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How has life under the cloud of COVID-19 influenced workplace culture in SA? And how can you use this situation as an opportunity to strengthen your enterprise from within?


It’s safe to say that none of us rang in the new year imagining that the rug would be ripped from under our collective feet quite so spectacularly in 2020. But here we are.

The harsh realities

The unusual thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that in a business sense it’s not an event with a neatly delineated beginning or end. As a health threat it will be ongoing, and from a corporate point of view it will require different responses at different times. Varying degrees of lockdown protocols and restrictions will remain likely for up to a year or more to come.

Every single South African business sector has been impacted. Major contributors to GDP, such as the mining industry, are grappling with decreased trade with China and India. Manufacturers are dealing with reduced demand for their products abroad. Transport and logistics are affected by a reduction in mining, manufacturing, retail and export activities, while retailers are feeling the pressure of lower consumer spending capacity, and landlords are stacking up unpaid rent payments.

In the tourism and hospitality industry, operational models need to be reviewed and risks have to be assessed in light of the fact that most significant travel activities have ground to a halt. Not to mention the fact that the sector shutdown across cultural and creative industries shows a direct output impact of just over R53 billion, which is expected to reduce South Africa’s GDP by R99.7 billion in 2020.

The silver lining

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a distinct silver lining to this daunting cloud.

COVID-19 has also presented forward-thinking businesses with a golden opportunity to take a good, hard look at the way they do things internally, and how they can leverage the steep learning curve we’ve all had to scale in recent months.

Here’s why we say so.

Even before COVID-19 threw us all for a loop, recent surveys on workplace challenges and satisfaction have yielded some very interesting results. This South African-focused survey found that:

  • More than 60% of respondents experience a lack of privacy in the office and up to 70% would prefer to have more space to focus on their work.
  • Half of the workers who took the survey stated that their current work environment sometimes makes it difficult to work due to noise and distractions, and that they have to resort to measures like wearing headphones to be able to focus.

The importance of culture also became very apparent as certain companies were shown to be ready for the challenges of an extended lockdown, while others floundered due to a lack of adequate preparation and operational adaptability. The utilisation of new technologies that underpin the 4IR (fourth industrial revolution) has clearly set early-adopting businesses apart from their less sure-footed contemporaries who were slower to address aspects such as systems integration, the internet of things and cloud computing.

The crux lies in adopting a culture that gets employees aligned and performing at an optimal level. Organisations with cultures that encourage innovation, trust, integrity, teamwork and accountability are able to adapt and roll with the punches when times get tough.

Based on these insights, here are a few things to consider while you recalibrate your internal processes in the months to come.

Live out your purpose and values

Your corporate culture can be equated to the character of your organisation, rather than it’s superficial personality. This character is based on the beliefs and values that guide behaviours throughout the company, and are clearly revealed under challenging circumstances. Now is the time to reflect on these cornerstones of your enterprise and assess whether they are serving as touchstones for the choices you’re making as a business.

Here are a few examples of South African companies that lived out their purpose and values in response to the humanitarian crisis evoked by the COVID-19 virus and subsequent lockdown:

  • Distell supplied sanitisers to vulnerable communities.
  • Old Mutual pledged R50 million towards COVID-19 response.
  • Vodacom and Discovery partnered to provide free online doctor consultations to all South Africans.
  • Nedbank committed to help alleviate hunger and provide emergency relief to the most vulnerable South African communities during the pandemic.
  • And more!

Lead with compassion

Think beyond your bottom line and dial up the compassion as far as it can go. Your business may be suffering as a result of COVID-19, but your employees are navigating uncharted waters as well. If some of them are still working from home, you may find that they need more flexible hours to juggle their roles as employees and caretakers, or require access to data or company resources like cloud-based storage or routers. Open those lines of communication and see how you can support your team to be at their most productive while they adapt to a new normal.

Watch your team for signs of stress

Your employees are only too aware that the job market is in shambles right now. According to Stats SA, the official unemployment rate increased by 1.0 percentage point to 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. This percentage is set to increase as businesses throughout the country flounder in the wake of the lockdown.

Be aware of the fact that this might lead to overwork, burnout and stress. Signs to look out for include a refusal to take breaks, increased irritability or nervousness, lapses in concentration, appearing visibly tired or displaying signs of lethargy. If you pick up on these cues, it’s time to schedule a frank and open conversation and to place a focus on whole-person wellness by finding ways to lighten their load, or to encourage them to switch off so they can perform optimally.

Be quick to recognise and reward strong efforts

Recognising and rewarding strong employee efforts regularly and timeously is one of the easiest ways to keep morale high and keep your workforce engaged. By placing a focus on the value of individual contributions, you encourage your employees to take a moment to value their own achievements as well. Sometimes this is all they need to keep going when the pressure is on.

Want to delve a little deeper? Here are a few Fresh ideas for motivating and recognising top performers remotely, as well as 3 Reasons why incentive gift cards beat cash rewards.

Rethink your internal communication

Right now, you need to focus your internal messages on credible content. Your employees are inundated with conflicting information from countless sources on health risks, safety procedures and the economic future of the country, so it’s your responsibility to be clear in how you communicate the way forward for your company.

Foster credibility from the top down by sharing in-depth explanations of how the current state of affairs (and those that will develop in weeks and months to come) influence your business, operation principles, etc. This should come from top leadership. From there, regional and local leaders can refine the message to highlight details that have bearing on their specific teams.

Whatever you do, don’t leave any space for rumours or miscommunication to take root. Focus on establishing a regular rhythm of communication with your team so you can lead with stability and predictability.

The trick lies in staying ahead of the curve and not being daunted by the new realities of workplace culture in SA. Right now, staying nimble and adaptable is the name of the game.

Keep an eye on our blog in the coming weeks and months for more insider insight on employee morale, workplace engagement, and more. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch with the GET Rewards team if you want to discuss your options for rewarding your employees, customers and channel partners in ways that lead to deeper engagement and lasting loyalty – especially when things are uncertain and times are tough.


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