As part of our #LockdownLessons series, Bizcommunity is reaching out to South Africa's top industry players to share their experience of the current Covid-19 crisis, how their organisations are navigating these unusual times, where the challenges and opportunities lie, and their industry outlook for the near future.
Here we talk to Michelle Moss, director of assessments at Signium Africa, to get her take.
How has the Covid-19 lockdown changed your typical working day?
Michelle Moss: The team has been working harder than ever in terms of longer hours and quicker delivery for our clients. We save time by not travelling to work and meetings during the day and that time is now being spent behind our screens. The downside is that we are probably driving ourselves too hard and we need to find a sustainable pace. We are a people business and while we are still interacting with people all the time, we are doing it virtually rather than in person.
What measures have you had to implement to continue operating?
Moss: We were already slowly moving to a more digital way of operating, but with Covid-19, like most other businesses, we had to move over faster than expected. We are fortunate that our line of business allows the entire team to work from home, and from a practical point of view all we had to do was ensure that each person had the equipment they needed to work from home. We outsource our IT and it would not have been such a smooth transition if it wasn’t for the support of a fantastic IT partner.
How has the lockdown affected your staff? What temporary HR policies have you put in place regarding remote working, health & safety, etc.?
Moss: Because our business allows it, we will work from home for as long as possible to ensure that our staff, clients, and candidates are less exposed and as safe as possible.
We are mindful that the lines between our professional and personal lives have blurred substantially and our employees have suddenly become teachers, chefs, house keepers, and DIY hairdressers while still trying to give their best professionally.
Our team is small and so it is easier to be flexible and adjust as the weeks go on. While we have not put any formal policies in place because we do not know how long we will be working like this, we have made some adjustments to the way we do things. While the directors make the final decision, we have asked for input from the staff every step of the way to make sure we understand their individual circumstances and we do not overlook any of their needs. At the same time, we understand that things are evolving and what may be needed this week, is different to what may be needed next week. We are consciously remaining agile and flexible in our response and we are prioritising ongoing, open communication.
We have regular staff meetings We have more regular staff meetings which are structured with a set agenda. Instead of having one staff meeting a week which we were doing in pre-Covid-19 days, we now have a staff meeting every second day. It was important to find the balance between checking in too often and not checking in enough. The former leaves colleagues feeling micromanaged while the latter leaves them feeling alienated.
During each meeting we don’t focus on work alone. We discuss Covid-19 and make sure that everyone knows how to keep themselves and their families safe, what symptoms to watch out for, and how to get medical help if needed. We openly discuss issues relating to mental health during this time, we share any learnings from webinars we have attended or articles that we’ve read, we celebrate small wins, and we try do something fun in the meetings to bring out a smile. We ask and answer questions, and we ensure that each person has a chance to talk and contribute so nobody dominates the meeting. Most importantly, we encourage honesty with each other and we do not pretend that everything is perfect.
We have flexible working hours Our view is that our employees are adults and they know best how to balance their work and personal responsibilities. Employees are expected to be available for pre-arranged meetings during the day and they need to be able to respond to an urgent work-related request if needed, but they can structure their tasks in a way that works for them. One employee likes to work quietly, later in the evenings while her children are sleeping and be available to help them with schoolwork during the mornings. Communicating with each other about things like this however is critical to avoid misunderstandings and misperceptions.
There is nothing new really in doing these things. We are just doing the same things differently. We know these will need to change again at any time. We are simply being more conscious of why and how we are doing them.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing at this time? Moss: Our business is a people business and while we have loyal clients and a high percentage of repeat business, it is important for us to keep growing our client base and bring in new assignments. It can be challenging to win new clients during this time when our old networking and marketing strategies can’t be used or no longer apply. Of course, this is a perfect opportunity for innovation.
The nature of our business calls for us to plan, organise and control and our staff is very good at this. When times are so unpredictable, it is very difficult for us to use these superpowers which brings a fair amount of frustration and anxiety for us all of us.
Now is the time to innovate and experiment. What is the company doing?
Moss: We are working on offering bespoke services to our clients to meet their needs during this time of crisis. Just as we need to be flexible within ourselves, so too do we need to tweak and adjust our services and fees to meet our client’s new needs right now. Our leadership consulting business, which includes coaching and assessment, is becoming more important than ever and a valuable tool for leaders to help themselves and their employees during this unprecedented time. We are also thinking about what comes afterwards, the emergence of a new type of leader or leadership model and how we can best support our clients to lead their businesses now and be ready for afterwards, whatever that may look like.
What reactions are you experiencing from suppliers and clients?
Moss: We are a small company and while we can keep our finger on the pulse internally, we service big clients locally and internationally and it is important to be a true business partner and keep our finger on their pulse too. Our clients share their challenges with us, and we are helping them to craft the best possible solutions for their situation. Their challenges are mostly around how to appoint an executive without meeting them in person, how to onboard a new executive whose starting date falls within the lockdown period, how to keep their employees motivated and productive, and how to support their employees during times of crisis. We are part of a global network and we have found that our clients appreciate hearing about what is happening in the rest of the world and how other companies and leaders are overcoming their challenges.
What ripple effects are you witnessing in the industry?
Moss: A disjointed effect to executive recruitment seems to be taking place. Some clients are hesitant to appoint an executive without meeting them first and so while the research phase goes well, and virtual interviews are conducted smoothly, there can be a delay in making the final decision and drawing up an offer of employment. On the other hand, some executive candidates that may have been interested in exploring opportunities prior to Covid-19 are no longer keen. This is either out of a sense of loyalty to their current organisations and they feel obliged to provide consistency and lead the company out of this, or they are not willing to take the risk and move to something unfamiliar at this stage.
From a leadership consulting point of view, many leaders that were previously assessed have asked for a virtual coffee session to revisit their feedback or get coaching around their results. They, too, are experiencing personal challenges, personal growth, or a time of deep reflection and would like to use scientific data to help them understand themselves and map their next steps.
Do you believe the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a fundamental shift in the industry that will outlast the lockdown, or do you see industry returning to its BC (before coronavirus) norm once all is over and done?
Moss: There will always be a need for leadership recruitment and development so while the industry won’t be obsolete, and our values and purpose are unlikely to shift, new services and new ways of doing things will have emerged from this period. The world was already moving towards more digitalisation and a more virtual working environment and it will make no sense to go back to the old normal. Our need for human interaction, our need for teamwork, and collaboration will most probably continue to increase and the challenge will be how to balance human interaction and technology in an elegant way.
Give us your predictions for the next 6 months… Moss: We are still going through the crisis and finding our way in our own way. In the next six months, from an intrapersonal point of view and not taking economic, social or political considerations into account at all, we are likely to become more comfortable with change, uncertainty and lack of control. We will start understanding the impact our conscious and unconscious choices and reactions during this time has had on us, individually and professionally. For example, some individuals may have developed entrepreneurial skills born of need, some may have developed better communication skills, others may have adjusted their priorities and expectations, while others may have become more aware of their social responsibility.
Our understanding of leadership and what good leadership looks like for a specific company or a specific industry is likely to change and many leaders will need more support than ever to adapt and transition and make sure they are still relevant in the after coronavirus days.
What has been your biggest lesson from all this?
Moss: Things change. We know this and it seems obvious, but living through and experiencing such a large-scale, global change that affects every aspect of our lives is totally different to knowing it on a cognitive level. Change is also exciting. It brings challenges, but it forces new and different thinking and behaviour that helps to move us forward and be sustainable.
Another big lesson has been that some things are in our control and some things are not and when it feels like everything is out of control, that is a good time to reach out to family, friends and colleagues, because we may not be in control, but we are not alone.
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