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How do corporates preserve their culture, and their organisational identity in this digitally-driven, remote world? It's a question that Investec has been grappling with. Here our HR and OD leaders share their lessons learnt for other businesses navigating the same conundrum. 



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Read the full transcript of the podcast

MK: Marc KahnLG: Lucrecia Grandolini
HS: Henk StruwigLG: Lesley-Anne Gatter
AB: Amandip BahiaNT: Nozipho Tshabalala
ZN: Zandile NkhataNT: Nicola Tager
  • 00:00 INTRO: Marc's aim with the podcast and what constitutes Investec's culture

    MK: Welcome to this Focus radio podcast.


    I’m Marc Kahn global head of People and Organisation at Investec.


    In this podcast I want to explore the impact remote working is having on corporate culture. Very few of us are traveling into the office anymore. At Investec South Africa, 90% of our staff are working remotely, and in the UK it’s closer to 95%. Our homes, our PCs and our phones have replaced the daily face-to-face interaction we had with our colleagues. And it’s that daily interaction that communicates and strengthens an organisations’ culture.


    So, the big question many leaders are asking is how do we maintain corporate culture in this digitally driven, remote world? It’s a question we’ve grappled with here at Investec because as an organisation we’ve always regarded culture as core to our competitive advantage.


    To reflect on how Investec culture has shifted during this crisis, and what it might look like post the pandemic, I gathered a group People and Organisation Development team, to chat frankly about what they were seeing.


    We’re going to dip in and out of that zoom chat, and I hope some of their observations and thinking you’ll find useful as you navigate your own way through this new world of work. 


    Now clearly the first question that lays the foundation for any discussion about culture is what is it, and specifically what do we mean when we talk about culture at Investec. Here’s Henk Struwig, our head of OD in SA…

    There’s a lot to say about this culture, but we often talk about it in three basic pillars that I think are the backbone of this culture, and a lot of the other things kind of hang on it.


    The first one would be flat organisation which I don’t believe that we don’t have reporting lines and hierarchy but there’s something about the power distance in this organisation that’s important. There is very low power distance, in other words, people are first people and then their roles and it’s less important that you are CEO of the company and first it’s more about I’m a person you’re a person we are engaging on a particular topic and what you bring to the table is what this place is all about.


    The second one is relationship, this place and it connects with the first one, is all about relationship and the quality of your relationships and the connections that you’ve built with people over time, and what it brings is an ease of being with each other. So, leaders lead through this way through the close relationships they have with people and the ease that it brings.

    And then the third one I would say is this idea of we call it process but it’s really just this special kind of dialogue that we have where we enroll people in things and we ask people about their opinions and people do things because they applied their minds and it made sense to them, not because the boss said so. And again, it binds with the other two and it creates a situation where we create shared meaning all the time and that shared meaning becomes the base of the culture. 

  • 3:28 The role of storytelling in communicating shared meaning

    MK: So we’ve always understood that core to this notion of shared meaning is authentic human stories. Amandip Bahia, who’s from our UK OD team had this to say about the role of storytelling in communicating shared meaning.


    AB: I think there is something about the lived experience of the culture is often through stories; either we tell stories or we have stories and I think most of us have got an example somewhere where we’ve felt the low power distance.


    You know I’ve only been at Investec two years but I remember my first day very distinctly because the Head of HR- it was January- and rather than shake my hand very formally and welcome me to the company it was a big hug and as I was walking down the corridor lots of people were saying happy New Year which I found quite strange coming from a very hierarchical organisation previously.


    And I think there are so many examples of where it doesn’t matter who you are, but it matters what’s going on for you. Somebody might be going through a difficult time and just being noticed and not just by your manager or your team colleagues but lots of people will reach out and say how’s it going for you, what does it feel like can I help in any way and that really does bond you. I think we are very much invested to Investec both as an individual we work for the company but also then to the clients that we might serve either internally or externally.


    MK: Zandile Nkhata, who’s part of the Belonging, Inclusion and Diversity team in the UK, feels that Investec’s culture requires a level of openness and honesty that can be both liberating and daunting at the same time.


     I really feel like the culture asks of you to be brave, that there is a need for there to be high levels of safety for you to be able to operate well in the culture.


    So you shouldn’t feel a sense of fear of being able to express your opinion and I think that was something for me that was quite hard to grapple with when I first started because I was used to the hierarchy and the committee etc. So to be able to feel that I’m not going to be humiliated or that I’m not going to be questioned about what I view is something that I’ve experienced to be true that it allows me to really express what I feel what I think and what I value.


    MK: Lucrecia Grandolini, head of Learning in the UK, echoes Zandile’s sentiment, and says seniority shouldn’t dictate who has a voice in meetings.


    LG: Something that I think is very unique to Investec is this deep-rooted belief that everyone has something to bring to the table you know regardless of your job title of your seniority years of experience you know your opinion counts and that’s true from day one. And you know you can see that with the grads you know when they join the organisation and you know some of them it’s their first role in an organisation and they all report back that their line managers ask their opinions, that they were put into deals their first early in their careers. So, I think that’s very unique that all our opinions count and we are all in this together.

  • 6:23 Will remote working weaken how we experience culture?

    MK: Okay- so descriptors like, dialogue-based, relationship-driven, flat structure and a free access environment,” sum up Investec’s culture. But we now come together in this new digital format, where people are muted and unmuted. Isn’t that going to weaken how we experience our culture? Amandip had this to say…


    AB: So I think there is something about our culture that we are used to talking to one another and that we are used to being a whole person so you could say that it’s quite exposing to have your colleagues enter your home in this virtual way or a child might walk past or a family member or partner. But actually we’ve always had a sense of you’re not just your role or your employee person but you are the whole person and I think that’s helped so that it doesn’t feel so alien, most of us will know who is walking past the screen, we’ve got some knowledge of these other people.


    MK: Picking up on what Dip says- others can now see into our private lives, but that’s almost normalized for us because we bring all of ourselves to work at Investec. But at the same time, it’s also created a barrier to dialogue which we haven’t seen or felt before. Here’s Henk on how people are experiencing a type of withdrawal from the energy that comes from physical human contact.


    HS: I do believe that there are pieces you can’t do online which is the aspects of real human connection which is only possible when you are with people. People feed off the energy of others and I think there’s a big part of our organisation that is invisible that comes from that kind of human connection and I think people suffered some pain through being disconnected in this way and in some ways there was a flight into activity a lot of online activity which some people describe as draining and tiring and people found themselves at the end of the day feeling very depleted from all of this whilst they expected to be energised by it. And it’s simply because there is something missing when you do it in this way, you know you can see your colleagues you can talk to them but energetically it's tough.


    MK: It’s important that we chat about what’s missing. Lesley-Anne Gatter- head of People in South Africa compares the so-called “messy,” spontaneous kind of engagement where there is a lower level of control in the coordination of who speaks, with how we communicate now.


    LG: Ya, I think what’s missing is the very nature of remoteness. In that very word remote is the issue and it contains in it something that is more mechanistic and something that is more distant and what is essential for me is what has been lost is that there is a felt sense of being together, that when we are present with each other in a room we can read more into the persons' engagement.


    It makes it harder for us to get a real sense of the individual and the relationship. So, it's quality to the relationship to the interaction that’s missing in that very language of remoteness that we are just further away from each other and that psychological distance is problematic for whole interaction. But it doesn’t prevent some interaction.

  • 9:17 The physical presence of being around colleagues cannot be replaced

    MK: There was an existential phenomenon acknowledged by Merleau-Ponty and I don’t want to get too poetic but he talked about the flesh as an element of being like earth, air, fire, water and flesh and that physical presence of being with another human being cannot be substituted.


    Nozipho Tshabalala, part of the OD team in SA, comments specifically on how Investec’s Client Support Centre, known as the CSC, is missing being together as a team, in one shared space.


    NT: It has been very hard you know there is a sense of connectivity when you are online but I think the sense of belonging that lives outside of that is a difficultly for a lot of people so if I’m not online how do I belong? We see this with our sales teams in the banking space and the CSC feed off of that and they need that energy to be able to do their work. So in the absence of seeing a screen or the colleague next to you screaming they’ve just closed a deal it that sense of belonging to a team that is holding an energy to enable performance is being deeply felt.” 


    MK: Investec’s relationship-driven culture can be observed in many ways, one of them is that meetings don’t always start on time. Lucre explains a phenomenon known as “Investec time”…


    LG: We always say that there is an Investec time which means that people normally start meetings you know five or sometimes ten minutes late and that’s not because people are lazy or of course they are not watching the time. It’s just because it’s that banter, that informality and talking about so many other things before going in to task and I think that unfortunately that is lost because you know there is no corridor there is no staircase there is no canteen to bump into each other and just start an informal conversation.


    So, I think that that certainly affects that sense of belonging on the one hand, but we are living in a very paradoxical world where you know both things are true. On the one hand, I do think that the sense of belonging is being lost by all these conditions that are being affected as we are describing on the one hand.


    On the other hand, I do think that maybe for some individuals and hopefully for the majority of individuals there is a strong reconnection with a sense of belonging. I think that people are coming together they are showing their human side they care about Investec they are putting Investec first. I see less of competition amongst teams and more about let’s put the client at the centre let’s go the extra mile so, on the other hand, I feel there is a real invigorating the sense of belonging.


    MK: I want to bring in Zandile here as she had an interesting observation to share about how Covid-19 is a great “leveler”. She references a colleague of ours, Chris. That’s Chris Meyer Head of Corporate and Investment Banking in the UK office.


    ZN: I think one of my immediate thoughts is that this whole COVID crisis has been an incredible leveler which means that none of us have experience of it so we are all starting off the same base and we are all exploring this together which I think gives us a heightened sense of we’re in this together so the sense of belonging is therefore enhanced in a way.


    I was on a call last week with CIB and Chris started off the call kind of speaks to what Lucre was saying, but Chris started off the call the first ten minutes of the call he spoke about his own experience and grappling with what is the new normal and he was quite vulnerable in doing that. And he spoke about the loneliness he felt in that and I think just in expressing that to I think there was probably over 700 people who were listening in to the call, expressing that created this sense of I’m in it with you,


    I feel this with you, I’m grappling with this with you let’s all try and deal with this together and I really thought that that embodied what belonging is, what inclusion is, what that sense that we can be vulnerable in that situation and that we are all doing it together.

  • 13:19 Sumantra Ghoshal’s- “Smell of the Place” - is being impacted

    MK: One of our most common cultural directives is to walk the floors. We often reference Sumantra Ghoshal’s work on the “Smell of the Place” which is kind of walking into the building and just getting a felt sense of the energy of not literally the smell. And the question is how are we going to walk the floors and get a smell of the place? So, what are the new behaviours, what are the new strategies to achieve that cultural sense? Lesley-Anne has a novel take on how leaders need to spread that shared experience of culture when working remotely.


    LG: It occurs to me as we are talking that we’ve only although there’s lots of complexity in it we’ve only really ever smelt the smell of one place you know the building that we occupy and we in and because our buildings look similar and there’s a similar sense to each of these places because of the culture we imagine that there’s one or a varied smell but it's one smell of the place.


    But now when I think of how we are working it’s a massive garden or it’s a huge park that we having to smell and I see that we are re-pollinating many spaces, that leaders are responsible for dipping in and out so many different spots and places and it’s frenetic in terms of how you have to know and flutter out and be in so many different spaces and pollinate from one to the other sharing information sharing views, trying to create that shared meaning system because we are so far away from each other. 


    AB: We are not a heavily grounded organisation in terms of structure however now we’ve moved to this virtual world there is something that’s lost in there.


    MC: That’s Amandip from our UK OD team interjecting…


    AB: Who organises the check-in for the team whereas if you don’t belong to one team but you either belong to multiple teams or you consult in various different ways or if you only have a team of two you can feel very distant and not belonging and that’s something that when you walk the floors you would know who that team of two is or that one person who is working on an innovation project and it’s not easy to do that right now because they are not in your team they are not in your daily check-in they are not on your distribution list there is something lost in that.


    I think there is something about the first week or two is crisis management let’s get everyone working let’s check on everyone let’s get my team sorted and I think if we can expand that and I’ve noticed that more of that now with who’s beyond your team who are the people you would chat to every week and suddenly you’ve not spoken to for two, three weeks because you are in this new digital world and can you pick up the phone to them which is a different way of walking the floors, it’s popping into meetings that aren’t yours.


    We had in the Private Banking the Manco meeting Chris joined us for 20 minutes and just gave us a sense of what was happening in CIB it was really valuable and people could ask questions around what’s going on in this team and how are you dealing with this challenge over here. But I think we are just beginning on that journey now.


    MK: An example of this- yesterday I got a phone call from the Chairman of the Board and when I saw his name appear on my phone, I thought alright he’s looking for some information. But, no, he was just wanting to see how I was. And that’s the first time he’s ever called me for that purpose and I’ve known him for many years.


    I realised that that’s because normally he’ll pop into the office and we’ll bump into each other and that’s how we check-in, but now he has to make the phone call. And so one of the new behaviours that I am seeing is that leaders are tactically calling people to ask them how they are, whereas before they would have done that through the informal bumping into each other in the office. And I think there’s an upside to that and a downside.


    The upside to that is it’s a very deliberate and meaningful action to take and it’s in some ways felt in a stronger way than just bumping into someone and saying how are you, to make a phone call and say I’m calling you to see how you are doing that really lands in the heart more deeply than just bumping into someone. But the downside is that it’s very inefficient. How many phone calls can you make? So one of the things we are doing is this “pulse check” to get a sense of the pulse of the company. What that is, is a digital prompt to thousands of people around the world to check-in on them, on a digital basis, with how they are feeling. 

  • 17: 35 Tips and suggestions on how to preserve culture during the pandemic

    MK: So given that we have been grappling with how to preserve and adapt our culture, what would be some good tips, ideas or suggestions for other organisations to consider, as they too are navigating remote working? Lucrentia head of learning in the UK thinks building rituals are important in maintain culture.


    LG: But one of the things that we saw as a very helpful mechanism was building rituals and this was done organically by each team you know each leader.


    I think that for me it became very clear the importance of having a ritual of having a practise that happens you know the same way the same time every day and that provides a lot of containment for a time that is full of high levels of uncertainty and therefore anxiety. So, building rituals in your daily check ins you know in your daily practice I think that is a really easy way of bringing people together.


    LG: One of the big pieces of advice and some of the learning that we’ve had, is that it is human nature to attempt to control and in controlling we see that people want to close ranks they want to have a higher level of centralised decision making they want to have lots of control and have people wait for instruction, in order to control the uncertainty or manage the uncertainty and it’s their own anxiety of course that they are managing.


    MK: That’s Lesley-Anne commenting on the need to control people during this uncertain time.


    Counter-intuitively though I think that in these times of crisis and as an organisation that works remotely it would be prudent to open the system as wide as possible to increase the complexity at a time like this and increase the decision making capability of the organisation and even though it is arduous we need to be able to aggregate that wisdom in a meaningful way to involve as many decision makers as we can, to get process going as truly as we are able to leverage people’s opinion leverage all the different kinds of learning that people are having. And I think a mistake organisations will make is to sacrifice complexity for ease at a time like this.


    MK: One of the big wins for the future to come out of this pandemic is undoubtedly the acceptance of flexible working hours. Henk- head of OD in SA, who you heard from at the beginning of this podcast, says- some leaders who were reticent to adopt flexible working practices, have been forced across the line by this pandemic.


    HK: So I’ve been thinking all this time and I think everybody is seeing it that there are so many jobs that could be done from a distance and in this way it’s quite shocking and I’ve been wondering why hasn’t the world gone this route as an option more so than what they’ve done already and I think a lot of people are talking about it.


    I do believe we’ve got this hangover from the Industrial Revolution which is people organisations don’t trust their people and what I’ve seen here is you’ve really got to trust people because the truth is most people get up in the morning to do the best they can and to do a good job and that if people are enabled through technology and the things they need they will add the value that they are going to add.


    So, I think the big lesson here is you’ve got to trust people, you’ve got to allow people in your culture to really take ownership which I think we are very good at as an organisation. That’s why we are getting good results out of a situation like this and I just really believe the world won’t be the same after this. I think this is what we’re learning is that people can be trusted that people will add value that enabling them is all that you really need to do.

  • 21:09 Don't adapt from a place of fear

    MK: I’d like to bring our global head of Careers in here. Nicola Tager warns against organisations adapting their way of working, their culture, from a place of fear.


    NT: So lots of other organisations are coming across as schizophrenic because I think there is so much information coming at the leaders from other organisations and people and they are trying to adjust too quickly to everything that’s coming at them whereas taking the information collaborating it and saying what makes sense to our organisation and then adopting.


    You can’t be leading based on fear and panic you really have to think through what is still core to the fundamental of our culture and how it will play out in our organisation versus someone else’s.

    MK:  To summarise, I think this change has both positive and negative elements. This working remotely brings with it a lot of possibilities that weren’t there before, but at the same time, we lament the loss of the good old things. That’s the true sense of what a changing culture looks like. It’s not about a good or bad thing, it’s about a different arrangement of how we come together and it’s really a question of how well we adapt to that change that will determine if we survive and thrive.



Watch the video on how Coronavirus is changing the face of leadership

The crisis and the subsequent lockdown means that the requirements and expectations of leaders have changed. A high degree of empathy and understanding of each individual's circumstances is crucial as workers are forced to navigate working from home, uncertainty of position and place, high levels of anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. 

The crisis and the subsequent lockdown means that the requirements and expectations of leaders have changed. A high degree of empathy and understanding of each individual's circumstances is crucial as workers are forced to navigate working from home, uncertainty of position and place, high levels of anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. 

Marc Kahn, Global head of People and OD, Investec
Marc Kahn, Global head of People and Organisation Development, Investec

Flexible and remote working after the pandemic will be readily accepted, and so balancing work and familial responsibilities will be easier. That's a win for the future.

Amandip Bahia, OD , Investec UK
Amandip Bahia, Organisational Development, Investec UK

What's missing is leaders thinking about themselves. It's important that they reflect on their own wellbeing, not only their team. I have a big concern around burnout throughout the organisation.

Watch the video on what leaders hope will change post the Coronavirus

Shifts in recruitment practices, working hours, leadership requirements, and how corporates value and reward employees are just some of the things Investec leaders predict will change in the working world post Covid-19.



Shifts in recruitment practices, working hours, leadership requirements, and how corporates value and reward employees are just some of the things Investec leaders predict will change in the working world post Covid-19.



Nicola Tager, head of Careers, Investec
Nicola Tager, Global head of Careers, Investec

Recruitment will no longer be locally based. We will be able to hire people from across the world. So the places that you'll look for skill will be totally different. 

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About the author

Caroline Edey-van Wyk

Caroline Edey-van Wyk

Brand Editor

Colloquially known as Investec’s “storyteller,” Caroline curates and produces all the content that underpins Investec's Out of the Ordinary brand promise. She works across the business but specialises in the areas of Sustainability, CSI, Sponsorships and HR. Caroline holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Political Science and Broadcasting - cum laude. Before she joined Investec she was a broadcast journalist at Sky News and eNCA.

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