There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has upended businesses, with many South African companies having to rethink workplace practices, close offices and allow employees to work remotely. Equally devastating has been the impact on many businesses, some which have had to manage costs in the face of declining revenues by retrenching and re-looking at business models and strategies.


In all these changes, the early adopters of digitally enabled working (such as virtual on-boarding and remote working) have been in better shape than others, while those companies who lagged have now been forced to fast-forward their digitalisation plans and update their flexible working policies. This trend is expected to continue well into 2021 and beyond.


No matter the degree to which COVID-19 affected an industry’s or organisation’s ability to operate, the pandemic has opened many organisations’ eyes to new possibilities. These range from flexible working to telemedicine and the changes that skills- based talent models and digital transformation can deliver.


In turn, this has prompted deeper reflection: what pandemic people practices will endure? What flexible, sustainable people models will serve as a bedrock for growth? How can we reinvent a brighter future for all?


The question now is how can we take the learnings of this period and channel the innovations born of necessity into a new way of working and a plan for reinvention?


Against the background of events of 2020, the latest Mercer Global Talents Survey reveals that the top priorities for South African companies in 2021 will focus on reinventing sustainably, defining future workforce needs and/or restructuring, and energising the employee experience.


In 2021, getting beyond the surface level on sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) will also be crucial to attracting talent and investors. It will also be vital for growth; and organisations integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics into the CEO’s agenda are more likely to report high revenue growth.


In our view, the biggest opportunity is in sustainability strategies; for example, rethinking how investments such as retirement portfolios can be directed towards sustainability - something just 3% of South African companies are doing today.


Stakeholder empathy - particularly the increased focus on employees as stakeholders – which gained traction during 2020 is likely to persist. Two in five South African companies say managing inclusively and with empathy has become more critical for future resilience. The shift towards greater empathy is filtering through to how organisations are starting to rethink benefits and the talent value proposition (TVP) that will inspire employees.


Defining workforce needs necessitates adopting flexible working arrangements, which have already proven to be central to the new employee experience. An enduring legacy of Covid-19 is jolting HR’s thinking on how the employee experience has changed, how we work flexibly, how to coach and manage virtual workers, and how to collaborate in virtual networks.


Without a doubt, managing employees virtually raises questions around trust and control.


It is interesting that 72% of SA companies surveyed say the lockdown has allowed them to “relinquish central control” of employee behaviours, and 81% say they have a process to keep a trusting company culture intact. Nonetheless, the flexible work experiment continues. What is getting lost however in the conversation is how to create long-term flexibility for all employees. Every job can be adapted to flex by assessing what flexibility is possible, what is desirable, and what is sustainable.


Re-designing employee experience goes hand in hand with energising workers to inspire and invigorate them as they adjust to the new work experience. For example, it has become clear that digital care delivery will become the centrepiece of programmes to re-engage employees in their long-term wellbeing. As a result, we are seeing an increasing shift towards digital health check-ups to promote health goals. It is therefore encouraging that many companies plan to add benefits to address mental or emotional wellbeing; and similarly, others plan to train managers to spot mental health issues.


In the year ahead therefore, we expect transformation of HR to regain prominence, with the HR function having to make smart choices about the trade-offs required for reinvention. Transforming the HR operating model, together with accelerating HR’s digitalisation, is an enabler for accelerating flexibility programmes. To deliver enhanced employee experiences, it means breaking away from traditional HR models in favour of dynamic ways of working.


Another important development is the use of predictive analytics to gather operational insight. Great strides in this area were achieved during 2020 and should gain further momentum this year, as HR practitioners focus on forward-looking insights. Already, we see that HR leaders are concentrating on learning/skill acquisition analytics and on improving their analytics capabilities to support strategic workforce planning.


Our survey shows that one in four companies is moving towards AI-driven nudges that prompt employees to advance their health, wealth and career prospects, and leading organisations are asking for more data on utilisation of financial benefits along with investment strategies by age, gender, and ethnicity to gain a better understanding of employee investment behaviour.


Without a doubt, South Africa’s skills crisis remains an issue of concern for many companies. Therefore, preparing for growth and success means having the right skillset. In this regard, many companies regard identifying new skills/capabilities needed for a post-COVID world as one of the top priorities in accelerating skills development. Skills that help employees adapt to the current world are predictably high on the list (collaboration skill is first on the list and self-management, second).


Leading organisations are also conducting strategic workforce planning to identify the business’s future-critical skills and pinpoint its supply of and demand for those skills. The good news is that technology is catching up with ambition: Big Data can price a skill or skill cluster in real time and predict whether the value will go up or down


Furthermore, our survey has found that 41% of South African HR leaders (versus 29% globally) say inclusive and empathetic management has become more critical for future resilience. This is a skill that, when developed, can drive DEI, and support mental health and wellbeing in the workplace - both of which will be even more important as employees continue to work remotely and risk feeling isolated.


In conclusion, as companies continue adjusting to the new way of life post-COVID, the following will be critical to organisational and business success: designing employee benefits that are relevant and truly benefit staff; increasing focus on ESG; improving upskilling and re-skilling employees; responsibly using data analytics based on information collected from employees; and developing and transforming HR models that reflect the new digital reality and new ways of working.

Tamara Parker
Tamara Parker
CEO, Mercer South Africa

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