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Sharon Taylor (full image set)

The power of human connection

By Sharon Taylor, Chief People and Culture Officer, Standard Bank Group

For large organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a litmus-test reflecting the extent to which they’ve really embedded digital in their “DNA” – reflected in their infrastructures, capability sets and the ability of their people to rapidly adapt to different leadership practices and ways of working. 

Organisations around the world were confronted with having to shift from their traditional way of operating almost overnight, as governments imposed a whole range of measures, including national lockdowns, aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.  And I say confronted, as I remain convinced that this overnight “digital workplace” would have taken far longer to come into existence to the extent that it now has, left to the ordinary course of events.   

For companies that were not already well on their way to becoming future-ready, the shift to remote work was disruptive and challenging, and, in some cases, an existential threat.  On the other hand, those organisations that had already laid the groundwork have found the transition to be surprisingly painless, and their digital journeys have taken significant steps forward. 

Our experience

So, what was the transition like for the Standard Bank Group – a 157-year-old company, operating across 20 countries with a workforce of more than 44,000 permanent employees?  In a word – smooth.  And this largely thanks to our clear strategic focus on becoming digital in recent years, coupled with the necessary investments in technology and future skills.   

As Africa’s largest Bank, we saw the initial warning signs of the pandemic as early as January, given our presence in Beijing.  But it wasn’t until March, when the stark reality of what we were all confronting became clear with the closure of borders and the report of the first positive cases on the continent, which saw the Group invoke its business continuity plans and shift to remote working with the exception of those classified as essential services workers.        

We had two key focus areas in respect of our employees: the health, safety and wellbeing of all our people and ensuring safe and productive workplaces whether our people were working remotely or in our offices. 

Ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees 

As an employer that has always placed a premium on employee engagement and the importance of our people in delivering to our clients, we understood from the outset that how we thought about and responded to the people impact of COVID-19 would be critical for the organisation.

Since January when my team first got wind of the storm to come as they were watching events unfolding and contemplating what this meant for our employees in Beijing and for all our ICBC exchange programme participants who were based between China and our various countries of operation on the continent, we’ve dealt with a long and seemingly unimaginable list of challenges.   

We set out with a single objective – placing the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees (and by extension their loved ones and our clients), at the centre of our efforts.  With the support of our Board and top leadership team, and in dialogue with multiple stakeholders, which included our trade unions, we:

  • Implemented a whole range of critical protocols
  • Provided ongoing employee education, guidance and support
  • Provided support and tools to line managers and their Human Capital partners
  • Introduced special leave and benefit provisions (like the introduction of parental leave for school closures and leave for self-quarantine purposes)
  • Repatriated our international assignees to their home countries ahead of the closure of borders
  • Arranged special transport for essential services employees during the hard phases of lockdown
  • Provided extensive personal protective equipment and granted a special National Service Appreciation Award for all employees who worked outside the safety of their homes to ensure continued essential services during Level 5 lockdowns.        

Reflecting on the team effort 

That old saying, “may you live in interesting times”, certainly characterises the time we’ve lived through where our employees have been called upon in ways that we could not have begun to imagine.

 The collective effort that I have witnessed as we have had to respond to and solve for all that we have been confronted with in this time, has been nothing short of remarkable. 

And when I see what we have achieved and the stance that we have taken for our people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I know that we are part of an organisation that truly cares deeply about its people.  There can be no stronger evidence of this than the countless videos and messages of thanks that we have received from employees across our footprint, expressing their gratitude for all we have done for them over this period.   

One of my key reflections of the last few months is that whilst our people were all weathering the same storm, they all found themselves in very different boats.  My initial concerns about things like home office set-up, internet connectivity and power supply, parents juggling work and home schooling, people living alone, ‘on-line fatigue’ and vulnerable employees dealing with underlying health challenges, rapidly shifted to the mental health aspects, concerns regarding job security, the escalation of fear as employees confronted COVID-19's  impact on their families and loved ones, and with a largely female workforce, the spectre of gender-based violence which has exploded in recent times, particularly in South Africa.    

And while we appear to now be emerging from the toughest period of this pandemic and are beginning to turn our minds to the future, I’d like to pause and honour the 13 Standard Bankers who lost their lives to COVID-19 including 1 in Zimbabwe, 2 in Eswatini and 10 in South Africa.  Between them, they have given 230 years of commitment, loyal service and contribution to the Group.  We thank them for the indelible mark they have left on us and their colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time.   

Ensuring safe and productive workplaces 

One of the lessons for reflection in this difficult time is that the 4th industrial revolution and the “future of work” are already here.

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have built on the Group’s existing technology capabilities by significantly ramping up our efforts to enable our people to work remotely, further strengthening our cyber resilience and developing tools to keep employees informed and connected.   

The result – more than 75% of our people continue to work productively from home, leveraging a range of digital tools, including a purpose-built COVID-19 Connect App.  More so than ever before, for the majority of employers, “work” is now about what people do, not where they are.   

To enable remote work, we provided more than 27,800 Mobile data Sim cards to our employees in South Africa, up from 8,600 pre-COVID-19.  Interactive meetings hosted on Microsoft Teams grew from 20,000 to a staggering 500,000 meetings a month on average across the Group as our employees connected in multi-disciplinary and cross-border teams to deal with the crisis, engage in business-as-usual activities, and innovate for the future. 

Leaders turned to BlueJeans engagement platforms to ensure that their teams, regardless of size and location, could remain connected and hopeful – updated on our ongoing response to the crisis for both employees and clients, and galvanised in respect of the future we see for the organisation.  Board meetings, Annual General Meetings and even large conferences like the Standard Bank-hosted Africa Investors Conference (AIC) were held virtually for the first time in history.  

Our COVID-19 App enabled our employees to access a whole range of content and tools which kept them constantly informed and updated on safety protocols, precautionary measures, newsflashes and enabled them to access important educational information which resulted in 100% of employees reporting that they knew how to apply all our health and safety protocols to avoid contracting the virus and to keep themselves, their loved ones and our clients safe.   

While we are planning a gradual, phased return to the office within the context of our risk assessments and country-specific regulations, we are in no rush to simply return to traditional ways of working, particularly given the success of the shift to digital.  Indeed, our employees themselves have told us that they’ve adapted well to working under these new conditions, with the majority feeling they are more productive.  However, they clearly indicate that they would place the greatest value on having the ability to balance time working from home with much needed time in the office.     

Learning new skills 

We have also chosen to take advantage of this rapid pivot to digital by accelerating our strategies to ensure that our employees are prepared for the ‘new normal’ and that they continuously build the skills and capabilities needed for success in an increasingly digital world.

 Our new online learning platform, launched at the end of April 2020, has been a huge success.  More than 30 000 employees have accessed the platform, and close to 790 000 learning items have been completed so far.   

Client engagement, digital, data and analytical skills are high on the list of priorities, as is our newly piloted Behavioural Science Academy.  Investment in our employees and their growth has always been a core area of focus for the Group, and our quest to build future skills is now complemented by the excellent partnerships we enjoy with Degreed, Salesforce, Amazon and Microsoft.   

Fortunately we have long been preparing the organisation as it has progressed on its digital transformation journey, and as a result, the Group’s Board and leadership team stepped into the crisis in a strong position to lead remotely, having already taken various steps to improve their ‘digital acumen’ with the guidance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).    

Employee feedback

One would imagine that the enormous and rapid disruption caused by the pandemic and the almost overnight shift to working from home would be a major adjustment for the leadership team and for all employees.  

A survey conducted during the pandemic, in which more than 22,000 employees participated, revealed the following: 

  • 95% of employees reported that they are adapting well to these new circumstances 
  • The top 3 sentiments expressed by employees were “grateful”, “positive” and “appreciative”
  • Enormously positive feedback on the ability of leadership to empower, enable teams to deliver on expected outcomes, whilst showing real care for the personal wellbeing of our employees
  • 89% of employees expressed their absolute pride in the measures taken by the Group to support its employees and clients during the pandemic

Perhaps ironically, this acceleration in digitisation and the social distancing at play have underscored even further the importance of balancing our digitisation efforts with the human elements and have sharply amplified the need for our employees to belong, and to be deeply connected to the Group, our purpose and what we stand for.   

We know that the world of work is changing, and so are the expectations of employees.  The Standard Bank brand is evolving and 2020 has seen us make a commitment to our customers to find new ways to make their dreams possible.  Equally we believe that our people’s dreams matter – they ignite our business, they enable our customers’ dreams and they fuel Africa’s growth. 

So, in this difficult time, we have chosen to launch our promise to our people, based on what they’ve told us they will be looking for in a future employer of choice.  This is a promise that will help them deliver on our commitments to clients and inspire them to show up at their very best.  We will do this through being driven to win and deeply human as an employer.  With Africa’s growth at the core of our purpose, always.   

We are confident that thanks to the diversity of our operations, the strength of our balance sheet, our critical focus on our clients, the ongoing investment in digital technology and the resilience and capability of our people, we are well placed to support and partner our customers through this pandemic.  We are determined to emerge from this crisis stronger and more future-ready than ever before.