Enterprises of all sizes are finding themselves in uncertain times. With the current COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world, businesses are questioning how this will impact their future existence or how they will even be able to operate in the future, writes Biase De Gregorio, Managing Partner at IQbusiness.

In fact, despite more obvious challenges like job and revenue losses, many face a series of additional obstacles, like moving to a remote workforce. With remote working comes a range of issues, including executing an organisational strategy, ensuring that the organisation maintains their customer service, people and process management, and technology implications (because accessing people, processes and data is more difficult when your staff are not working from the office).

Furthermore, after conducting recent internal (and later, external) survey dubbed, “The Now Normal”, IQbusiness revealed that the most prevalent challenge affecting employees during this time is social isolation – with 33.6% of respondents experiencing increased anxiety due to the lack of human interaction. This was closely followed by general stress around COVID-19 at 33% and then keeping to a regular schedule at 30.9%.

Despite these concerns, a surprising 78.5% of respondents would prefer to work partly from home and partly at the office, and another 17.2% would prefer to work completely remotely after the COVID-19 crisis. This indicates that ways of working will change forever, and organisations will need to provide the emotional, physical and technological support to enable their employees to do so. When you consider that 47.1% of respondents never worked from home before the pandemic and now over 85.7% are working from home – that is a huge shift.

Empowering employees emotionally, professionally

These figures speak directly to an organisation’s ability to empower its employees – both emotionally and professionally. It’s reassuring to see 60.2% of respondents saying that their employers continuously take the time to empower them with tools, training and wellness support. This is a huge win for South African businesses, as it demonstrates their ability to take the initiative despite the circumstances and adopt a more agile and sustainable way of working.

Despite the challenges, there is always an opportunity for organisations to take advantage of the situation to ensure resilience and relevance, post this crisis. Once leaders acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental, emotional and physical health, they can start leading with empathy and provide the necessary support – whether it be with training, tools and resources, or emotional guidance.

In creating a more conducive working environment that promotes job security, businesses may even start to notice an increase in overall productivity. In fact, the survey revealed that 92.4% of respondents felt that team productivity either stayed the same or improved. This, once again, suggests the importance of strong and optimistic leadership to help drive more favourable business outcomes, maintain customer experience, and the business’s willingness to adapt and empower employees at every level.

Another factor that lends itself to increased productivity is the autonomous nature of working remotely. Employees have the freedom to take the initiative and make better decisions, free from the scrutiny of their peers. Other benefits include the reduction of operational costs (including travel and expense claims or office costs), access to a larger talent pool outside of local borders and increased internal collaboration.

Yet, without proper motivation and encouragement, this can all fall flat. Ultimately, the success of remote working comes down to the leadership and how agile they are in their approach to increasing morale and employee culture.

Leaders can choose to lead with empathy by offering effective time management advice to help balance workloads and properly manage the added stresses of home distractions. Above all, leaders must continue to lead in a calm and inspirational manner while uncovering the inner conflicts that fuel employees’ time management stress. Given the circumstances, work-life conflict is likely to be weighing heavily on most employees – 54% of survey respondents indicated that they require assistance in managing their work-life balance in relation to remote working requirements.

The right equipment

In addition, not having the proper tools can also hinder productivity and increase stress. Leaders, therefore, need to ensure that employees have all the necessary access to hardware and software, and can remotely and securely access company information to make informed decisions. In some cases, leaders could use the opportunity to grow and develop their teams by providing access to online courses and e-learning platforms, as well as coaching, psychotherapy, and peer monitoring to offer additional support.

This will affect how businesses operate, and they may be forced to reassess their strategies and business models to weather the storm. This means making realistic adjustments and plans to meet the change and rebuild the organisation to become more resilient and future fit. This raises the question: How can we be of service to the business community and the movement of business as a force for good, during this unprecedented time?

Through initiatives like the COBRA War Room, businesses have a fighting chance to chart the path ahead once more. The COBRA War Room is a collaboration between IQbusiness and other leading South African businesses that offers a pro-bono service to local businesses in need of urgent assistance. The objective of the platform is to coordinate with businesses in distress and use relationships with key stakeholders (like banks, government, audit firms, private equity funders and institutions) to assist and sustain businesses through the pandemic.

Furthermore, it acts as a Crisis Management Centre with an agile response capability that covers data assimilation, trend tracking, triage, decision support, communications, resource management, learning and development, and change management disciplines – a winning support combination for businesses to mitigate the risk of business ruin.

Considering the nationwide lockdown, as well as the uncertainty with the phased opening-up approach provided by government, businesses need to adapt to be better prepared for what lies beyond the pandemic. It’s safe to assume that, for many, the pressure is likely to continue long after the lockdown ends. However, this leaves businesses with ample opportunities to reassess their strategies; not only to better serve their employees but the South African economy as a whole.

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