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What companies must do during COVID-19 lockdown – Parker

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Tamara Parker , the CEO of Mercer South Africa

Tamara Parker is the CEO of Mercer South Africa. In a career spanning over 25 years, Tamara has established herself as a Human Capital Strategist with experience at executive and management levels engaging with clients in the public and private sectors.

Prior to joining Mercer, Tamara was the Human Capital Strategy Executive at Consolidated Infrastructure Group with operations in Africa and the Middle East.

Through her leadership and strategic direction, Tamara delivered change innovation projects, performance management and leadership development programmes among other HR strategies.

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In this interview with Marcel Mbamalu, she explains what African organisations must do to survive the current COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Mercer study on COVID-19 says 51 percent of companies are unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. Can you explain?
Globally, it is closer to 60 per cent as of 23 April 2020. So, 60 per cent of organizations have a business continuity program in place. In Africa, of the companies that participated in the Mercer Covid-19 study, 66.29% are implementing a business continuity plan in all their locations edging ahead of their global counterparts.

It’s a slightly higher percentage of all organisations, which do have a business continuity plan. I would imagine that this is not the first time we’ve been faced with a pandemic especially for companies in West Africa dealing with Ebola and all of us having to deal with HIV/AIDS. So, I think there is a slightly higher number of organizations which do have a business continuity plan, in whatever form, on the continent.

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How would you describe responses by companies over the period, especially in West Africa?
While we may not have specific data in West Africa, we have observed and continue to observe that companies are responding according to their country’s guidelines. As you know, each country has responded differently to the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s either a local or complete lockdown to flatten the curve, as guided by their respective Ministry of Health in line with the World Health Organisation’s recommendations. Nigeria has implemented a local lockdown while Ghana had implemented a national one, until recently. So far, we’ve seen the most aggressive responses from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and the entire East continent, except maybe Tanzania, where companies have closed down completely and employees are working from home.

Whatever the measures, all countries agree that physical distancing is important. By the way, we tend to use the term ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’. The difference between the two is that physical distancing means you keep away from each other yet still a social connection to each other on the phone.

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I think it’s also important to note that Covid-19 has impacted each industry differently. There are essential goods, which every country still requires so the supply chains are still working. Most places on the continent, manufacturing facilities are open. Mining operations in South Africa at the very least are still open and it’s businesses where there is a possibility of working from home, which have closed down completely their physical offices and people are working remotely.

Nigeria’s lockdowns in Lagos, Abuja, Ogun and other areas meant that some companies were operating remotely. How soon do you see things getting back to normal for businesses? Do you also see a situation of job losses? How can companies manage this?
Normal. We can certainly expect a new normal. Suffice to say, how we respond to the pandemic will determine our new normal. As business leaders, this is the time to lead with agility and act with empathy. That is, equip your employees with skills that your business will require for the future. If anything, Covid-19 is accelerating some of the transformation that is already in action, such digitisation. What action to take, you may ask? Identify critical skills shortages in line with your business aspirations. Build the required skills through learning and develop the talent you will need in the future. With online learning available and at times discounted or free of charge, depending on the level, the time is now to skilling.

If we look at China, it took them 8 weeks between the first lockdown and now, very slowly, starting to go back to work. But they had things in place that allowed for that. First of all, the lockdown was very severe and they were able to keep people locked up in their apartment. Secondly, they had huge reach in terms of testing and so they were able to keep things under control, and now they’re starting to get back into full economic life. But if we look at Singapore for example which also had a pretty stringent lockdown, they were locked down and stayed away for about 6 weeks and then they started coming back and the cases started to spike all over again, because they weren’t quite passed it.

So, we’re all aware that COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease but it doesn’t need to have a high mortality rate. In South Africa, in particular, we have a high HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, significant levels of poverty, malnutrition, and I think with any of those underlined conditions, we’re not really sure what the impact of COVID-19 will be. And I understand that businesses are saying “Yes, but you’re killing the economy, you’re killing off our ability to make money” and this will have impact going forward. We are already seeing warning signs in the US of a quite deep recession, which could last for the remainder of this year. Those are all the things we do know.

I think we all remember that the last 90s and the early 2000s, when we were dealing with the impact of HIV/AIDS, before the introducing of ARVs where a large number of our working population were sick and dying. I remember discussing strategies and how we’re going to move forward when a number of our working population is ill and I think we need to remember those lessons when we talk about COVID-19. The most important thing is to keep it under control and the quicker you can do that, the harsher the lockdown, and the ability to control it, I think the easier it will be to go back to work with a shorter impact of economic instability.

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In terms of what will happen going forward, we’re seeing that there’s been some organizations, Marsh and McLennan being one of them, which Mercer falls under, have guaranteed employment during the pandemic to all 76,000 employees. The same is true for a couple of big banks in the US. But we cannot be naïve around the financial impact and what organizations are going to have to go through. A drop in revenue means people are going to start looking at expenses and that means taking a head count. What we do know from the 2008 financial recession is that organizations that had a talent management strategy for the next phase were faster out of the gates than their competitors were. In fact, they pulled away faster.

Therefore, what we’re trying to say to organisations right now is that some people have a kneejerk reaction and they cut indiscriminately – staff and costs – without realizing what the impact could be further down the line. And so, we encourage organizations to think about time – in six weeks, eight weeks, twelve weeks’ time, what would you wish you had done during this period? What would launch you ahead of your competition when this is all over? And be very measured and strategic around the moves that you make during this time. The time is now – let’s use it wisely.

In terms of physical distancing, how can companies, requiring physical presence to function, navigate things?
I think there are a couple of things. First of all, you have to be able to keep environments clean and sanitized on a regular basis. Offices should be physically clean and sterilized.

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There are essential services that need to continue. While we understand that services are essential, as management of organizations, we need to ensure that premises we’re expecting people to work in are physically safe. We can attest to this as the Mercer COVID-19 study shows that 84.09% of participating companies in Africa have enhanced cleaning and sanitizing efforts across facilities.
The health and wellbeing of employees are of the utmost importance.

What is your advice for Nigerian companies as they wait for things to return to normal?
My advice to business leaders is, prepare for a new tomorrow and rethink your strategies and role in the greater scheme of things. In times of unprecedented chaos, people search for meaning, for purpose. Keep close to employees as much as possible. Listen and then act with empathy. Emotional wellbeing is one of the most important things we need to do for our employees during this difficult time. Check in on your employees to understand how they’re feeling and that they have the means to do their work. This is also an opportunity to invest in your talent through skilling so that you get out in front of the Covid-19 crisis. We are an innovative people – it is possible.

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