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Now that South Africa has moved to level two of lockdown, more employees will be returning to the workplace. Employers are advised to handle this process with care, ensuring employee mental health and taking note of what returning to work will actually mean for the business and its employees.

Leoni van Tonder, the Human Resources Manager at Ovations, says COVID-19 has had quite a big impact on people’s mental health. “Research released at the end of August by Ask Afrika showed that 61% of South Africans are reporting a loss of income and that their fear of unemployment is higher than the fear of contracting COVID-19.

“At the moment, people are uncertain about job security, their safety and health as well as that of their families and, lastly, their finances. In a place where no one has ever experienced something of this nature, there’s a lot of uncertainty and people need to continue to perform their daily work in an environment that everyone kept asking for, but is now a reality, with COVID-19 forcing us to adopt remote working.”

Although employees feel that they are more productive working from home, there are some people who are experiencing higher stress levels and doubts. There’s a big impact on their work and personal life demands as well as their mental wellbeing and health. However, simply returning to the workplace isn’t a panacea: employees are experiencing uncertainty and fear about contracting COVID-19 and then taking it home to friends and family.

A survey conducted among Ovations employees found that they didn’t miss working at the office, but they did miss the human interaction with their colleagues. “Your work environment is not created by a building of brick and mortar, it is created by the people who work in the building. Imagine being able to set up a virtual building where employees can congregate? That would be ideal for people who are reluctant to return to work and have grown accustomed to the new way of working, with an entirely new routine.”

Back to the office?

In terms of when it would be a good time to return to the office, some believe that these things are seasonal. There are statistics that show that 50 of the biggest companies in the UK are only partially returning to work, while 21 of the biggest companies in the UK are going completely virtual. Van Tonder says: “I think we’ve seen positive impacts in the form of less traffic and reduced electricity usage within South Africa, and many companies have proven themselves able to adapt to the required change and remained productive during the lockdown.”

Commenting on whether businesses should adopt a blanket return to work policy, she says this should be determined by the environment that the company finds itself in. “Not all companies are able to remain remote. For instance, a manufacturing business cannot go virtual. It appears that most companies are staggering their return to work, with those who are able to remain productive remotely staying at home, while only those that can’t function virtually returning to the office. This trend is estimated to continue until January next year. There have even been cases where some companies have decided to become completely virtual, embracing the change and adapting to the new way of working.”

Working remotely has definitely resulted in improved productivity; however, this is often at the expense of their personal lives, resulting in increased stress levels. “Employee burnout can have a huge cost implication for a company, not only owing to loss of productivity, but also because the employee has to recover from that burnout. A better work life balance needs to be the focus, now more than ever.”

In order to improve performance within the company, management needs to remain cognisant of the fact that people know when their productive hours are and – in a virtual environment and where permitted – they should be encouraged to work during their productive times and to take a break during their unproductive times. This will motivate and stimulate employees to perform even better.

Van Tonder says it’s key for companies to support their staff to help them cope with the new challenges they face. “One of the big issues is fear and suspicion from management that people are not working, although the indications are that people are working a lot more now than they did previously. The only way to address this is to shift from monitoring the number of hours an employee spends in the office to tracking the number of outcomes delivered by the employee.”

Measuring performance by outcome and not by the amount of time spent at a desk represents a major change for most companies, because as much as they claim to be measuring outcomes, they still judge people for the number of hours they spend in the office. Businesses need to alter their mindsets to realise that employees are being more productive in the hours that they do work, as well as setting clear expectations and agreements of what those outcomes need to be, as well as deadlines for when they need to be completed. In brief, says Van Tonder, businesses and managers need to learn to trust their employees more and set clear expectations and timelines to avoid unproductivity.

Supporting staff

She goes on to discuss the types of initiatives that companies can deploy to assist their employees. “Firstly, the business should try to understand what the underlying issues are and how they can be addressed. This can be done in a weekly employee engagement session that allows for channels of communication to be opened so that if someone is struggling, they know that they can reach out and there will be someone to support them.”

Providing employees with access to a coach or wellness consultant will assist the business in identifying any underlying issues so that they can be addressed. “It’s also key to ensure that leaders are available to their employees – and that management also has access to the support of individuals – as strong decisions have to be made in times like these and management needs the support too.”

Van Tonder says the business has to trust and empower its employees so they can shape their work and let them achieve their best results, but always in agreement with their managers. “You must provide an environment in which employees have what they need to be successful. All employees need to be catered for and taken care of, especially if they have to work remotely/virtually.”

Finally, she advises companies to re-evaluate their employee value proposition, which should include trusting and empowering employees, ensuring they have all the tools needed and providing support to them.

Companies can support their staff by adopting the following initiatives:

Embrace flexibility – understand what your employees’ productive times are and ensure they function at those times.
Reimagine the employee experience – it may no longer be a 9-to-5 office desk environment.
Bring compassion to every conversation – be kind, you don’t know what battle people are facing every day.
Continually focus on developing talent – ensure virtual productivity.
Measure and ensure that employees are thriving – provide continuous support.

Van Tonder concludes by saying that as much as all of the above may appear to be an HR imperative – and HR may well be the custodian to make sure that this is being done – the entire structure of the business must support these types of initiatives. “HR is there to support employees, leaders and management. Every employee plays a part in driving employee engagement that is fostered by the company culture, and that ensures performance and inspires resilience. A culture of caring needs to be adopted.”

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