Shaking up the workplace in a matter of days

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The shift to digital ways of working and collaborating has been a major success.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown the business world that it is possible to completely overhaul the way we do things in a matter of weeks or even days.

When the severity of the pandemic became more evident and South Africa announced a national lockdown in March – the president gave the nation a few days to prepare itself – our immediate priority was to ensure the safety and wellbeing of employees and customers.

This was a time for us to focus intensely on our purpose – driving Africa’s growth while uplifting and protecting her people. As we prepared for the new world we were about to enter, we held daily meetings with the group’s top executives to chart the way forward.

First and foremost, we had to ensure that we looked after our clients as a designated essential services provider. Finding ways to assist them became a top priority. We also immediately implemented measures to get as many Standard Bankers as possible to work from home, and to ensure that they had the resources needed to do so effectively.

As part of our preparations, we put measures in place to allow employees to report COVID-19 infections – both affecting themselves and their contacts – so that we could track the spread of the virus and contribute to containment efforts. And we launched a dedicated COVID-19 app and portal to keep our people informed.

As we scaled up our remote work capacity, office-based employees were the first to shift to working from home, followed by call-centre staff and then branch employees who do not interact directly with customers.

We also identified those customer-facing branch employees who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. To limit their exposure to the virus, they were granted permission to work from home or take special leave. For staff on the frontline, we provided access to personal protective equipment and sanitiser to keep them safe, among numerous other measures.

New ways of working

Within a short space of time, more than 75% of our staff were working from home – and this remains the status quo well into the second half of 2020.

Given the critical role that our IT teams were playing in enabling the shift to remote work, we froze any changes to our technology systems and made sure that funding was made available for timeous and expedited investments in systems and partnerships.

We had to scale up our remote work capacity by providing employees with remote access technologies, laptops and connectivity devices.

For one of Africa’s largest corporates, getting this right in a matter of days is no mean feat. Prior to the pandemic, we had provided around 6,000 data devices to employees. Now, about 23,000 employees have them.

And given the need for teams to remain connected, we also needed to expand our access to collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans.

Before the crisis, we held roughly 30 BlueJeans meetings a month, versus 900 nowadays. And employees now hold about 500,000 Microsoft Teams meetings a month, compared to just 20 000 before.

In fact, we have become so well versed in digital meetings that we have even hosted large-scale investor conferences online via our partnership with Microsoft, including the Africa Investors’ Conference. Encouragingly, participation was better than in previous years, when the event was held in person.

We have conducted the Standard Bank Group Annual General Meeting (AGM), all board and Executive Committee meetings online, and even hosted South Africa’s finance minister, Tito Mboweni, on a virtual panel discussion with our clients and employees.

Looking forward

Meanwhile, the bank recognised that while working from home brought certain benefits to employees – for instance, spending more time with family and less time commuting – it is not without its challenges.

Many households are not equipped for extended periods of remote work. So, where possible, we provided employees with decent office chairs and desks to make the shift easier and their workdays more comfortable.

Since we now know that working from home on a large scale is not only possible but can even enhance productivity and employee satisfaction, we are preparing for the possibility of a permanent shift in the way that we work – this could entail a combination of working from home and from the office.

However, we are cognisant of the fact that remote work is not suited to all households. Some employees might not have an environment that is conducive to it. For this reason, we will ensure that we remain sensitive to individual employee preferences and needs as we map the way forward.

Overall, the shift to digital ways of working and collaborating has been a huge success. Standard Bank has accelerated its digitisation and client-centricity drive, and we have reimagined the workplace. Like other industries, the banking sector may well have advanced five years in its digitisation journey in the space of just a few months.

The writer is the Chief Information Officer at Standard Bank South Africa

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