HR leaders gearing up to welcome employees back

CHRO Community Conversation focuses on measures to avoid exposing employees to unnecessary risk.

The latest edition of CHRO South Africa’s weekly Community Conversations saw HR leaders discussing preparations for welcoming employees back into work. Issues around social distancing, availability of protective gear and the mental preparedness of employee were top of mind among most HR leaders.

Made possible with the support of Workday, the CHRO SA Community Conversations give HR leaders the opportunity to connect with one another, take the temperature on decisions they are implementing, and be vulnerable in the company of peers when they have to be strong and confident for their teams.

Many expressed that before Covid-19, the concern about employees working from home was how to know whether they were actually working. An element of trust has always been required and, with everybody at home, it is likely to have been a source of some anxiety for many leaders within businesses.

Furthermore, leaders are increasingly becoming concerned about the mental state of employees, with some executives prioritising wellness as organisations prepare to re-integrate people. One of the HR leaders even expressed that there had been a couple of attempted suicides within their organisation during the lockdown, which had heightened the organisation’s need to provide more support to their people.

"Sometimes, being too focused on our own frustration from sitting behind a laptop all day, we forget that there are people who live alone in very small apartments and are having a much tougher time than we could imagine,” said Workday country leader for South Africa Zuko Mdwaba. “If we don't proactively try to engage with those people, we could see an increase in the suicide rate and I would implore all leaders to take the necessary preventative measures by supporting their people during this trying time."

Not business as usual

Regarding the process of getting employees back to work after the lockdown, Adcorp’s chief people officer Vinolia Singh said it’s not a matter of bringing everybody back to the office immediately because businesses had taken a hit and would need time to financially recover.

“The fact of the matter is that revenue isn’t going get back to previous levels overnight,” she said. “If your revenue is not going to return to 100 percent, then why rush to get back to full capacity? Some experts in America have said that, in some cases, it will take three years before organisations achieved the same revenue that they were generating before the pandemic,” she said. In terms of the measures that are going to be put in place, she said the organisation had already drafted policies for those coming back.

“There will be no use of lifts unless it is absolutely necessary. We will also have rotating teams of people that will come to the office. There will be no external meetings permitted and, for those who can, we are probably going to ask that they continue to work from home for the next three to six months.”

Practical steps

Mercedes Benz HR Director Abey Kgotle said that his organisation has also made preparations for employees to return to work. In their case, however, those measures are further complicated by the fact that most of their employees work in a plant with machinery that limits the extent to which the working environment can physically be rearranged.

"We will still be implementing a two-metre social distancing protocol and will be modifying some of our production lines to accommodate that. We will also have a gradual ramp-up of production, which means that, instead of moving directly into a three-shift system as per normal, we'll start with one shift," said Abey, adding that the company had also rearranged its meeting rooms so that there will be two metres between people, while training rooms, which can accommodate more than 100 people, would be limited to a maximum of 50 people at a time.

"We are also aware of the fact that we are entering the winter season, which means the threat of infection rate is likely to increase.

MTN Group CHRO Paul Norman said the telecommunications giant is making its preparations to welcome employees back depending on whether they performed essential services and their specific classification around readiness to re-enter the space. All employees are put into different categories whereby those who were at risk – for instance, employees with children that are still homebound or employees without a means of personal transportation that would have to use public transport, and employees living with people who are at high risk of contracting the virus, for example – would not be required to come into work even after the lockdown is lifted.

In case of an outbreak

Cynthia Chellan, the HR director for Integrated Supply Chain at Tiger Brands said they were only planning to return to 100 percent office capacity by October and would gradually work up to that.

Said Cynthia: “We are looking at various scenarios that might arise when employees return to work. Among the various things we are discussing is the cost of testing, which is a cause of concern for our vulnerable workers who would not be able to afford it themselves. It is an added cost to consider over and above the private transportation, we've had to arrange for employees during the lockdown, which has put us under some pressure. Beyond that, we have created hampers with protective gear and various products like hand sanitizers and so forth.

Dimension Data CHRO Michaela Voller said that, in addition to following all the aforementioned preventative measure, they have also put together a business continuity plan for how they will react if there is an outbreak.

“We would like to have separate locations so that, if one location is ‘contaminated’ so to speak, we will be able to move to a different one.”

Ultimately, all the HR leaders in attendance were in agreement around the heightened sense of responsibility surrounding their roles, given the tough balancing act of representing the interests of the business while taking into the account the impact that this crisis is having on the human experience. 

In parting, Abey thanked his fellow executives and CHRO South Africa for the insightful conversation, reflecting that, "It's good to know that our experiences are relatively similar and that we're not alone."