COVID-19 and it’s rapid spread globally led to President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing a National State of Disaster in response to the pandemic on Sunday, 15 March 2020, and outlining Government’s measures to contain the spread of the virus. Since then, businesses in South Africa have responded quickly and comprehensively. This week I have received e-mails from every service provider I engage with – from my medical aid to my WiFi provider to my favourite butchery – outlining the measures they have implemented to protect their staff and me, their valued customer.
Heavy emphasis is being placed on social distancing, with many (if not most) companies encouraging staff to work from home wherever possible. Some of my concerned service providers have been kind enough to support the Government’s education drive around COVID-19 by including guidelines for me to use in my private capacity as well.
And where working from home isn’t possible – as in the case of my favourite butcher – extra efforts to increase hygiene best practices, issue hand sanitizers and masks to staff, and keep a safe distance from customers who might need their shopping delivered are being implemented.
And that’s just the e-mail. There’s also been enormous activity on social media, with companies posting and sharing videos, articles, infographics and more to help educate people, not only about the virus but about how to work from home productively and without suffering the depression that can result from long periods of isolation.
SIDE NOTE TO INTROVERTS: You’re not immune to the negative effects of social isolation. Keep an eye on yourself for early warning signs.
All of this is encouraging. It’s reassuring to see companies rally like this to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and between 87 900 and 351 000 related deaths that could so easily bring our country to its knees. I applaud swift-acting leaders like this and the teams that have helped them roll out communications to clients and staff, as well as implement these important interventions.
COVID-19 and working from home
But then I hear stories from friends and acquaintances, and I start wondering how many company cultures are actually undermining the efforts of company leadership, instead of supporting them. I have many friends who received internal company communications similar to the ones I’ve received as a customer – drawing their attention to newly installed hand sanitizer dispensers at building entrances and exits and encouraging them to work from home.
But instead of allowing people to work from home, managers are insisting that employees’ current workloads are too important and that they have to be in the office to deliver on their deadlines. I’ve even heard of a case in which an employee contacted HR to inform them that they would be self-isolating, as they had been in contact with an infected person. HR responded that they would have to take unpaid leave during their self-quarantine.
And in all these instances, this has been despite the fact that my friends and acquaintances could perform their work just as well from home as in the office. They also have all the equipment and software – laptop, Skype, high-speed WiFi, online project management tools like Microsoft Teams – that they would need to keep in touch with their team members and stay on top of their workload.
Industrial era management style undermining the COVID-19 effort
I understand that it can be difficult for managers to trust employees to work productively and well at home. It’s a mindset shift we know companies struggle with, and something those of us that are involved in trying to help companies shift their cultures towards better employee engagement have been trying to address for years. But if now is not the time to put industrial era management thinking aside for the greater good, when will it be time?
To those companies that have responded quickly, decisively and appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic, like my favourite butcher has, I thank you. For taking my health and that of your people seriously.
To those who may have a culture problem that is undermining your best efforts – now is the time to insist on change.