Remote work has been on the rise for many years, but COVID-19 quickly transformed it from the exception to the norm. It has changed the way companies handle everything from Monday meetings to sick days to maintaining company culture and staff morale. Every department has been impacted, but one we find especially important is human resources or people management. 

LeadMe recently interviewed four HR leaders in various industries to get their insights around the future and value of these departments after a year of constant change. Meet Azaria Beukes from Yoco, Candice Watson from AECI, Harry Akinola from Puma Energy Group and Sarah Rice from Skynamo.

When COVID-19 hit last year, how did your role or function shift gears and what were some of your biggest changes, challenges or highlights?

Azaria Beukes: “Our main objective throughout this process was to ensure that everyone remained whole. We made fundamental changes to the way we communicate. For the first two months, we had a company gathering every two days. We took over-communication to a whole different level. Even though leadership did not have all the answers, it was better to be in the unknown together than to leave everyone to their own devices. We wanted to ensure that everyone felt part of a community.”

Candice Watson: “My role pivoted from ‘how do we find our best talent’ to 'how do we keep our staff safe.”

If you could go back and tell yourself one piece of advice a year ago, what would it be?

Sarah Rice:Book out personal time each day to eat and take a break. At the beginning (of lockdown), I was sitting at my desk all day long, whereas in an office there are natural pauses that happen throughout the day. Also, make sure people are taking leave. Our company created an initiative where people who took five days’ leave in August were eligible for an entry into a raffle where the prize was R2500 for your next holiday. This worked well, encouraged people to take time off and the whole company was better for it.”

Candice Watson: “Play the long-term game. No one was ready psychologically to stay in this lull for as long as we have. And we still aren’t seeing the end of it. If we knew that in March 2020 we would need a two-year plan instead of three weeks, then it would have been drastically different. Now we should apply that thinking going forward, instead of only thinking about the here and now.”

How do you define HR or people management and what is the value of it in a company?

Azaria Beukes: “People management is all about increasing talent density in the business and then leveraging that talent to propel the business forward. Each person brings something unique to the table and should feel able to share ideas, insights and concerns. More importantly, they should have the opportunity to play in their genius zone. This means helping leaders build great teams.”

Harry Akinola: “Human resource management should be a targeted approach by having the right people in the right position to execute the business strategy. It is ensuring we attract, develop and retain the right people.”

What do you think the future of HR/people management is with companies evolving online and working remotely all over the world? 

Sarah Rice: “Mental health is now a central part of the role. This means creating space for conversations about how people are feeling more often, and in more ways than ever before. Managers need to be more psychologically and emotionally literate to support their people. Companies need to provide support in the form of company wellness programmes that offer therapy, talks and workshops on how to maintain personal wellbeing and mindfulness opportunities such as yoga or meditation. Now, and in the future, these kinds of interventions and services need to become standard and not ‘nice to haves.’”

Harry Akinola: “For a lot of businesses and organisations, remote work is here to stay. But not all roles can be done effectively while remotely. And not all people can be as effective while working remotely. We have to find ways to manage and support people in their preferred setting.”

Do you have a favourite tool or platform you use to connect with staff?

Azaria Beukes: “My absolute favourite Slack integration is Donut. It randomly pairs people up on Slack and encourages them to have a “Donut Date” to get to know each other better. Another worth mentioning is Miro, we love to use this to brainstorm ideas, complete retrospectives and much more.” 

Sarah Rice: “For in-person at the office the most important tool is coffee. Seriously. We have a coffee bar in every South African office which creates opportunities for casual chats between people. I find this is where I get the most up-to-date sense of how people are doing. Roslin is our formal employee engagement tool where we send out a weekly survey of four questions to do a temperature check on how people are feeling. Slack is also important as a business and social communication tool. On a side note, Gifs are the best thing to happen to digital communication since the spam filter. They create opportunities for humour and emotional connection.”

What are your greatest learning and development and/or people needs now? 

Candice Watson: “Last year, the focus went back to the basic needs of our employees (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) and getting all our COVID safety and protocol set up. Now with the rest of this year, we’re getting excited about online technology and moving forward with relearning online and personal and employee development.”

Azaria Beukes: "Our biggest learning and development need is equipping leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to successfully lead remote teams. It is often challenging even for the most experienced managers.”

How has your work culture been impacted? 

Azaria Beukes: “We understand that culture cannot be controlled but is rather something that happens and evolves through our interactions with one another. Sticking to our core values has minimised the impact of remote work on our culture. That said, culture is only one part of it. There is a whole system that needs to be considered, which presents a bigger challenge. Something that has helped us bridge the gap between office and remote work is by applying the principle of remote first. If one person is remote, everyone is remote. People have a choice as to whether they work in the office or remotely, but all our company rituals remain remote. Leaders have played a critical role in ensuring that their teams feel connected and have a sense of belonging, whether working in the office or remotely." 

Candice Watson: “It’s very difficult to keep building culture and integrating values, because these are things that are observable - not something I can do on a text or on a presentation. We underestimate the nuances of bringing people into a place of work and how we relate to them and how that impacts organisational culture.”

What is exciting to you about the rest of 2021? 

Candice Watson: “What is most important now is to pick up the pieces of this broken world that COVID resulted in and piece it back into something that is beautifully strong and resilient for the generations of the future.”  

Harry Akinola: “I believe we’re coming out of the year of COVID holding us back and now we’re moving forward and looking at all we want to do. And I’m excited that we still have more months this year to achieve these goals!”

What is one piece of advice you would give people who are reading this?

Candice Watson: “The leaders who will succeed in the future will be human-centric.”

Harry Akinola: “If you’re in HR, focus on the goals or areas that will have the greatest impact for the team and company.”

Sarah Rice: “Don’t forget to love your humans. Remember that our role is about helping every single person in the company find their groove so that they can be passionate, committed and keep growing.”

Latest from our blog

Created with