‘Africa must brace itself for disruptive new norm of work’

26Jun 2020
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
‘Africa must brace itself for disruptive new norm of work’

SPECIAL INTERVIEW

Who would have thought the term Working From Home (WFH) would be one of 2020’s buzz words. Well, the Covid-19 pandemic has made this our reality, as businesses of all shapes and sizes continue to respond to the future that is now upon us.

Is Africa ready for this future? What should businesses do to ensure that employees sustain optimal performance? What does the future hold for HR practitioners? In this interview with a Special Correspondent, Sahara Group Head – HR Ivie Imasogie-Adigun (pictured) shares insight into, among other issues, how the energy conglomerate with operations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East is managing the new norm, how businesses should respond to the pandemic, and the future of work. Excerpts:

How has Sahara Group managed virtual working following the Covid-19 pandemic?

II: Being a global business with vast operations across the energy sector value chain, we moved swiftly to activate our virtual working protocols in response to the pandemic. In order to optimise opportunities for remote working, we carried out an internal Working From Home (WFH) survey and used the insight gained to develop robust business continuity and contingency plans which have made our operations seamless.

We have relied heavily on technology to ensure that we maintain connectivity across all our entities and business continuity amid the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This has helped our operations continue seamlessly, enabling our people to remain focused on delivering the best possible value to our stakeholders under the circumstances. We have also provided guidelines to govern these unprecedented times, especially as relates to the safety and wellbeing of our people as well as maintaining satisfactory levels of work standards and outputs across our business value chain. Our people have optimised their level of output during this period as we are all still committed to ending the year on a high note of outstanding performance and output.

Employee engagement is critical in times of emergency. How has this played out at Sahara?

Constant and strategic communication has been an effective strategy for us at this time. At Sahara, we maintain a high level of communication with our employees via various channels that include feedback mechanisms to ensure alignment and understanding across the Group. Our messages are creative in design and disseminated to ensure that employees are kept abreast of developments regarding the pandemic, and how to stay safe and healthy. We have also constantly shared facts and hints on how best to contend with virtual working.

We have offered wellness programmes such as virtual workout sessions and keep an open line to our mental health professional partners for those requiring such support. Through our employee volunteering vehicle, employees were given platforms to contribute to various initiatives geared towards stopping the spread of the coronavirus and providing relief materials for people affected by the pandemic. Being there for others and service to humanity are values that continue to inspire and energise our people to perform outstandingly at our various locations across the globe.

Sahara Group’s recruitment policy includes creative interview sessions. What exactly do you look out for in your fresh and experienced hires?

Sahara culture is truly unique, and it takes a unique, ‘unusual’ type of personality to excel in our environment. As such, we are constantly looking out for individuals who are imaginative, dynamic in their thought processes, teachable and who display a lot of grit – call it determination or fortitude, if you will. Flexibility is also of crucial importance. Our selection process seeks out individuals excited about making a difference both within and outside our business operations. We are also committed to ensuring that our selection process is reflective of our diversity as a company and enshrines the principles of equal opportunity.

Of course, all these attributes are layered on top of having the required skills for the job and if the individual is not an experienced hire, then having ‘raw’ talent which can be built upon once joining the Sahara Family will have to be on display during the selection process.

Agile learning becomes even more instructive as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. How can organisations institute an effective framework for this?

First of all, the notion that learning needs to be classroom-based must be de-constructed in order to make way for agile learning. Secondly, it is important to recognize that content resides in subject matter experts and not in the classroom. Thirdly, organisations need to provide a virtual technology platform that brings together content owners and participants in a synergetic relationship that enables the flow of ideas and encourages learning.

At Sahara, we continue to partner with several strong learning brands to convert our previously planned classroom like content into online-enabled material and deploy this to our employees virtually.

What would you say are some of the lessons HR practitioners have learned from the covid-19 pandemic?

There are several lessons that have been learnt during this time. I will list only a few key ones, the first being the nature of work –the value of work is not defined by location but by the individual.

The second lesson is the opportunity given to adjudge the true value of what organisations are paying for when they hire talent, while the third is the realisation that the ‘Future of work’ is NOW and not in some distant future.

Fourthly, these times have demonstrably underscored the need for constant, clear and consistent communication as a way of reducing anxiety and allaying fears in a time of uncertainty.

Another important and surprising lesson is the appreciation of the instant collaboration inherent in face-to-face interactions that allows for a psychological sharing of work responsibilities and the co-creation of value. WFH has removed that aspect of office working and organisations are striving to re-incorporate it via platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. It is still a work in progress, though.

Lastly, an old belief that all things are possible if you just believe has come alive again during these times. The manner in which organisations were required to switch gears and embrace WFH is testimony to that belief.

Do you think Africa is ready for this future and, if not, what needs to be done?

While I would say Africa’s readiness for the future of work post Covid-19 is still a work in progress, we need to catch up on a number of things, among them power and technology infrastructure, which are critical components for driving virtual working. We also need to work on a shift in mindset shift – that is, to one that embraces remote working in its fullest form. This will give rise to the provision of enabling technology required to make its adoption successful.

Looking back to your multi-sectoral experience over the years, how has the HR role morphed into a full business partner status across markets?

The move to HR business partnering started roundabout 2006. At the time, it was an ‘alien’ concept in Nigeria but one that was growing in popularity and acceptance internationally. Over the years, it is now the norm and it has enabled HR professionals to better articulate the value they bring to organisations. In addition, HR business partnering has compelled HR professionals to better understand proactively the ‘underbelly’ of businesses – which, in turn, has led to better people insight being included in the executive decision-making process.

With ongoing breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and landmark tech solutions, do you envisage HR practice taking a hit in the future?

Similar to trends developing in the medical field such as telemedicine, there will be elements of the HR role that can be defined by complex algorithms which will be overtaken by Artificial Intelligence. Such areas will include administrative processes, policy administration, learning administration and HMO (Health Maintenance Organisation) management. There will be a trend for self-service offerings and the core of HR practices will be clustered around highly specialised aspects (of HR) that require deep human intuition for decision-making. The future is upon us.

What aspect of managing people do you find most challenging, and how do you deal with it

In my opinion, the unpredictability of human nature and the diverse nature of each individual preference are the most challenging aspects of being an HR professional. In order to deal effectively with these inherent challenges, it is important to have a baseline understanding of human psychology and behaviour; some conflict resolution experience; a quiver full of best practices guided by carefully considered policies and procedures; and, above all things, wisdom from above.

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