By Dr Roze Phillips, Group Executive for People and Culture at Absa

Remote working has been a consistent trend for some time now. In response to COVID-19, organisations have been forced to immediately develop or improve remote work policies and procedures. This has proven challenging for many businesses, especially when it comes to IT infrastructure, devices, cybersecurity and productivity.

Beyond that, though, how do these forces enable leaders – especially people leaders like human resources (HR) practitioners – to continue harnessing the full potential of people to sustain businesses and economies? Nothing will be the same again and, as such, the future of work is being rewritten; workplaces will need to be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing and other organisational shifts. Essentially, business models must adapt and adapt quickly. The question is – how should companies respond? At Absa, we’ve centred our response on protecting and empowering our people.

One of the biggest lessons during this “next normal” phase is that, to thrive, we have to learn to unlearn and then relearn. This simply means that we must break our attachment to past behaviours and lifestyles – anything that lulls us into a sense of familiarity and makes us resistant to change. 

For many, remote working happened overnight, with little warning or preparation. Our business was already on a path of digital transformation, which would include remote and flexible work. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared any of us for the onslaught of remote meetings and working from our intimate living spaces.

COVID-19 is the Great Amplifier: if something was cracked before, it is broken now. Much like the virus compromises the human body, so it has revealed the compromised state of our business models. Companies with flat structures and reduced bureaucracy have benefited from the agility of an empowered workforce. Command and control-style businesses have and will continue to struggle.

So, what is the holy grail of remote working?

Absa is focusing on three fundamentals that we believe will empower us to bring possibilities to life for our customers and our people. Our first foray into a remote work strategy emerged from a wellbeing strategy: keeping our employees safe and secure is key to protecting them and the communities we serve.

Leadership matters

History repeatedly shows that leaders – with or without titles – rise like steam during the heat of crises. The secret to successful remote work is not Microsoft Teams or Zoom: it is leadership – responsive, responsible and response –abled leadership.

In a time of disruption, the human need for ethical and compassionate leadership remains constant. Myriad emotions are invoked as we traverse our adapted working terrain – whether it is juggling schoolwork and phone calls, navigating our new “stuck in traffic” (also known as intermittent or non-existent Wi-Fi), or adapting to the blurring of work-personal boundaries.

Amid the angst of an artificial intelligence and digital takeover, human intervention is more relevant than ever. This is the moment for our leaders to spotlight the direction we need to take to flow through a new, fluid world of work.

At Absa, we understand that this will be where the gig worker and freelancer are seamlessly integrated into our strategies and structures. We understand that mistakes are inevitable in this type of innovation, but the lessons gained will be even more valuable.

We call on our leaders to entrench our CARE model as we re-energise and invigorate our teams: CONNECT to purpose, ACHIEVE through teams, RECHARGE with relationships and EMPOWER to evolve.

Mental health is workplace wealth

Mental health, as a workplace challenge, has been steadily increasing for many years as employees have struggled to cope with the rising cost of living and the threat of job losses brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the machine age. In 2019, the World Health Organisation formally recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Lockdown has obliterated many of our societal norms and coping mechanisms. Coupled with the collective feeling of isolation and decision fatigue – the result of constant high-stakes choices on everything from when or where to shop to sending children back to school – we must all recognise that the next pandemic might well be that of global burnout.  And as people struggle mentally, business decision-making, customer service, innovation and sustainability hangs in the balance.

Human beings are social creatures and, while we may appreciate occasional solitude, we generally do not cope well with loneliness and isolation. We need face-to-face interaction and engagement to thrive – and innovation and progress in any organisation largely depends on collaboration and co-creation. As the lockdown restrictions are lifted, Absa will adopt a more nuanced approach to working remotely.

This forms part of our sustainable Flexible Work Strategy and will allow colleagues and their managers to agree an approach that works best for their team. It will also give us the opportunity to engage with the best talent on new terms, regardless of whether they are employed by us or not.

New talent creates new possibilities

Our human capital is at the heart of everything. It is the core of the Absa ecosystem and the motivator of our shared purpose – to stay healthy, connected, contributing and future-ready as we bring possibilities to life.

What we have realised during this transition is that bringing possibilities to life starts with protecting those possibilities – in other words, our people. HR practitioners and leaders are at the frontline of talent strategy, gracefully walking a fine line between insider and outsider.

It is no surprise that, in recent times, senior leadership has looked to HR to be thoughtful, strategic and well-informed partners. We balance strategy and execution, pairing a deep understanding of our teams’ business challenges with the ability to reframe those challenges through a talent lens. This is critical to our ability to thrive.

Our next normal

As we continuously adjust to the nuances and opportunities presented by remote and flexible working, one thing is certain: this will be our default position. The lack of office space will necessitate it, social distancing will demand it, and investments in advanced digital technologies, infrastructure and collaboration tools will facilitate it.

What may be interpreted as “real estate cost management”, is a definitive people and culture strategy that allows us freedom of choice. It provides the freedom to bring our best selves to work, enabling personalised working solutions that deliver high performance.

So, as the pessimists choose to label 2020 as the year in which the world pressed pause, let us embrace it as the year in which we learned to breathe.

Remote work is not driven by a location strategy, it is powered by a talent strategy. This is how we will reimagine our business and our possibilities.