Winter is coming: Community Conversation focuses on plans for welcoming employees back

Mercedes-Benz executive director Abey Kgotle led the discussion in which he detailed their plans for ensuring the safety of employees back at work. 

In this week’s CHRO SA Community Conversation, which was supported by Workday, HR leaders discussed the measures and decisions that needed to be made to help organisations get through the coming winter. The relaxation of the national lockdown to level 3 has come at a time when Covid-19 infection rates are expected to peak but Mecerdes-Benz executive director for HR Abey Kgotle said his organisation was as ready as it could be to welcome employees back to work.

“The start of winter couldn’t be a worse time to enter into level 3 and we are concerned that there may be a false sense of security among employees who might think that, because we are all returning to work, the threat of the virus is no longer serious,” said Abey, cautioning that the worst was yet to come with regard to the potential rapid spreading of the virus.

After 61 or so days of total shutdown, Abey said they were excited about moving into level 3 but acutely aware of the work that had to be done to prepare. Mercedes-Benz has measures in place to not only safeguard the safety of its people but to also ensure a gradual ramp-up of business activity. There is also an induction plan for returning employees, which is two-fold, including face-to-face training sessions with a maximum of 50 people attending the presentations, which are designed and run by the Learning and Development team. There is a video-package that employees can watch and upon which they must complete an assessment. 

Said Abey: It is becoming more important for us to work with other groups of civil society to ensure the safety of our people. These engagements are necessary to ensure that our people are not only kept safe at home but also when they are travelling to and from work. We will still be encouraging those who can work from home to continue doing so. Finally, one of the things that is occupying my attention is that some metros have been declared hotspots, and our operations in those areas will be affected. For example, what will we do in the event that in Buffalo City, which has been declared a hotspot, is taken back to level-4 or level-5 lockdown?”

Screening 

Screening is clearly a must. But companies have gone about implementing the process in different ways. At MBSA, Abey said they had introduced home screening protocols through which employees screened themselves and complete a checklist of possible symptoms in a document – something that has been very new to employees and does take some getting used to.

Silverbridge people wellness executive Ruth Wotela said that her team realised there was a need to deal with the anxiety and psychological impact that coming back to work is going to have on employees. That is why they spent time preparing employees mentally for what all these processes will look like once everyone is back at work. 

“All employees know that things are not going to be the same, but they don’t know what that is going to look like. We had a company session to explain the rules and regulations of what going back to the office means and shared all the information with everyone,” said Ruth. “We sent them videos and pictures of the layout of the office and the screening process so that they can start to visualise what to expect. That said, we will continue to encourage our people to work from home and only make the office available for specific days to meet the needs of our people.”

PPC group executive for HR Phindokuhle Mohlala said they had purchased an app called Enhance to help them with the screening process. At PPC, this has been somewhat easier to manage than other companies might experience because a lot of their employees live within their premises. 

At what cost?

With executives discussing all the measures that were being in place, LexisNexis HR director Gcobisa Ntchona asked a pertinent question – what about the cost? For, while it is up to HR to ensure the safety and wellness of employees, many businesses have not been generating much revenue for the last month or two, if any. 

“The difficulty in my space is managing the tight line between ensuring the safety of our employees and cradling the cost side of our business. As Abey was talking about all the measures that they are taking at Mercedes Benz, I could not help thinking about how much all of that costs,” she said.

Jaguar Land Rover South Africa head of HR and training Tanya Ramlagan said her organisation is doing things a bit differently because even though restrictions had been relaxed “we can’t really afford to lose people for a month if they fall sick. That is why we will continue working from home until September. We only have five people in our building doing tasks that can’t be done from home and we have permits for those people.”

Infection protocols

On how to treat individuals that test positive for the virus, Phindokuhle said the company had made a decision to not release the names of the people testing positive for the virus. The intention behind this is to manage the stigma associated with the virus, which may drive employees to ostracise or unfairly treat colleagues known to have contracted the virus.

“That said, employees will always be able to figure out who has the virus because we will have to put people in quarantine and test people who have been in contact with infected individuals,” said Phindokuhle, adding that employees would also be educated about how to engage with colleagues who had the Covid-19 virus and recovered from it.

“We ran a survey asking questions like ‘would you be comfortable with sitting next to someone that was infected but has recovered from the virus?’ and that has given us a good indication of the measures we need to take. We have also mandated our health and safety teams to go out and speak to go out to see employees and educate them about how the virus spreads and tell them that most people will make a full recovery.”

Gradual process

Webber Wentzel HR director Rachel Masuku said most of their employees had been set up to work from home. But for those that are returning to work, they will ensure that this is a properly managed process that prioritises the wellness of our people. Among other measures, the company created an isolation room during Level 4 preparations, “where we can isolate individuals who are suspected of having the virus or exhibit symptoms of the virus. The isolation room can be accessed by an ambulance which can take the individual to an approved testing site for immediate medical attention. The firm also has a doctor and a clinic on-site to offer on-site support to our employees accordingly”

In preparing for the return to work, Webber Wentzel is planning to stagger the return of employees back to work so that there is some form of normality for employees to return to their usual routines. This will be for a limited number of days per week while the balance of employees will continue to work from home. Rachel noted that, at some point, however, organisations will need to start finding a balance between the fear factor of the disease and the getting back to some semblance of normality in a rapidly changing operating environment.

“A challenge that we continue to grapple with is accommodating working parents as some children will not be able to return to school. We continue to await the guidelines from the government to be published and once these are made available, we will adjust our plans accordingly,” said Rachel.