MTN Group CHRO Paul Norman on shifting the definition of professional interaction

Paul explains how Covid-19 renewed the spotlight on wellness at MTN.

Although telecommunications are an essential service, when Covid-19 struck, MTN re-organised its working structures to protect its employees. MTN Group CHRO Paul Norman says their strategy for returning to work began with grouping into categories employees based on various criteria for readiness to return to the work environment.

These groups were determined based on whether individuals performed essential services and their specific classification around readiness to re-enter the space. Employees who were at risk – for instance, employees with self-declared medical pre-conditions, employees with children that are still homebound or employees without a means of personal transportation who 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.

“This is in addition to everything we are already doing to adhere to and at times even go beyond the mandated requirements for hygiene, sanitisation and social distancing. We also instituted an in incident response people-care toolkit for our own HR, Risk and Medical teams so that we have an early estimate of the outbreak and know exactly what is going to happen at all levels of the organisation, in the event of an employee testing positive for the virus.”

With a large portion of the workforce now working from home, Paul has consciously shifted the definition of professional interaction. “The one thing that we did very quickly – because you are basically in people's homes now – is that we welcome your home, life and loved ones into our virtual work space. Our philosophy is simple, your life at home whether it’s your children, pets or family members, are a part of what makes each individual who they are. 

They are more than welcome to go about their normal day around you, while we continue on with work. 

This concept completely changes the rhetoric and helps people ease themselves from the psychological stress of being disturbed or even having to ‘hide’ your home realities. This is after all what the new normal is about.

“For instance, we told our people from the onset, that 'if your kids come by during the meeting, introduce them to us and involve them in our conversation. Tell them what we're working on and let us talk to them about how home school is going,’” says Paul, adding that allowing people to feel comfortable in their own homes was something that leaders should not take for granted in these times.

In larger meetings, where there can be hundreds of people in attendance, MTN introduces a fun element by suggesting a dress code. A recent meeting saw everyone in attendance having to wear a hat or some kind of head regalia.

“Everyone wore the funniest-looking hat they had in their homes and, for the first five minutes of that meeting, we were all just reacting to each other's hats. Those kinds of things just lift the spirit and diffuse some of the tension and stress that so many people are under,” says Paul. 

Covid-19 has also renewed the spotlight on wellness, another key dimension that Paul has been actively driving within the organisation. He believes that the need for a more expansive strategy around wellness is essential, given the sudden paradigm shift in work styles.

Says Paul:

“Until Covid-19, our strategies around wellness operated on the premise of ‘work as usual’. The new reality has created a whole new construct for what wellness means in light of the many changes we are experiencing the world over today. The implications of health anxiety from the pandemic, stress and coping pressures from the work-life convergence, emotional disconnection due to remote working, anxiety from being overwhelmed by technology and communication – are beyond what we comprehended in the past. The effects can have a long term impact on the wellbeing of our people. This is a problem that keeps me up at night. To this end, one of the most important things we did was to realise that our engagement and experience strategies need to be centered around mental, emotional, physical and social wellness.”

Paul says that this quick adaptive response strategy changed the way HR showed up for MTN employees, in a short span of six weeks across MTN’s 21 markets. Whether this in the way HR manages and cares for the emotional needs of people who are experiencing a volley of transformational societal and work space changes in such a short span, is where HRs truly differentiates itself. 

“Whether it’s with daily global health monitor surveys, specialised-care interventions for potentially affected employees, work-from-home support groups, global ‘time-out’ hour, flexible working, leadership and managerial toolkits for empathy and crisis management or fun-with-wellness live broadcast shows – we have taken a holistic and inclusive approach to wellness in everything we do across our markets,” says Paul, adding that it’s HR’s time to create exponential shifts in people strategies exists “in ways we never imagined.” 

“There are opportunities for us to transform in myriad ways. From emerging social working norms, preparing our business and people for the new world of work, adapting to a digital ecosystem and shifting dynamics of the consumer or economic market, HR holds more than just a seat at the board but needs to constantly work towards creating impact for value.”