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How a South African Tech company handled COVID

How a South African Tech company handled COVID

By Howard Feldman – Head of Synthesis Marketing and People

It didn’t begin with a strategy. Rather, it began with a simple understanding that if the virus were to make its way to South Africa, that it would be better if we were prepared. Whatever that meant.

What was clear to me was that if countries in the Northern Hemisphere were responding by locking down cities as an emergency response to the pandemic, in all likelihood South Africa would follow.

Synthesis has a number of “Unwritten Ground Rules” which are a reflection of the values and the culture of the company. They are not only core values but provide guidance when determining a direction in any given situation. They follow the “around here” approach. So, around here:

  • Everyone is in the loop
  • We help each other out
  • We are always learning
  • We do what we say we will do
  • We set ourselves up for success.
  • We exceed client expectations.

Whereas not every rule applies in every situation, our approach to COVID could easily be guided by a number of these values.

Our first response was to seek professional assistance in the form of Pulmonologist Physician Dr Anton Meyberg who I knew would be one of the doctors facing the virus head on. We engaged him as a consultant for the company so that we would have access to accurate information and could be guided by his expertise. He would also allow us to step away from the rumour mill and fake news.

In order to inform our team further, I asked Dr Meyberg to send a one-minute daily update on the progress of the pandemic. This was sent to the entire team. After a while I noted that our people needed more details and so we shifted format and experimented with a focused podcast which we recorded a once-off Sunday with Dr Meyberg. In this format I could pose the many questions that people had. This was so well received that for the next seven months, each Synthesis Sunday Podcast reached more and more viewers. More than a hundred thousand people have watched the podcasts to date. As a result, the podcast was picked up by ChaiFM radio and is broadcast each week on their station and has been nominated for multiple awards both in South Africa and globally. The podcast continues to run.

On a practical level, and to make sure that customer needs were met, each member of the Synthesis team was provided data and with power back-up (where needed) so that they could work from home. Even before lockdown was announced, drills were conducted to make sure that team meetings could function comfortably.

Guidance was provided to each Team Lead to encourage:

  • Daily Stand-ups
  • One on One Check ins

As part of the Synthesis Culture, each person has both a mentor and an employee advocate. They were tasked with more regular interaction with their people so that we could detect concerns around mental or emotional well-being of our people.

Internal Marketing

Internal marketing was stepped up in the form of The Care+Ona Challenges where each week competitions were held to engage with employees. A budget was allocated to prizes in the form of vouchers and giveaways and in many cases, families were encouraged to participate.

Company Virtual Quiz nights were held every 6 weeks along with virtual coffees, whisky and game nights.

As part of the initiative, the Synthesis Master Class series was launched. Semester One included courses on Communication, Bird Watching, Pizza Making, Comedy to Curb Anxiety and Mindfulness.

External Webinars

Sensitive to the concern that the lockdown had resulted in a shrinking of worlds, we took the opportunity to host a number of webinars that addressed various themes. The seven events covered topics like “Born in Adversity” where we gained a personal perspective from South Africans who had faced hardship and who managed to succeed, as well as in-depth conversation about fake news and COVID with well-known South African Journalists.

The seven webinars attracted thousands of viewers.

The Human Library

With a staff compliment of around 140 people, with COVID having forced people to work remotely, our research kept indicating that people have been feeling isolated and disconnected

As a further effort to encourage our people to talk to each other, Synthesis launched the Human Library. The idea was simply to create a virtual library. Only instead of “taking out” a book, you take out a person who is an employee of Synthesis. Instead of reading a novel or a reference book, people get to spend 30 min with the “book” they have chosen and hear their personal story or thoughts directly from them.

People were asked to write their own blurb. This meant taking the time to consider what it was that they wanted to share with other members of the team. Was it their story, was its expertise in an area of work, a hobby or was it an idea that they believed was worth hearing? It is not as simple as it simple as it seems as so many of us lack the confidence and self-esteem to think that we have something worth imparting. The program, aside from connecting people to each other has the benefit of sending the message that each of us does indeed have a story or some wisdom and more than that, that there are people around us who are intrigued and are drawn to hear more.

Pulse as a Measure

Pulse is an internally developed quick reference system to gauge the feeling and responses of the team. Staff are sent a “Check Up” each week and in less than 30 seconds click on an emoji that best reflects their mood. They are asked if they are better, worse or the same as last week. Pulse was conceived, according to Synthesis Director Tom Wells as a way to “help us to gauge any trends that may be surfacing within our team, but also to allow us to pick up on any anomalies within individuals or teams, which can then be actioned through the most appropriate channel.”

As Head of People, I will receive the results for the whole company and I will be able to see not only who is struggling, but who is thriving, but also how we are doing week on week. The system provides me with insight into how people are coping, where the pressure points might be and where to focus.

Although the “Pulse” initiative was started before COVID-19 was imaginable, it is during this time where it has become invaluable to Synthesis as a company. There is little doubt that one of the unintended consequences of the Lockdown and of remote working, is the mental and emotional health of employees. A major concern across industries is the possibility of a mental health crisis following the pandemic.

A Return to the Office

Whereas lockdown presents very specific challenges, so too does a partial return to the office. We began by working with Dr Meyberg to make sure that all safety protocols were set in place. These included not only legislated regulations but practical and additional measures as well.

Despite that, and even with the country moving to a lower level, we noted a reluctance for our people to take the big step.

And so, with lunch and prizes thrown in for good measure, each team was invited to a team building game at the office. This serves to assist in overcoming the fear and the anxiety that many are feeling at this time.

Although office attendance (versus work from home) is still low, we are closely monitoring the country’s level before making any changes.

A successful handling of COVID required agility, flexibility and creativity. It also required courage of leadership to allow teams to experiment, fail and regroup. When I look back at the madness of the year that was, whereas there might have been things we could have done differently, I am deeply grateful to our marketing team, our people, Managing Director Michael Shapiro, and everyone who not only allowed some of the ridiculous ideas to fly, but who in helped to push them off the cliff just to see if they would.

There was nothing pedestrian about 2020. It was a year that took the world by surprise and that challenged us on every level. I am proud of the work that we did, proud of the agility and resilience that our team displayed and more than anything proud that we lived up to our own aspirations. Mostly, I am proud that around here, we help each other out.

How a South African Tech company handled COVID