Shaping the modern workplace - Just SA strikes a balance
After more than a year of lockdown and imposed remote working, a shift in employee and employer expectations has many South African businesses rethinking the traditional workplace.
A company to embrace this change is Cape Town-based retirement income specialist Just SA. Its flexible and forward-thinking work culture meant that even before the pandemic, the 50-something employees already had the choice to work a few days per week from home. According to Marketing Manager Michelle Dodd, employees have been entrusted with the freedom, responsibility and accountability that comes with remote working since inception, which made it relatively simple to transition to remote working indefinitely when lockdown was first implemented in March 2020.
“We were fortunate to have the necessary sharing applications and IT infrastructure in place,” she says “and although it was a difficult period, thankfully our staff’s commitment and work performance was not impacted.” On the contrary, staff performed exceptionally, and the company had a stellar 2020, as people approaching retirement sought out the certainty offered by life annuities.
As South Africa’s vaccination programme gathers speed, Michelle says that Just SA will continue to operate remotely until staff have been vaccinated.
“Our philosophy is that we should be able to work effectively wherever we are, and at a time when we are most productive.” Just SA does recognise the importance of having a physical presence where employees can go in the event of home renovations or other unexpected circumstances. For this reason, in July 2021 its head office relocated to a co-working space in the V&A Waterfront, which is closer to business partners and a convenient space for face-to-face collaboration.“
But going remote is not without its challenges. In order to fully evolve to a virtual working environment, there are operational practices that need to be reconciled or reset, while maintaining staff motivation and engagement.
Lockdown has given Just SA ample time to experiment, and although Michelle admits there is still more to learn, she offers three top takeaways that have enabled Just SA to elevate its performance at a time when so many other businesses have struggled to adapt.
While approximately 60% of South Africans have internet access, those with access to home Wi-Fi sits at a meagre 9.5%. To mitigate this digital risk, Just SA provide a set monthly contribution towards Wi-Fi costs for full-time employees. Moreover, to reduce the business impact brought on by loadshedding, the firm supplied employees with UPS devices at the start of lockdown which enabled them to at least power their Wi-Fi router during outages.
With the digital aspect covered, another key priority was to continue regular, proactive business communication between staff and management. Monday morning in-person staff meetings went virtual, giving department heads the opportunity to provide regular updates. All regular meetings moved online.
According to Michelle, “even with Just SA’s original open plan office and nonhierarchical structure, online messaging platforms make it that much easier for employees to contribute and be recognised by their peers. Faster decision making and frictionless information flows are other positive impacts of online working that ultimately lead to quicker actions and more efficient business processes.”
On the client side, working in an insurance business which is traditionally perceived as paper-heavy meant that some tweaks were required to the way business is conducted. New digital practices, such as electronic signatures, were integrated to improve the ease of doing business online between Just SA and its partners, which includes investment managers and independent financial planning firms. This task was also crucial to ensure the safety of Just SA’s policyholders, typically persons in or approaching retirement and thus of higher COVID risk.
Keeping employees happy and engaged is one of the more difficult aspects of remote working. For this reason, Just SA’s Management Committee launched several online initiatives to foster their culture of adaptability and encourage staff to continue to interact with each other on a more social level.
Working online has also enabled employees to foster and enhance their work relationships, says Michelle. “Work-life balance is not how we remember it. Remote working provides deeper insight into people’s lives outside the office as we interact with each other from inside our own homes. It has also afforded many a level of empathy – from managers and peers alike – as we have all adapted to a new, integrated world of work and home life.”
No turning back
Dodd strongly believes that adaptability is an essential ingredient needed to transition successfully from a traditional to virtual work environment. “At Just, there is a clear alignment between how we behave as a business and the products we create, which are also innovative and forward-thinking. Remote working provides the opportunity to increase the quality of life for employees while decreasing operating costs and driving growth.”