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People professionals: how do we think about our people during COVID-19 disruption and beyond

27 March 2020

± minute read

    People professionals: how do we think about our people during COVID-19 disruption and beyond
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Quick poll: COVID-19 virtual working challenges

When we warned people to be ready for the next great disruption, we certainly didn’t expect it to be a virus, did we? Yet it has created an opportunity for us to be creative in the way we respond to the challenges it presents. It is our opportunity to truly action the things we profess. Those roll-off-the-tongue phrases like: change is constant; people must be agile; try, fail fast and then succeed; people are our greatest asset, the rise of 4IR. I think you get the point. During a time when most of our people will be working virtually for the foreseeable future, it is important for us as people professionals to check our own mindsets and critically evaluate our own behaviour. We need now, more than ever, to find that balance between people and process, being careful of falling into the trap of over-policing, and embracing the opportunity to bring the people focus to the forefront for our leaders.

The literature on working virtually – especially during this time – provides many different views on how to maintain focus, how to drive output, understanding employees and their needs, and many more angles to assist organisations to remain focused. At the same time, at an individual level, people in SA are inundated with social media posts with both professional and ordinary people’s views on the current reality. There is an explosion of messaging and one hardly knows what is fact and what is fake.

As people professionals we need to recognise that COVID-19 does have an immediate impact on our employees, but will also have a long-term impact (which we cannot yet predict) on all of us. Therefore, in conjunction with ensuring optimal performance, productivity, regular check-ins, clear communication, and of course digital connectivity of employees working virtually, we need to understand the anxieties, feelings of displacement, insecurities and home environments of our employees.

If we do this, we will be better equipped to find fast and lasting solutions to challenges as they happen. By doing so, we can disrupt the way employers think about our key resource, namely people. I asked my team (all people professionals and IOP’s) to share their personal experiences over the past week (we started working virtually last week already). Here are some of the key reflections, which I would like to position as conversation points amongst and between people professionals, wherever we are.

Question: What did you learn about yourself over the past week?

“having virtual meetings is hard – more so now when you are on your own. You have to listen much more actively and ask questions to ensure mutual understanding. Use video whenever possible”

“you have to stay focused – get up and dress up to stay productive!”

“choosing the path of least resistance when working alone is not as easy – you have to make do”

“it’s quite tough to have work-life balance at this stage because work is now in your life!”

“resilience is not only an emotional thing. I realised that it’s also about finding solutions and making decisions”

“if there is an opportunity you have to use your professional judgment and move on it – there is less time for lengthy debates and delayed decision-making”

“it is tough to work and concentrate all the time with your kids around you. You have to find a new rhythm”

“I find I have to problem solve for myself in the moment much more, and I realise I can actually do so….”

“productivity looks different, time management looks different, I need to constantly be aware of what my outputs are and whether they are aligned to expectations?”

“it is important to create a ‘work space’ and a ‘life space’ – if you have a spouse or partner also working virtually you have to discuss how you’re going to navigate work and day to day home life”

“at times I feel overwhelmed with all the mails and virtual meetings -I don’t always know where to focus and then I become anxious – and there’s no one I can quickly talk to”


It’s clear from the variety of concerns that managers and people professionals will have their hands full managing more than just the “did you rock up for work on time” and task performance aspects of work. It’s worthwhile reflecting on your own challenges and what you’re doing to overcome them, but as a community of people professionals, there is power in collaboration. I’ve jotted down some questions that I’m sure many of use are wrestling with. Have a look and see what you would add.


Thoughts to ponder when thinking about our employees:

What do different levels of employees need? How do we tailor communication to reach as many people as possible – at their level of need?

How do we influence the conversation with Execs? Just enforcing processes will not work in the new context – how do we slow down the thinking and plan for the future?

How do we practically ensure people are doing what they should be? How do we trust?

What has our organisational culture been like, and how will this shift that to propel us into 4IR?

How do we maintain a sense of “us” in virtual teams?

How do we firmly apply performance management now? What does this teach us about reward and consequences linked to performance?

How do we limit the email bombardment happening – more and more people cc’ed on mails, now everything needs to be recorded

How do we optimise our digital platforms?

It is now an ideal time for us to slow down, collaborate, think and plan. As people professionals, we have the opportunity to see first hand the impact of technology, virtual work and challenging times on people behaviour.


For more information, please contact us on +27(0) 11 781 3705/6/7 or send an email to

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