By Vishal Haripersad, Regional Manager for Knight Pièsold Africa
Business schools always tell their students to ‘expect the unexpected’ and to plan for scenarios one might not expect to see in their organisation or industry. But the Covid-19 pandemic is something no business was truly prepared for. While some companies were better prepared than others, everyone had lessons to learn.
At Knight Piésold, we have historically strived towards ‘productive paranoia’: planning for the worst but always hoping for the best. However, even we could not have predicted the new normal.
These are some of the key lessons to help guide any business through a crisis, as well as some of the experiences of Knight Piésold during the National State of Emergency of the past year, which remains relevant as South Africa is currently experiencing the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Communication – think carefully about what and how you communicate!
The first, and most obvious, business implication of lockdown was the death of the traditional office, and all the interactions it housed. We quickly learnt to communicate without gathering in the boardroom or turning around to talk to a colleague in close proximity. These types of meetings were promptly replaced with teleconferencing, and thus the ability to plan, strategise and execute was disrupted, but it did not disappear.
But what about the ability to pop your head into someone’s office, or brainstorm at the water cooler? Communication is not purely about achieving an outcome but is also more about sharing ideas, testing theories or even just catching up socially. Business generally had no difficulty communicating about a product but managing and keeping people engaged initially came with its challenges. Covid-19 forced us to relook at how we engaged, and to become more proactive about being ‘people-centric’ – not just as an idle tagline but as an ingrained element of our company culture. With ‘Zoom fatigue’ and the mental health burdens associated to the pandemic, it is not easy to encourage socialising and sharing, but I implore every business to find a way to make it happen.
- Get closer to your people
There is nothing like a good crisis to expose the cracks in an organisation – or to bring people closer together. As Knight Piésold we had to leverage our communication skills to get a better idea of how our people operated. When you cannot physically see your workforce, you must dig a little deeper to understand what drives them – and what stresses them out.
This was especially interesting for Knight Piésold Southern Africa, as we span multiple countries and had traditionally operated somewhat differently in each location. From Botswana to Namibia, Zambia, DRC and Madagascar, each office had its own culture, management style and ‘local flavour’. The pandemic allowed us to celebrate these differences while building a more common identity, which helped us align better through the hard times.
This is important for trust-building, too. Global research is pointing to how employees have avoided bringing up concerns for fear of losing their jobs. People have become tight-lipped, not wanting to cause trouble. Trust building needs to be an ongoing exercise for all companies.
- Clarify your business’s vision
Improving communication and achieving employee cohesion means nothing to the sustainability of your business if nobody knows where you are heading. It is vital that your people clearly understand your strategy and vision. Gone are the days of vision and mission posters on the walls – not that anyone will see them now anyway. Companies today need to cut out the jargon and engage meaningfully with their workforce about the company’s strategy and how this translates into to day-to-day activities. Every single person in your company has a role to play in executing strategy, and this must be communicated in a way that makes sense to them. Do not take it for granted that everyone interprets your goals in the same way.
- Identify what your business really needs and adjust
Businesses need to be leaner and meaner; and this will look different to every organisation, but pragmatism should be at the core. From my perspective, it means there is no longer room for bureaucracy and strict rules. Companies need to move away from clock-watching and towards outcomes-based operations, where employees are given the freedom to live their lives while meeting business objectives and key performance indicators.
To achieve this, it also means communication barriers need to be broken down. Employees must be empowered to get direct answers to their questions and move closer to the decision-making functions in the company. With the death of the traditional workspace, perhaps traditional management hierarchies also need an overhaul.
- Consider the wider community
Businesses need to remember that we do not operate in isolation. While indeed there is competition amongst us, we can also share in each other’s success. As a 100-year-old firm, we feel that it is our responsibility to help emerging businesses, to share our knowledge, and to use our resources to make a bigger difference. This is important for SMME development, but it also extends to corporate social responsibility. Any company that has survived thus far through the pandemic can consider itself a success and is probably in the position to give back to some extent. We know this to be true for Knight Piésold, and we will soon be ramping up our efforts in this regard.
No business was prepared for the pandemic, and we are all still learning on the job. These five lessons come from my daily experience of navigating a large company through a global crisis, and I feel that every company can interpret these lessons to work for their specific context. Ultimately, the lesson is that employees are the heart of your company, and they need your focus and consideration.