The HR Indaba Online 2022 looks at the future of leave

Covid-19 produced a myriad of challenges for employers concerning annual leave, panellists said.

During a panel discussion on how HR leaders navigated leave amid the Covid-19 pandemic, panellists Andile Mabindisa, HR and talent executive at CSIR, Dolores Mashishi, MD at DSM Advisory, and Sthembiso Phakathi, director: human capital at Deloitte shared some insights on how they approached leave liability and managed it, without creating friction between employer and employee.

Andile said the CSIR’s first step was to classify leave and leave liability as a risk, and to mitigate this risk by opting for a holistic approach, mainly being transparent about the issues of leave liability and collaborating and co-creating solutions, while also considering a co-management strategy.

“We started by taking leave as a shared responsibility between the company and employee, and used four pillars to support how we manage leave,” said Andile. “A leave provision of 15 statutory leave days was given, including 10 standard leave days. Those that were travelling and possibly exposed to the virus were also accounted for and taken into consideration,” he explained.

The CSIR also held what they called “brown paper bag sessions”, where issues pertaining to leave were discussed in a transparent manner. Here monthly webinars were hosted on issues related to individual experiences of Covid-19 and employees were encouraged to exercise and participate in Pilates classes on a regular basis to maintain a healthy body and mind during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dolores described the general impact of Covid-19 on leave as a scramble or rat race to comply with. “There was an imbalance with some employees who had leave days and some whose leave had lapsed or was on negative. As such, we decided to introduce a leave donation scheme, where employees could donate their extra leave days to other staff members,” said Dolores.

She said leave should be led by culture, transparency and trust, and also needed to be employee wellbeing led or focused: “We observed employees’ morale dropping and lack of employee motivation spiked up, which required management to address this. In our new world of work, leaders need to lead and manage differently – place greater emphasis on how leave is structured. Organisations must structure leave according to the needs of employees.

“We also had quite a few cancer patients, and most of these employees had already used up their leave days. As such, we decided to extend their leave days, especially for those suffering from chronic illness,” she said.

Dolores pointed out the importance of planning: “This should happen as early as the beginning of the year,” she said. “This way, when you reach the end of the year, management knows exactly how many team members are going on leave and can plan for it ─ pre-planning allows you to better manage your leave.”

According to Sthembiso, not only did employees struggle to switch off when they were on leave, but some took leave even when they didn’t need it. “Some people took leave even when they didn’t need it and got bored while on leave. They ended up opening up their laptops and working instead,” he said.

“During the first seven months of lockdown, leave taking decreased by seven percent with some of our clients. Another interesting finding was people’s behaviour or routine while they worked from home. Most employees couldn’t properly manage time or hours dedicated to work or determine what time was most suitable to work properly,” he said.

He also pointed out that employees want flexibility and choice now more than ever. “People who use annual leave as an opportunity to rest started to look at leave in a more intentional way – using those days in a more purposeful way,” he explained.

“Be transparent, open and engage with employees during discussion about leave, make sure that leave is a shared responsibility, create room for robust engagement and ultimately meet common ground on how to approach leave,” he concluded.

In the chat section, one participant asked if employees were able to buy back their leave at the panellists’ organisations. “We did not follow that route, but rather encouraged employees to plan for their leave instead,” Andile responded.

“When you go on leave it takes at least two days to switch off from work mode, therefore, we gave employees at least 10 days leave – to have those two days to deactivate from work or switch off from work mode.”

Rather than give the option to buy back leave days, Dolores said that her organisation approach worked like a donation: “Our executive led this initiative first and donated five of their own leave days, which really speaks to the culture of our organisation and the level of trust we have among each other as an organisation, as people were not forced to donate – it was purely though their own desire to do so,” she said.

On the topic of leave and fixed-term contracted employees, Dolores pointed out that in legacy organisations, employees have the choice to structure their leave to their own convenience, including how they use their leave, whether it be sick leave or maternity leave. She said this is a trend that is likely to continue, using a Canadian firm she once worked with as an example. “In terms of leave policy, this really determines where the mindset of the organisation is, and if it is not a good mindset, people will not want to be a part of it,” she noted.

All the panellists agreed that post-pandemic, employees demand flexibility, especially those entering the working environment, and while some people leave organisations because of money, others do so based on a lack of flexibility.