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As people return to the office, have we missed a chance to become more human?

Watch the full discussion here

"It is vital, especially in these stressful times of remote working, for businesses to re-evaluate whether the values of their organisation truly put humanity at the core."

Itumeleng Merafe - Head of Sales: Lending at Investec for Business

Research shows that employees working remotely have admirably exerted themselves even as their workloads increase, and rewards are reduced. In many cases, this has negatively tipped the work-life balance without any recognition of it by the employer.

The consensus of a Working Lunch with Arabile Gumede hosted by radio station 702, was that the working environment, for all its improvements in recent decades, was “not yet” human enough.

“We are getting there,” said Claire Denham-Dyson, Head Anthropologist at Demographica. “Covid-19 was brought about a realisation that companies not treating their employees with human compassion will no longer be able to retain their talent.”

Itumeleng Merafe
Itumeleng Merafe, Head of Sales: Lending at Investec for Business

The pandemic has challenged all corporates to step up, live up to those values and prove they’re not empty words. It has heightened the fact that being ‘high tech’ and being ‘high touch’ are not mutually exclusive.

Head of Sales: Lending at Investec for Business, Itumeleng Merafe, agreed saying: “Covid has been a great accelerator of a lot of things. Companies, like ourselves, have had a lot of HR reforms in the pipeline for a long time. These are things companies instinctively knew were right and humane, but for one reason or another felt they couldn’t yet implement. Covid set us outside our comfort zones, and showed these changes could – and must - happen. It has demonstrated that when you allow people to perform their job in a way which works for them, it brings on a much better working environment. It challenged all corporates to step up, live up to their corporate values and prove they’re not empty words. It has heightened the fact that being ‘high tech’ and being ‘high touch’ are not mutually exclusive.”

“Many companies typically establish a set of values which they then expect all staff to shoe-horn into. For instance, most companies today claim they subscribe to a diverse workforce. Yet a diverse workforce is inherently going to have different values and goals, and consequently experience varying degrees of relative conflict - this is in the nature of life. The emphasis therefore needs to be on having a corporate value system which facilitates diversity through resolution mechanisms, rather than disciplining any aspiration or thought which is not defined within the company philosophy,” explained Merafe.

Watch: Leaders are the custodians of culture

As custodians of culture, the panel agreed that leaders do not have to be the most dominating person in the room. Instead, true leaders are responsible for creating the space for diversity in the workplace whereby staff feel safe enough to have important conversations about differences without it becoming conflict.

Employees have proven they can more than meet all key performance indicators while out of the office unsupervised by distrustful bosses and companies. “It is vital, especially in these stressful times of remote working, for businesses to re-evaluate whether the values of their organisation truly put humanity at the core,” said Zanele Luvuno, MD at Transcend Talent Management. “Covid has ratcheted up the issue. On the one hand employees have thoroughly enjoyed freedom from sometimes overbearing leadership, but online meetings serve as a continuous reminder of its eventual return. One of the results of Covid is that individuals now know who their organisations really are.” 

Watch: Diversity and transformation

Merafe added: “In our case, Investec has established a new business unit in the middle of the pandemic which was able to establish a fresh working environment from scratch. We were able to look at what would work both for employees and customers. This new vision was encouraged by the fact that Covid also encouraged a release of greater feelings of humanity towards all people, as our first concern was typically to check that everyone was well. Since then, it has deepened relationships – both with employees and with customers.” Investec for your business is a full business offering of products, services and capabilities for established entrepreneurs and mid-sized businesses. “We have crafted these services using our high-tech, high-touch approach, which truly differentiates our offering and brings the humanness to every engagement,” adds Merafe.

Working remotely has provided insights into a person’s home life, making it easier to see them as a mother or as a family person.

“That Zoom-meeting insight into a person’s home environment has let a lot of bosses understand that some things in life – like a sick child – are more important than meeting a deadline,” says Luvuno.

According to Denham-Dyson, all companies claim to have humanity at the core of their corporate values. However, in many instances, these are little more than aggrandising words in what remains a business structure that remains both culturally hierarchical and militaristic. This inherently alienates a broad swathe of any workforce.

She points out that just as the first industrial revolution established the stereotypical ‘dark satanic mill’ as the working norm of the ordinary person, the second, third and fourth industrial revolutions perpetuated and rewarded a toxic style of leadership and narcissism in the business world. “Yet we have an ever-more educated workforce which sees through the falsity of only ever being able to express ‘human’ emotions once they finally arrive back home after 6pm and can shed their ‘armour’”.

For instance, the world is increasingly seeing millennials opting out of traditional work stereotypes – primarily to evade that narcissistic corporate culture.

We need to be more human.

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