Geeking out: Technology makes lockdown more connected and more human

Workday country MD Zuko Mdwaba says that systems and solutions have made business - and human connection - possible in the time of Covid-19. 

“Covid-19 has been an equalizer across the globe. It has been testing the level of readiness for the catastrophe of companies all around the world. And, as we are experiencing in South Africa, we are all in the same storm, just in different boats,” says Zuko Mdwaba, the country MD of Workday. 

However, he points out that South Africa was already dealing with a struggling economy, has entered into a technical recession, so the longer-term challenges are harder felt by South African business. Balancing the conflicting demands of public health with the hardships that result from the economic downturn has been enormously difficult for the government. 

“One of the biggest challenges in South Africa is that we were facing these enormous socio-economic challenges, which are now amplified in the Covid period. People are equally worried about contracting the virus and about not being active in the economy. As a country, we are taking a huge knock,” Zuko says. 

Global insight 

Around the world and in South Africa, Workday has more than 3,200 customers, which gives them great insight into assessing the impact of Covid-19 on businesses. “When you listen to people or finance leaders talking, one of the key things that they say is important is data. In weekly meetings with executives, they need to make informed decisions, and those decisions are informed by data, which gives them a sense of what’s happening in their organisation,” Zuko says.  

He explains that Workday makes a significant contribution in this space because at the core of everything that the company does is to enable agility in an organisation through data. “In South Africa, in this period, we’ve been instrumental in helping our customers to navigate their businesses in these tricky times. It’s something that speaks to how these organisations have taken the approach of creating environments with a level of flexibility. We are living in a world where business can either disrupt or be disrupted, so businesses have to be very agile – and Workday is supporting that.” 

While technology is certainly helpful in supporting agility, Zuko says that, perhaps surprisingly, it’s the way in which it supports the human touch that has made it so invaluable during the Covid-19 lockdown periods. 

“When overnight, you have people working from home, it becomes important to understand the profile of these people, so that you can provide the support that’s supposed to be provided. The data you have is going to be able to help you to understand them – for example you might know that someone who lives in one area will need more support than another person. You’ll be able to know when it’s someone’s birthday, or if they are having a child and respond appropriately even when everyone’s working from different locations. This information is all now contained in the human capital records within our clients’ organisations.” 

SA business taking a leap

From his vantage point, heading up an organisation that supports corporate agility, Zuko believes that South African businesses were not ready for the shift to working from home and that it required a big mental adjustment from a lot of managers. 

“Working remotely requires a certain level of trust, and it’s easy for leaders to believe that if they can’t see people in the office, then they’re not as productive. Managers have had to get used to it.” 

And yet, he points out that it has emerged that many people were actually a lot more productive working from home than at the office. “Cases like this have been an eye-opener for many leaders. People were working from 7 am to 7 pm. Workday can also help in instances like this because, while people might be working hard, employee engagement is still important.” 

He adds that it’s extremely important for managers to be aware of the impact that lockdown stress is having on people’s mental health. “We can’t take people’s home situations for granted and expect them to jump from one call to the next. We have to acknowledge the difference between introverts and extroverts and that they may have different levels of comfort with online engagement. We need to be aware of these challenges and talk about how to counter them, to ensure that people are constantly doing other things, being active.” 

Workday, for example, has held events where employees shared stories of holidays that they had taken or wanted to take. Zuko says some organisations are offering online fitness classes or times during which meetings aren’t allowed. “These things might seem small, but they are quite crucial for our sanity.” 

A personal perspective

As a technologist, Zuko says one aspect of lockdown that’s been exciting for him has been the flood of emerging technology. “If it weren’t for technology, we wouldn’t be having this interview. Machine learning, AI, cloud, blockchain and others on the horizon are giving birth to new ways of doing business. These emerging technologies are defining the world of work, and how that will look post-Covid when we continue working remotely. Certainly, technology is a big part of that.” 

On the other hand, from a personal perspective, the lockdown has presented challenges in the way that he parents his children. “I’ve always believed that technology is good, but that you have to manage it with children. I’ve always limited device time, but overnight schools went remote, and now children have to be on these gadgets from 7 am until one in the afternoon, and they still want to interact socially in that space.” 

He laughs: “We need a support group for parents. This part has come as a bit of a shock to me.”  Zuko says that with the capabilities of technology and the support that people are able to give one another in these difficult times, he believes that South African business will pull through. “We’re going through a double-whammy as a country – with the struggling economy and the pandemic – and the biggest reality is that all of us are trying to sail through these waters and get to the other side. Something that’s encouraging is that historically, South Africa is a nation of very resilient people, so I am quite confident that we’ll get through this.”