Hybrid work – can South African businesses get over the culture shock?

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Leading provider of end-to-end digital services and solutions Obsidian Systems relates its own experience.

Businesses in South Africa can debate the pros and cons of the hybrid work model all they like, but the fundamental truth is that COVID-19 has changed the rules, and now skilled workers are in a strong position to influence the employer/ employee environment to ultimately transcend the traditional company culture.

This is an ongoing debate and one that Obsidian Systems, a leading provider of end-to-end digital services and solutions, is familiar with.

Wilhelm Strydom, Operations Sales Administrator at Obsidian Systems, said that two years before the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the company experienced a flood at its offices and was forced to consider remote working as a viable alternative.

“It caused our office to be unavailable for about six months, and we had to deal with this question of ‘what do we do now?’…  at that stage, the concept of remote work was already creeping into the conversation, but it wasn’t as predominant as it was when COVID-19 hit. So, we had a bit of an exercise in having to work remotely and at that stage, because it was capped at about six months or so, it was a relatively successful exercise. It taught us that under certain conditions, remote work is a possibility… it’s not always the ultimate killer of productivity that everyone feared that it would be.”

Strydom said what Obsidian has found is that two years into a post-COVID-19 environment (as well as another couple of years after the company’s first unwilling exercise in remote work), is that (the situation) continues to evolve and the answers that people thought they had in terms of ‘oh remote work will solve the thing of people needing to isolate’ is not the case.”

“Now if you look back at what even the big corporations in Silicon Valley, your Googles and all those people, what they thought was going to be a working model and what they are implementing at this stage are vastly different models – even of hybrid work. And yes, it has created an environment where for the moment, skilled resources are king. They have the power in their hands and can often dictate the environment in which they work and its left HR and recruitment in a bit of a difficult situation when they are looking for somebody whose role dictates that they have to be available in person or in specific places.”

Strydom explained that in the past the focus was on the tech people providing solutions from a tech perspective. However, it bypassed the HR/ human element and now this aspect has come to the fore and now represents a conundrum for businesses.

“There is a bit of a crisis in terms of how you express a company culture in a remote environment, especially in a fully remote environment.  Most places have gone for a hybrid model, however in many cases, that hybrid model – as far as the employees are concerned – is no different from a fully remote one.”

Strydom makes the point that being at the office is not necessarily a social thing or just a human interaction thing. “It is actually a very effective work environment, it is the best place and the best time to have certain levels of interaction, and the higher up in management you get,, the more apparent that becomes – that the human element is neglected often by an over reliance on technology to kind of make up for that.”

Impact on company culture

Catherine Muller, HR Manager at Obsidian Systems, said as an IT company, with the benefit of this experience, it was seamless to continue operating – at least from a technical point of view.

“But I am finding later down the line, it is definitely impacting company culture now. Culture is people and when people are not brought together, you cannot maintain that culture. So that is something we are trying very hard to adjust to, because we know that we are not going to maintain the culture we have, but we still want to instil those core values that are important to us and bring it with the culture and create events or scenarios where we can be flexible around it, but still maintain it to some degree.”

Muller says Obsidian Systems is now intensifying its focus on employee wellbeing and so far it is clear that people are mentally exhausted from relentless stress. “My personal opinion is that remote first is an ideal that sounds great on paper, works better than we expected it to, but it is not the be all and end all. And we need to figure out, as HR, how we can incorporate the employee back into the company and the connection, the personal connection that we have with the employee.”

To this end Obsidian is creating more wellbeing channels, inviting guest speakers to talk about personal aspects and intensify personal interaction.

“So it’s a bit of trial and error… the thing is to try to be as quick and flexible and agile as possible to make sure that the work continues seamlessly, but the focus is very much still on the employees, how are they doing, because we are losing the connection.”

Technology solutions

Obsidian is heavily involved in using collaboration tools and technology, and fortunately implemented these long before COVID-19 arrived. This has stood the company in good stead in its approach to HR management.

Strydom explains, “In terms of implementing those technologies, the most difficult part is picking one and sticking with it… because there’s always a brighter, newer option… every two months there’s something that from a tech perspective, gets everyone excited. But from a continuity perspective, it is a disruptor every time you move off to something and try something new. It is specifically that concept of stability that you have in the tools that you use that contributes to a culture.”

While technology will play a role going forward,  as far as tech companies like Obsidian are concerned there is a need for HR to consider a range of factors – including empathy, trust, loyalty, values, personal success and recognition – and take these a lot more seriously than may have been the case in the past.

Looking ahead, in today’s business culture (or the ‘personality of a company based on its people’) genuine empathy and respect for the value that individuals bring to the organisation will be far more critical.