Tough times call for tough decisions, writes Deanne Chatterton, CEO, Instinctif Partners Africa. And Covid-19 has most certainly tested the mettle of business leaders, and organisations of all sizes, as they face the formidable challenge of reshaping and restoring their workforce, positioning their people for recovery and growth.

The pandemic has further ravaged what was already a dire employment reality in South Africa, impacting individuals, families and communities. However, this human capital landscape shouldn’t – and can’t – be allowed to be the future for business in South Africa.

For business leaders and human capital specialists alike, it resides with us to build a different future that will help companies to retain the talent needed to compete. Investing in the right teams and skills helps restore faith with customers and starts organisations edging forward steadily to emerge stronger into their next normal. It is only by making hard choices now that we can hope to create sustainable, well-resourced and resilient businesses that will help rebuild wider employment opportunities for others in the future.

Does this mean that finally, the human capital function is being recognised as a critical value driver, as it partners with decision-makers in creating a world of work that restores business effectiveness and positions it for success?

COVID-19 and evolving workplace dynamics

There are unintended consequences to the pandemic, beyond the health crisis, and inherent in how governments and companies responded to it. This has fragmented our near-perfect, 2020 vision into a kaleidoscope of disparate challenges and opportunities. Within this landscape, business leaders have to embrace the “new normal”, while also providing the necessary growth metrics to increase employment and affect the real and measurable societal change that is needed.

As a result, human capital specialists have ben commandeered to plot resource and rehabilitation strategies for business leaders grappling with the inevitable choice of resizing their companies in order to stay in the game. This is not business unusual for human capital teams who are used to being called upon when things get tough.

The role is vital, and it signals an increasing awareness of the value these professionals bring to company sustainability. And yet, these function experts are often still left out in the cold when the critical work of crafting the enhanced company strategy for the new world of work begins.

This begs the question as to how much learning has actually taken place over the years and decades, when those who are tasked with unravelling resourcing crises, are not consulted in the business strategy planning stages. Surely multi-discipline co-creation that leverages diverse thinking would deliver a significantly more future-fit business? If people are a company’s most valuable asset, surely their development and resourcing should be central to its growth strategy?

The times they are a-changin’

Much like many unwritten societal rules, COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown has inevitably changed the social contract between employers and employees. For those that have survived the cutbacks, there has been a shift in conversation to the “new normal”.

Boundaries between work-life and home-life have become blurred, and at times obliterated. One could also argue that productivity levels have been tested across the board. While flexible working is here to stay, in some form or another, arguable the real challenge for human capital is how to ensure engagement, safeguard mental health and retain critical talent.

The underlying driver of high-performance teams that are skilled and capable of adapting to changing environments, and coping with uncertainty and environmental stress, is their ability to contribute to sustainable businesses that remain relevant and competitive in their market. In our current Covid-19 environment, this kind of team performance cannot be achieved without the benefit of a strategic, informed and robust people strategy that clearly communicates expectation, care, accountabilities and recognition.

As human capital steps out of the shadows and takes its rightful place at the table, it will need to come armed with meaningful solutions that go beyond today, impactfully driving the bottom-line. This requires a greater degree of focus from a management team that is committed to informed people discussions and partnering with human capital strategically. It also demands an acknowledgement that the world of work has changed – and that engaged, high-performance employees demand to acknowledged as ‘whole beings’ where not just their physical needs are safeguarded, but their mental wellness too.

It’s time to realise that developing human capital driven by purpose and outputs, with greater investment in the whole being, is better for business. While getting this right is easier said than done, I believe that there are four crucial steps to putting people at the centre of a meaningful business rebuild:

1. Redefine the role of the workplace
The role of the workplace is more than just somewhere we used to go to, to fulfil our employment contract. It is a respite from our home lives, a way to engage with our colleagues, a creative space to share ideas and a place for mentoring and developing. The debate of office or no office is not a simplistic one and careful consideration needs to be applied to training, development, mentoring and engagement. If a formal office space is to be redefined, human capital has a role to play in defining how we will do things differently, without compromising on people.

2. Invest in mental health resilience
Survivors guilt, exhaustion, financial pressure and escalating crime levels are eroding the fabric of mental health globally. It is a silent killer that human capital and business leaders need to help their people defend against. We must put mental health on the corporate agenda. It will have a profound negative impact on the business bottom-line if not addressed.

Now is the time to find different ways of engaging with employees that destigmatise the narrative around mental health. Provide safe spaces for people to talk or partner with a professional institution that provides your employees with access to clinically trained support. And, prioritise building mental resilience modules into communications and training programmes.

3. Business leaders need to be more visible
With the added complexity remote working brings, business leaders and human capital professionals needs to be more accessible and more visible. In this new world of work, we cannot depend on “bumping” into individuals across the business as a way to connect. Physical absence means that everyday communication and the ad-hoc ideas sharing that so often drives innovation, will not happen as organically as it used. It’s critical to keep in mind also, that attempting to avoid the tough discussions only further alienates and creates anxiety for your teams. Clarity through consistent communication creates certainty – even if it’s about uncomfortable topics – and helps employees look forward to what will soon be a new business, with ambitions for success.

4. Retaining talent is a strategic priority
Talent retention strategies are hardwired into the DNA of every successful business. Where this becomes difficult to navigate is when the world changes as profoundly as it has just done. With flexible working, talent can work from anywhere in the world, not necessarily needing to be domiciled in the host market of an organisation.

Therefore, the war on talent just became a global fight for survival with any business able to access talent from anywhere in the world. Companies will have to work harder to ensure that their employer proposition is meaningful and attractive if they want to keep good people. This is only possible if leaders and human capital work together.

While COVID-19 has forced business globally to change how their employees work almost overnight, many business structures – and associated skills and knowledge sets – have not moved at the same pace. In a world increasingly facilitated by IT infrastructure, the ‘human skills’, such as active listening and critical thinking are coming to the fore. This is accelerating human capital’s move up the decision-making chain. After all, in our brave new ‘next normal’, the call for People before Profit may just mean the difference between businesses surviving and thriving or ceasing to exist.

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