COVID-19: The New Normal for the Workplace
- By Mr Neville Chinniah, Dr Simon Taylor and Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches
The COVID-19 pandemic has become an international disaster for world governments, and global economies and institutions (Agarwal, Punn, Sonbhadra, Nagabhushan, Pandian, and Saxena, 2020; Tedros, 2020).
COVID-19 has impacted the world adversely and has forced many countries to action national shutdowns (Abbey, Adu-Danso, and Aryeetey, 2020).
The disruption due to the coronavirus has been unprecedented and inevitable throughout the world. This has proven to be very challenging for the leadership of organisations across the globe and they have had to adapt and transform to ensure their survival. Social distancing measures have had to be enforced in places of employment and trade (Hamilton, 2020).
The aim of the lockdown in South Africa was to “flatten the curve” - reduce the spread of the pandemic, however, the lockdown has also resulted in numerous other adverse impacts socially, economically and holistically for the country and the world at large (MacArthur, 2020).
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) have been prevalent in Industry 4.0 (i4.0), which refers to the digital technological transformation that South Africans are still in the process of conceptualising and embracing. COVID-19 has brought about disruption that has demanded instant adaptation and paradigm shift. This has impacted the way people feel, to varying degrees of discomfort, which has resulted in resistance to these changes and fear of what lies ahead even though people are not quite sure what the future holds.
In ensuring the safety of their employees and to minimise the spread of COVID-19, companies had to close, and where it was practical for people to work from home, this arrangement was applied (Hamilton, 2020). On returning to work, workstations had to be rearranged. This was done in adherence with the recommended safe working distance of two metres apart. In addition, the use of personal protective equipment such as gloves has been enforced, where applicable as well as the use of hand sanitisers (Hamilton, 2020).
There is a worldwide challenge with supply due to the excessive demand for what has become essential protection for people against the virus, such as masks and gloves, and also hand sanitisers, ventilators and testing kits. Exporting of these essentials has been adversely affected as internal demand has constrained the supply of export demand.
Africa, which is largely reliant on imports, has a huge backlog of supply due to COVID-19 (Abbey et al., 2020). Frequent touch points and contact areas have to be more frequently sanitised and good hygiene practices have had to increase immensely. Virtual workstations at home have become more acceptable and more practical, and organisations have had to adapt very quickly to ensure business continuity and productivity in this disruptive era. The information flow is critical to keep people abreast of changes and action plans for the future (Hamilton, 2020).
Adapting to the “new normal” is indeed overwhelming as people adjust to taking on other responsibilities that have been brought about by the global disruption experienced due to COVID-19. One such disruption has been the enforcement of virtual work environments, a situation where those who could work from home had to do so and had no choice but to adapt. People have had to rely on their ability to transform and adapt to these unprecedented changes and disturbances. The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused disruptions which have impacted people’s emotions and their emotional balance (Abdel-Fattah, 2020). The economic impact the world will have to endure or sustain post this pandemic is unknown. The pandemic has interrupted global markets and has brought with it a test of emotional resilience and stability. The ability to survive the aftermath of the pandemic will not be based on strength or intelligence, but will instead be determined by one’s ability to adapt to changes (Abdel-Fattah, 2020).
In addition, COVID-19 has impacted the supply chain network. Work streams, environments and the workforce had to be remodelled to comply with: minimal physical contact, commonly referred to as social distancing; restriction of movement within departments; assisting with contact tracing if there is a suspected or positive COVID-19 case; reduced labour on delivery vehicles to comply with the minimum distance between people, and work from home for support services. Essential services had to continue with operations during the period of the lockdown, hence the supply chain fraternity had to transform very quickly without adequate deliberation on strategic directional adaptation of the “new normal” way of day-to-day business activities and the implications thereof. Companies were required to have their COVID-19 operational readiness plans engineered and communicated across the business to the workforce, and the logistics sector also had to comply with the COVID-19 regulations and procedures at the customers’ premises they supply and deliver to.
These disruptions have resulted in a “new normal” way of businesses executing their functions, which they have adapted to despite the challenges faced. Digital technology has proven to be an integral part of the transformation journey since the inception of lockdown. People working remotely and the subsequent convenience of reduced travel time have resulted in significant uptake of virtual meetings through the different digital platforms available. Although physically apart, people are more frequently in contact, and there is increased productivity from the levels of work that are conducted from home, as reduced travel time is accumulated into a productive contribution. People are thus indeed leveraging the capabilities of digital technology.
Given the financial impact of COVID-19 compliance measures related to operational readiness and supply of personal protective equipment, companies need to consider working remotely from home as a strategic plan for the future. This form of work results in benefits pertaining to the reduced costs for office space, onsite parking space, canteen facilities, and meeting offices, which will contribute to economic benefits and maximise storage space for products. Further financial benefits will emanate from arrangements such as virtual meetings for conferences, for regular meetings of different stakeholders from different geographies, and for organised labour, as a result of reduced travel and accommodation expenditure. According to the President of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, the current unprecedented times that have resulted due to COVID-19 have exposed the manufacturing network of food, processes and supply chain to its vulnerabilities (Houngbo, 2020).
New skill sets need to be developed to ensure both effective leadership as well as the ability to follow this leadership. Collaborative engagement is crucial so that teams are able to successfully navigate the challenges that will inevitably arise due to the disruptions brought about by the measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19.
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Abdel-Fattah, H. M. M (2020). Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Stability in Crises. Journal of Psychiatry and Psychiatric Disorders, 4(2): 56-62.
Agarwal, S., Punn, N. S., Sonbhadra, S. K., Nagabhushan, P., Pandian, K., & Saxena, P. (2020). Unleashing the power of disruptive and emerging technologies amid COVID 2019: A detailed review.
Hamilton, J. (2020). How to Manage Workplace Disruption During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Available at https://www.immoafrica.net/news/manage-workplace-disruption-during-covid-19-pandemic/
Houngbo, G. F. (2020). What’s needed to protect food security in Africa during COVID-19. Available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/what-s-needed-to-protect-food-security-during-covid-19/
MacArthur, B. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic. Available at https://clms.ukzn.ac.za/thought-leadership-series/
Tedros, A. G. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19): Quick Reference Guide. Available at https://www.customguide.com/cheat-sheet/coronavirus-quick-reference.pdf
UKZN MBA graduate Mr Neville Chinniah is National Logistics Manager for Pioneer Foods; Dr Simon Taylor is Project Manager at UKZN’s Regional and Local Economic Development Initiative; and Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an associate professor at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership.