Lessons from a year of remote work under the spotlight at HR Indaba Conversations

Solving for productivity and engagement in a remote and hybrid workplace.

Simon Ellis, CEO of SmartWage, which sponsored the session, said that as work from home became the norm during Covid-19 lockdowns, employees were worried about financial issues.

“The bigger picture is that 80 percent of employed South Africans are struggling to make it through the month, especially low income earners who are targeted by loan sharks.”

In a remote environment these issues threaten productivity and engagement. SmartWage offers employees access to their earnings before month end, so they can get funds before payday. Simon shared that clients had seen a decrease in loan requests, reduced stress over financial challenges and the employees were able to now engage more fully in their work.

In addition to the financial support component, SmartWage also has a comprehensive self-service offering via WhatsApp where employees can file leave requests, review policies and take up tasks, which makes the HR function more productive in a remote environment.

A year into remote working
Phil Tshikotshi, Startek country head HR, shared that he had recently completed a massive exercise to onboard 1,000 remote employees by 1 October in Gqeberha, Johannesburg and Durban. Phil said, “It has not been easy, but the deployment has been successful. We learned that technology plays a significant role in connecting to customers, and that when it comes to people, trust in relationships is a significant factor. In our case, trust with equipment and confidential information.”

Matimba Mbungela, Vodacom group CHRO, said the telecoms giant developed a remote working best practice guideline prior to lockdown in which they had explored ‘what if’ scenarios. He said that despite this contingency plan, it was still an effort to deploy it earlier than planned and across different territories beyond South Africa.

The company had to set people up to work remotely and they had a “bring a chair home” campaign which allowed staff to take furniture and office supplies home to be productive. The company also had to quickly equip line managers to ensure that their teams were connected and engaged and could be productive.

Bess Skosana, MTN general manager: regional talent leader, says the working from home journey so far has propelled the company to look at strategic opportunities, and one of these has been the ability to attract critical skills globally.

She said that even though the opportunity is a great one, the company still has to contend with various challenges. These include employing people in a country where MTN doesn’t have an existing footprint, considering the regulatory aspects of hiring, addressing the application of legal contracts across different countries as well as tax implications.

“To be an attractive remote employer, you also need to understand nuances of each environment, align renumeration and benefits, and understand how benefits and policies will apply. You also need to look at some of business risks, in terms of employment contracts, cyber risks, issues around POPI and software licensing.”

Re-imagining the virtual workplace
Matimba said that the world has changed forever, and we shouldn’t expect to go back. Even virtual tools have evolved and become more robust, habits have changed, lifestyles have changed. He emphasised that there is a need for HR professionals to think creatively and not just relegate virtual communication as tools for meetings.

“You can have fun online. We have hackathons, concerts and other experiences which expand our horizon about what is possible, and people sharpen their thinking in terms of what we can do virtually. We have also developed a super app for employees, which integrates the things they need such as ERP systems, workplace readiness, questionnaires and essential worker certificates, which we used during lockdown. This platform has accelerated our digital-first employee experience and has been white labelled and is sold to other companies,” he said.

Bess added that at MTN they believe the hybrid model is the way of the future because it gives people flexibility. She said that feedback from teams is that people have found that they are able to achieve better work-life balance with the newfound control over their daytime hours.

“We encourage face-to-face engagement, especially on mission critical activities that require closer collaboration, but are aware that different jobs have different requirements, and that’s why it’s important to have tools that enable the full spectrum of what we need.”

She explained that flexibility will be there for people to have different working hours and ensure that they deliver on KPIs and contractual obligations.

Impact on culture
Phil shared that most of their employees are call centre agents and they have been keenly observing the impact working remotely would have on people and culture. He shared that, “Most of our agents are young, and when they used to get together, they would energise each other. We had expected a drop in productivity, but found that despite being apart, they prefer working from home because they are able to fit in more in their day than when they came into the office.”


Matimba said that it was important to recognise that many people had moved between companies during this period, and there are teams where many people never met physically. For that employee, their norm is joining the team virtually, and it is HR’s role to give the person who joined virtually a good onboarding experience.

Bess added that the upsides of working remotely have proven to be so great that people are making it work. “Teams do miss each other and many set up catch-ups either at the office or will meet at a coffee shop. We welcome the new culture and will continue to engage with it as it evolves.”

Phil said that the reduced stress of time in traffic and massive monthly saving on paying for transport were huge pluses. He added though, “We don’t take mental health for granted, we have a counselling service that employees can use. We also run financial education interventions because despite the savings, employees have become more indebted because the cost of living has gone up and earning per household is stretched.”

Long-term prospects of remote working
Matimba shared that having a solid remote working framework is a critical part of attracting key talent. He said that Vodacom had defined skills hubs in different parts of the world to align the company’s needs with skills.

“Any employee in the group has an opportunity to work in any location for 21 working days as long as it doesn’t contradict the country’s laws. These are things that are evolving, but it’s about keeping open to opportunities, and driving, embracing and encouraging hybrid working.


Phil anticipates long-term impacts to be felt from the rise of automation and thinking machines. He said, “We have to be digitally astute as HR people. The type of skills we are looking for are changing as we are now able to optimise people with machines. As face to face interaction changes, the human touch that has always been our most powerful value, will have to evolve.

In the chat

Simon Ellis, CEO at SmartWage – “We started as a fully remote team, all of our processes were developed around working remotely. There are lots of processes around hiring, recruiting and off boarding and we are interested in making these most effective.”

Liane du Plessis, senior human resources officer at Aurex Constructors – “We have a lot of blue collar workers who don’t own computers, we still have paper based and balancing that and servicing people who don’t have smart phones, so we still need to deliver in channels they have.”

Kopano Mere, head of activations at SmartWage said his go-to tool kit would be having on demand services in a single platform that would show him what he has earned, and has a repository of resources, training and policies. The same platform would also allow him to engage with his employer as and when he needed to.