Executives attending first-ever CHRO Day discuss getting the most out of a crisis

HR leaders discussed lessons learned from the pandemic and how companies have picked up the pieces.

More than 100 experienced HR executives converged at the exclusive Marble restaurant in Rosebank on 12 May for the first-ever CHRO Day – an event where great minds come together and enjoy meaningful conversations over mouthwatering meals prepared by celebrity chef David Higgs.

In a discussion about rising above a crisis and the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, ACSA’s HR director Lungile Langa shared that transparency was key during the period and beyond. “It was important to show people the numbers,” said Lungile.

She revealed that the workplace had changed completely and it was something the company was not prepared for. “We had to move to meetings online, and work remotely. Covid meant we had to relook our processes and streamline them.”

A lot of restructuring took place at ACSA, including unfortunately shedding a number of jobs. “We restricted our business and our operating model. We had to relook at our processes. It [Covid-19 pandemic] changed our strategy.

As most companies experienced the downside of Covid-19, ACSA took up the challenge and seized an opportunity to commercialise its training academy. The company, Lungile revealed, also had to shift its culture.

“We are now agile and have realised we now need to move with speed. It gives us an opportunity to rethink things and how we retain talent,” she said.

Verna Robson, Sun International group HR director, took the attendees through the journey the hospitality company went on during the pandemic. It was one of the many unfortunate organisations that were forced to close operations during the lockdowns.

Verna painted a picture of doom and gloom the business faced. “We had to shut down our operation,” said Verna. “It takes up to four days to do that.”

She shared that Sun International was in a crisis just before the lockdown. “We had to make decisions around whether the businesses would survive beyond the 21 days of [of the first lockdown]. “We reduced our benefits and our provident contributions were suspended for 18 months.”

She admits the task the company was faced with was daunting. “My days used to start at 6am and end at midnight. I think you need to take care of yourself, otherwise you will not survive. It was a very daunting period,” she recalled.

The period, Verna said, brought to light the fact that HR digitisation, which they had started working on before Covid-19 hit, had to be pushed forward. “The period allowed us to think differently about our operations,” she said.

She admitted there were some good things that happened during the pandemic. “We continue the communication with our staff. We had good analytics that allowed us to change direction very fast. It was an opportunity to do things differently. It’s certainly been an advantage for us,” she said.

At the end of the discussion, the speakers opened the floor for questions. One of the questions was around mental health and how both Sun International and ACSA helped their staff to deal with these issues.

Verna said: “The mental health factor came up for us within the first three months. We were dealing with abuse within our home environment of our staff, and mental health. We changed our focus. We spent a lot of time using our executives to tell a story around that and engage.”

Verna shared that Sun International also made sure that psychologists phoned individuals on the team to follow up on whatever situation they were going through. “We are bringing back the face-to-face wellness day. The attendance is quite high. We use the arena and we call it a family Saturday. We are finding that the mental health aspect is being monitored. We know employees know there is assistance,” she concluded.

Lungile responded to a question about initiatives and culture Acsa had adopted since Covid-19 happened. “We recognised the role of leadership. In this era, it’s more empathic leadership – leaders who do not look at employees as employees, but as human beings.

“For us the theme was humanising our workplaces. We did check-ins to find out how our people were doing. We recognised they were work in progress and we needed to give them the tools,” Lungile said.

Although some of the reflections were painful, the CHROs in attendance were inspired by the lessons learnt and the growth shared by the speakers. CHRO Day offers unprecedented peer-learning opportunities, and this panel was a prime example of the camaraderie of the community.