Is business culture in South Africa humane?

In a world of numbers and high-powered deals, it’s easy to neglect the human side of business. To thrive, we need to do more than talk. At Investec, they do more than interact — they make it their business to understand yours… That’s business made human.

The Working Lunch with Arabile Gumede is a series of intimate conversations that bring experts around a table to engage and interrogate the importance of the humans on the other side of business transactions.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a significant shift in the way that we work.

Now that remote working has become our “new normal” — trading in boardroom meetings and face-to-face watercooler catch-ups with colleagues for Zoom meetings and messages via Teams has tested the strategically cultivated business culture that business leaders worked hard to enforce in the workplace.

For the most part, employees have succeeded at remote work but at what cost? Those that have managed to retain their jobs after mass retrenchments have not emerged unscathed, with the negative effects of working in isolation perpetuating South Africa’s mental health crisis.

Research shows that employees working remotely have exerted themselves as their workloads increase and rewards are reduced, thus tipping the scale of work-life balance.

Toxic leadership and narcissism in the workplace

Claire Denham-Dyson, head anthropologist at Demographica, a full-service marketing agency posed an important question that business leaders need to ask themselves during these uncertain times:

Do the values of an organisation put a person or human being at the centre?

As we’ve seen over the years, toxic leadership and narcissism have become a reality in the world and are often rewarded in the business world. While optimistic about the future of the post-pandemic world of work, Denham-Dyson said that business culture is not human enough just yet.

How do we change business culture for the better?

Denham-Dyson related the current situation to the industrial revolution — a period when businesses realised that there were quicker, better, faster ways of delivering work.

“People were expected to become like machines in their working world. You came in, you clocked in at 08.30 and left at 17.00, you’ve done your work and you went home and, then you were allowed to be a human being. Now, I think, partly because of COVID-19, we are definitely asking the question more and the businesses who can’t authentically meet that expectation are not going to keep the talent of the future,” she explained.

Is it difficult to change culture?

“Leadership is having to be more humane, leadership is having to be more understanding,” said Zanele Luvuno, managing director at Transcend Talent Management.

Before we were thrust into the world of remote working, employees were expected to perform in their respective roles in the workplace and get things done. Now, employers are able to hear the employee’s child crying in the background and are forced to acknowledge that the woman that they are speaking to in a Zoom meeting about structuring a facility is also a mother who also needs to tend to her child’s needs.

“So, as long as we have remote working (which I think is not going away) we’re going to have this particular challenge.”

The days of unspoken boundaries are long gone

While Luvuno acknowledges that organisations are looking at new ways of working — she also points out that individuals are speaking up for themselves in terms of what they will and will not do.

“We’ve proven that when we’re not in the office, that we can get more done… people are overworked at the moment versus when they were in the office.”

“When you’re in the office, I get to work at a particular hour and I leave. When I leave, I am putting an unspoken boundary that I am no longer available… When there is no boundary in place because you know that I am sitting down at home in front of my computer the whole day, the boundary is not there, so people are working longer,” she explained.

How do businesses manage what is happening to create the kind of culture we would like?

Head of Sales: Lending at Investec for BusinessItumeleng Merafe believes that COVID-19 has been an accelerator and has proven to the business world that they can create efficiencies and build businesses remotely.

“When you give people what they need (and) when you allow people to work in a way that works for them, that actually brings on a much better working environment,” he said

Essentially, Merafe believes that COVID-19 has forced humanity into us!

“We all put on our armour in the morning, you put on your armour, you go to the building… and it’s a great equalizer because we’ve all got our armour. When you look into someone’s home, when you hear that child… you’re seeing a lot more of the person. It’s forced us to pause, reflect and think about what it is we’re building.”

“This environment has kind of said, you say the words, step up to it,” said Merafe.

Leaders are the custodians of culture

As custodians of culture, Merafe believes that leaders do not have to be the most technical people in the room — leaders are responsible for creating the space for people to bring diversity into the workplace so those people feel safe enough to have important conversations about conflict.

“It’s not about all the answers, it’s also not about trying to (sort of) manage those things. It’s around saying, we’re going to create a space that feels safe enough and opening up for people to have an ease of being… the ease of being myself within a space.”

“If all a leaders do is just hold that space, it helps facilitate this,” said Merafe.

Diversity and transformation in leadership

Diversity is a business imperative.

If leaders aren’t seeing the importance of diversity in the workplace, it talks about a lack of sustainability in their thinking about their business.

“At the end of the day, you can have diversity but if you can’t harness diversity — if you don’t know how to engage and really make the space, hold the space… then it’s just fronting,” said Denham-Dyson.

When leaders find comfort in confirmation bias and guard against the questioning of their fundamental beliefs, it becomes dangerous territory.

This article originally appeared on 702 online here.

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