme has helped our teenagers to easily identify and talk about the issues that they are facing, including bullying, and has also helped us as parents to know how to support them better.”

Leave policy
Portia says that DFA has a standard leave policy that includes sabbaticals and sick leave. However, they have also introduced unlimited Covid-19 leave: “For employees who are battling the virus, the sick leave is unlimited. It helps that leaders have evolved their mindsets to measure outputs. The recovery journey is long; we therefore let the teams support each other in ensuring business continuity on those days when a colleague is not well,” she explains.

“We also let employees work from home as much as possible and encourage adequate breaks and rest. Basically, we manage and reward performance output plus customer experience and care less about employees being seen to be present or taking leave days. This level of trust and accountability has surprisingly led to a higher level of accountability and productivity.”

Portia says the virus itself creates a lot of anxiety, and HR does not want to worsen the situation if employees fear that they have overused their leave days or might lose their jobs.