The new work order: lessons from Absa

At the 2020 HR Indaba Network, Absa’s Dr Roze Phillips suggested remote work is a talent strategy.

Absa was recently awarded the Euromoney 2020 Excellence in Leadership in Africa Awards thanks to their integrated Covid-19 response for employees, clients and communities. In part, Absa’s group executive: people and culture Dr Roze Phillips attributes this accolade to a three-year investment in the group’s digital strategy and the creation of a flatter company structure.

“We have spent time working on our digital products, platforms and partnerships,” said Roze at Absa’s Impact Session at the 2020 HR Indaba Network.

It was this digital agility that enabled the majority of Absa’s 40,000 employees to move off-site when the lockdown was announced. Absa supported this move by allowing employees to take home screens and desks, increasing cyber-security measures and boosting the group’s VPN network.

The use of digital tools within the company has surged. “We have Workplace as our company Facebook, so that we can share news. We host meetings through Microsoft Teams, and we rely heavily on Workday for our HR processes. We believe that many employees will continue to prefer the ease and efficiency of digital tools well beyond the current crisis,” said Roze.

What started as a healthcare strategy has evolved into what Roze now appreciates as a talent strategy: “Digital has made us location-agnostic. We can source talent from anywhere in the world. We can also tap into the gig economy more easily and reach talent who don’t necessarily want to be full-time employees.”

Roze proposed that unlocking the digital dividend means combining the intelligence of technology with the problem-solving and creative abilities of humans. She pointed out that Absa may be “digitally powered, but is ultimately people-led”.

Leading remote teams
A more flexible approach to work is also a retention strategy for Absa. Flexible working means that leaders need to stop monitoring activities but rather look at outcomes and outputs. Roze believes that when leaders lead with compassion and trust their people, employees respond by unlocking discretionary effort.

“Leadership is the real secret sauce of the future of work. We need to take a more flexible approach to both the workplace and the work we do, one that provides the physical and thinking space to liberate the limitless possibilities that live inside each and every one of our people.”

She still thinks that “water cooler” moments are important, saying that integration is where innovation happens. She does not imagine a future where the bulk of her workforce is remote.

Leading remote teams is enabled by technology partners such as Workday. “Workday has been a fantastic partner. They have unlocked incredible agility and collaboration within the organisation,” she added.

Absa’s Digital Campus
Author and futurist Alvin Toffler said that, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Roze believe this to be true in our uncertain and complex times. “The relevance of one’s skills is always under threat. I believe that learning is the gift that you give your future self,” she commented.

Absa’s Digital Campus allows all employees to create a personalised learning programme. It makes learning possible anywhere, at any pace and on any device. The campus includes course work sourced from leading universities and industry captains. Experts are invited to facilitate courses and Absa’s employees also take on the role of instructor.

Roze anticipated that much of the interest would be in technical skills such as learning how to code. She was surprised to find that the most popular courses were around personal mastery, understanding self and mindfulness.

Shareholder versus stakeholder
Roze considers that the time is right for stakeholder capitalism, the concept that businesses should serve the interests of all society rather than simply their shareholders. This is in stark contrast with shareholder capitalism, which proposes that companies have one purpose – to make as much money as possible for their shareholders.

She believes that the pandemic is bringing stakeholder capitalism to the fore. “You must take your stakeholders into account. Through digital, the entire world is connected. The voices come from everywhere – they can drag your company down or lift your company up,” said Roze.

She pointed out that 58 percent of the global workforce are millennials. They are also consumers and investors. This group of people care about diversity, governance and the environment. “We still operate in a very unequal society. We have gender inequality, race inequality. The short-termism of shareholder capitalism has not served us well. We need to shift, and are shifting, to a time of stakeholder capitalism,” she said.