South Africa has experienced a unique set of challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. The impact has been felt across our communities, our employees and their families. As the country takes its first steps out of lockdown, we asked Cathy Kalamaras, People Director for South Africa, some tough questions on how Webhelp’s people have responded and what the future holds.

As a People Director, what have been (and are) the main challenges for Webhelp South Africa in responding to COVID-19?

Being a people first company really defines Webhelp South Africa, so our immediate concern was putting our people’s health, safety and well-being first, whilst executing the government’s guidelines to a tee.

Communication & engagement

Initially, communication and engagement was a challenge for us, and we had to vary our channels to reach all our employees; those working from home (WFH), those not working at all and those working onsite on essential services. Instant messaging proved to be an effective medium for reaching a large audience quickly and effectively.

A comprehensive communication strategy was critical to keeping our colleagues safe (many of whom had never experienced WFH), and there was a need for awareness in people’s families and home communities, so campaigns were translated into several languages.

Moving at pace, we urgently needed to make sure our people understood the real practicalities and challenges around WFH. These included; how to separate working life in a home/family environment, good dietary habits and sleep patterns (very important for shift workers), establishing the right work-life balance and how to switch off at the end of a shift.

We also delivered education and support on finance, resilience, domestic & gender-based violence, mental health and wellbeing.

Government guidelines, adoption, education and policies

Keenly monitoring and reacting to changing government directives was (and still is) absolutely critical, and (alongside a collaborative approach with all functional departments) was also key to the execution of changing remuneration models; as was introducing clear and updated policies to cover remote location, home and onsite working.

Additionally, as a third party partner delivers a medical aid and employee assistance programme, they had to be quickly brought in line with the WFH solution, both informing and assisting with virtual counselling and support.

Finally, a leadership training and education initiative was rolled out, covering regulatory changes and best practice for remote management, new mind-sets for WFH, holding remote team and one on one meetings and the importance of monitoring team health and well-being.

How has the workforce transformed under this ‘new normal’ and how have these changes affected our advisors?

Understandably, there was a universal period of shock and adjustment, but our people have faced individual challenges, like social distancing and maintaining both personal and working relationships, working from home with a lack of childcare and adaptation on site/remote locations to rigorous safety protocols. However, supported by strong communication, our people have adapted well to the ‘new normal’.

We learned that, as changing safety protocols can be daunting, messages needed to be clear and repeated, until we were absolutely sure they had landed and were being enacted.

This helped establish a level of clarity and trust, to remove uncertainty – which was key in reaching our people and creating grass-roots behavioural change.

What surprised and impressed you most about the response from our people during this time?

  1. Their incredible resilience and positivity in the face of crisis.
    Feedback has been that, whilst this was difficult at first, the vast majority of our people continue to be enthusiastic and committed to their employment, and thankful that their economic security has been maintained. They have been undaunted by the changes, and for some the switch to working from home often under challenging social conditions.
  1. Their willingness to go the extra mile, even under pressure
    Colleagues have been really adaptable and focused on getting the job done. Maintaining a can-do attitude and often putting in extra time on their own without being asked. They have maintained excellent commitment to performance for our clients both individually and in campaigns.
  2. The rise in team spirit and the feeling that we are in it together!
    To prevent some of our employees from becoming isolated, managers have driven a lot of fun activities to keep motivation and engagement high. Our people have really embraced this and have been working together to maintain morale, keep connected and raise team spirit under these difficult circumstances.


How do you foresee the way forwards for human resources in our industry in South Africa, and what advice would you like to share with other industry leaders?

We now have solid proof that homeworking, from a people perspective, is extremely viable in South Africa. I believe that, by building the right policies, practices and processes for working from home, we can revolutionise the solutions offered to future and current clients and colleagues.

As we move out of lockdown, the lessons learned here can help the industry in several ways:

The industry can now confidently access a broader, fresh talent pool.

Employment diversity could improve, as our capacity to hire disabled candidates has now increased, as could the use of different staffing models, with increased flexibly and a wider pool of wider remote working for provinces that are distanced from operational hubs (holiday/permanent basis).

Although some of our home workers will gradually return to office working, the focus on virtual and interactive engagement and learning models will increase and we are also likely to see a switch to more online performance management and coaching.

However, businesses must continue to transform and mature the employer and employee relationship, remain flexible on staffing, continue to minimise unnecessary red tape and be open to new possibilities.  This agility must extend to decision making and leadership. It’s important to upskill your people and create consensus, rather than let crisis management rest on the shoulders of the few.

Finally, I can’t stress this enough, don’t assume the message lands first time round, especially under crisis situations. The right communication is key, so really consider your audience and use the channels and ideas that work for them, not just the company.

Find out more about our stance on the COVID-19 crisis, and read CEO David Turner’s thoughts on how this challenge will create a radical shift in the future of homeworking.