A word from HR: Navigating unchartered waters

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experiences―as customers, employees, citizens, humans―and our attitudes and behaviours are changing as a result. As companies are pushed into uncertain waters, they need to rapidly operate in new ways, and systems resilience is being tested as never before. As businesses juggle a range of new systems priorities and challenges― business continuity risks, sudden changes in volume, real-time decision-making, workforce productivity, security risks―leaders must act quickly to address immediate systems resilience issues and lay a foundation for the future

The greatest immediate impact of the COVID-19 outbreak is on people. Organisations are focused on caring for their workforces while rapidly managing the shift to new patterns of work. At this critical time, leaders must see through these changes in ways that gain and maintain the trust of their people. That trust depends on leaders demonstrating their care for individuals as well as the wider workforce and community. It means sharing a clear plan and transparently showing how decisions are made. This requires leadership teams who can proactively respond rather than react, anticipating their people’s changing needs.

The College rose to this challenge from the moment our President announced the severity of the pandemic, eleven days before the lockdown began. Protocols on how to minimise infection at work, and how to protect both staff and students; how to educate staff and students about the pandemic, how to prevent becoming infected, and what to do if they suspected they were infected, were all meticulously thought out, considered and written down. Staff were addressed on 17 March 2020 to inform them of what was happening. By 19 March posters had been designed and put up to remind employees and students to wash their hands, how to properly wash their hands, and on other precautions they could take to stay healthy. General information posters about the virus were throughout the campus.

By 18 March, a ministerial declaration was made to close tertiary education institutions and all were asked to ensure students could get home by 20 March 2020. The Academic team ably orchestrated this, liaising with all organisations in different countries, ensuring all students on our higher education programmes could get home safely. Further education programmes continued because there was at that stage no ministerial directive to indicate otherwise. After consideration, it was felt that stopping the programmes at that stage would be detrimental to the learners. However, these programmes were accelerated and both trainers and learners put in many additional hours to enable to the learners to finish, with the college anticipating that these programmes might also be called to halt in the near future. All students on these programmes were thus able to successfully complete their training and left before the lockdown began.

Communication with staff and students was a paramount concern, and by 19 March, a dedicated email address had been set up as a means by which staff, students, and could ask questions about the disease and the College’s response to it.  All stakeholders were briefed via social media and email about the College’s responses to the coronavirus. The responses at that time included the drafting of a generic Infectious Diseases Declared a National Emergency Policy to put in place the protocols for any future similar situations.

The following week the President announced a hard lockdown from midnight on Thursday 26 March, 2020 for 21 days. New protocols were written, and decisions made in real-time. Although the President had announced aid would be forthcoming, the initial publishing of what aid was available seemed to indicate that the emphasis of aid at that stage was for SMME’s (small, micro medium enterprises) and the College did not fit into that category. No provision was made in relief packages for non-profit organisations, and the educational sector seemed not to have taken into account private educational institutions, like ours. The time allowed by the President for decision making was a short three working days.

The welfare and wellbeing of staff preyed heavily on the minds of the decision-making team at the College, who were simultaneously dealing with the very real issue of not being able to generate an income, and already thinking about the sustainability of the College as whole. It was decided to bring the December closure period forward, and allow all staff to take leave for the 21-day period, to ensure they would continue to be paid, whilst other decisions could be looked at in line with future viability in a situation where the College’s doors would be closed to students.

Realising that an entire group of employees did not have access to emails, the College developed a WhatsApp group and added all employees to it, providing links for employees to also add others whose number IT and HR may not have had. This became a means to provide all staff with useful links, continued information about Covid-19, the world’s response to it, South Africa’s response, and how the College was dealing with it. This group provided information on symptoms, how to avoid infection, who to contact if you felt unwell and all emergency numbers relating to the virus. Further information was provided on the College’s insurance hotline for the virus, the Government WhatsApp group number for FAQ (frequently asked questions) and advice, and continual updates. Updates to date have included advice on where and how individuals can get aid from relief during lockdown.

All staff were addressed by 24 March, in person and then via email. Time was given for staff to be able to go and get supplies before the lockdown and College transport was made available for this. Two junior employees were off ill at the time, at home, with non Covid-19 illnesses. Concerned they would not be able to get supplies, HR arranged for these employees to get food parcels with enough food for 21 days. One employee residing on site was on maternity leave, and HR visited her frequently during this time to reassure her, keep her informed, and ensure she had a birth plan and knew exactly who to contact if she needed help at any time. In the end, after the lockdown was announced, she decided to leave to be with her parents, and has since delivered a beautiful baby girl, Shana.

Essential service permits were issued to all essential service staff permitted to work during the lockdown, and the college’s overall Essential Services Certificate was procured. All Essential Services staff were given letters from HR indicating that they were permanently employed and what their role at the College was, and why this was an essential service. All residents living on site were given letters to confirm not only their employment, but the fact that they were residents living in an isolated bush environment, necessitating their need to travel to get to shops for food and medical supplies.

Some essential services staff were required to live on site to be able to continue to work due to the lockdown regulations iro of travel. Accommodation was made available for them on site. Separate kitchen areas were set up for the different groups to allow social distancing and, as the main kitchen would be closed with no staff available to cook for them, they were all provided with cutlery, crockery, pot, pans, and sufficient food stock for the 21 days. This as a result of them making the sacrifice to live at the College away from families and friends for the lockdown. A special WhatsApp group was created for these staff as they were not normal “residents” and therefore not on the Residents WhatsApp Group. HR wanted to ensure that they would have a means of contact with HR and each other, whilst also feeling supported throughout the lockdown.

All residents on site were able to be in contact with each other via the Residents WhatsApp group, share jokes, check on each other, and let each other know when anyone was going to town if anyone else needed anything, or if they needed help in anyway. The Care Group for the staff staying on site who are not residents, and which included four hospitality interns, two-gate guard, an anti-poaching trainer, and three of the K9 unit, operated the same way.

All residents on site and senior employees have access to email with all other staff having access to the Covid-19 WhatsApp group. This allowed all internal communication channels to stay open. The Fundraising, Marketing and Media Relations team ensured all external stakeholders were regularly briefed via the College digital News Flash.

As regulations changed, so the College has continued to update protocols and inform all staff of this, along with the updates on what was happening.

When the lockdown was extended, it again resulted in rapid decision making and weighing of all options. The Essential Services Certificate was updated, and all essential services staff were informed and provided with the updated version via email and WhatsApp.

Without students, the college could not generate income, and as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and shutdowns across the globe, business anticipated for 2020 had been lost. As such, most of the expected training could not continue, events could not take place and as a result some donations were reduced.

The executive team has been working tirelessly on a sustainability plan and a strategy to keep the College functioning whilst avoiding retrenchments. With no option but to consider the financial implications of the College and its future viability, the College then engaged with all staff individually after consultation with the management team.

This included plans of action after proactively worked around leave balances in order to limit liability whilst still protecting staff salaries. In addition, after consultation all staff agreed to a percentage salary cut in their current salaries effective 1 May, 2020 to help avoid retrenchments. As agreed by the executive, the salary cuts would exclude staff earning below a certain threshold.

It was also stated that in all probability the December closure period would start later, and be shortened as business came in, and as a result of the need to restructure course programmes due to the national and international shutdowns.

A lot of aid and relief schemes excluded the College as it is not an SMME but a QSE (Qualifying Small Enterprise with a turnover of over ZAR 20-million), still paying its employees. The College Executive were not considering loans which had to be paid back, because at this stage this would indebt the college more than necessary. However, as soon as it was announced that TERS (Temporary Employee Relief Scheme) would be open to employers who had put their employees on paid leave, an application was made for this funding. It is hoped that this and other measures or options available and being pursued including an insurance claim for loss of income will be successful. All possible and applicable relief schemes are being investigated and considered.

The College continues to communicate regularly with all staff and external stakeholders. HR ensures ad hoc communication via WhatsApp with all senior staff, as well as many mid and junior level staff. Regular Mancom meetings have been held via zoom and all managers are keeping in touch with their staff. As we venture further into the unknown with the announcement of the continuation of the lockdown with some restrictions lifted, as part of a level 4 lockdown, the College will continue to have the best interests of all employees, students, and stakeholders at heart as it continues to fight to ensure that it commitments can be met during this crisis.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 the college had developed a Remote Work, Work from Home and a Remote Office policy, which has given guidelines to managers and their teams on how to continue to work during the lockdown. Most of the senior management team are involved with developing an on-line Diploma curriculum, which we hope will be an on-going source of income.

What the College has learnt and in brief what it offers as advice.

  • During a crisis like COVID-19, people look to leaders for compassion, care and confidence in navigating the company into the future.
  • Responsible leadership has taken on an even deeper meaning, as our workforces and our stakeholders find themselves in an unfamiliar, fast-moving global environment. COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work already, with far-reaching impact. Leading with compassion and caring for our workforces and communities is more essential than ever.
  • Virtually all companies are still determining how to change the way they work, short- and long-term. But speed is of the essence, as workforces and communities try to function and perform, while struggling to cope with what is happening in their daily lives.
  • Distilled to one essential message: your workforce is looking to trust you. And it will trust if it believes leadership cares for each individual, the community, and humanity as a whole.
  • Beyond caring, leaders must show they have a plan. You don’t have to know everything, but you do need to be transparent about what is driving decisions. A leadership team that looks ahead proactively, and responds rather than reacts, goes a long way toward helping people in volatile times.
  • The ability for leaders to address people’s physical, mental and relationship needs is the foundation of trust. While all of these needs have equal importance, there is an order in which they make the biggest difference.
  • Workers will remember the faces and voices you empower to lead the charge during this time. Be sure those voices are not only wise, but compassionate and caring.
  • Shared purpose and values is what will give employees the sense of belonging they so desperately need right now. As quarantines and social distancing play out, employees need a sense of connection. They need to feel like they are part of a team all rooting for each other, whilst understanding the bigger picture and what the future may or may not hold.

A copy of the college’s protocols (at each step of the pandemic, from announcement, through lockdown, into the extension of lockdown and the current level 4 of the lockdown) or policies can be made available on request.