Q&A with CCBSA MD Velaphi Ratshefola: Reflection on riding the Covid 19 lock-down wave

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28 January 2021 – Managing hundreds of employees remotely has been a pressing dilemma for large corporations looking to maintain their productivity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa managing director Velaphi Ratshefola shares some of the lessons learned in keeping people inspired, motivated and performing at their best while putting their wellbeing first.

Q: How were your staff members affected by the lockdowns?

Like many companies and institutions, CCBSA employees were truly tested in 2020. Companies face different challenges but nothing like this pandemic. While we were on our way to returning to profitability the pandemic hit, and the strain on our people was felt across the organisation, and mainly due to uncertainty. So as leadership, we had to work hard to bring back a semblance of normalcy and certainly by making quick decisions and communicating honestly, effectively and consistently.

With the onset of the pandemic, a portion of our workforce that was able to, was asked to work from home. This was largely office-bound personnel, as the nature of their work allowed them to be productive while not on location. However, with CCBSA designated as an essential service, our onsite staff, which make up a high percentage of our total workforce, were required to report for duty at our various sites, depots and warehouse operations. In either context, the pandemic added a significant stressor onto people’s lives and exacerbated the uncertainty they were already struggling with.

Q: What was your biggest people management challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic?

With the inability of teammates to meet face-to-face for an extended period, we had to rapidly start getting used to technology like never before. We made sure that those who needed devices received the appropriate equipment for their work, including access to data and any other tools of trade  they might need.

The lockdown took away the ability to engage directly and spontaneously with each other, something I must admit, many took for granted. By adding the layer of technology in all our engagements, we missed nuances from personal contact that can’t be replicated. So we had to ensure constant contact to ensure we remained engaged and connected.

Also, with people working from home, we were acutely aware of the risk of people being unable to delineate between their work time and personal lives, further adding to their stress levels.

Q: How did the approach to leadership change during the pandemic?

We, as the CCBSA leadership team, had to be very creative when it came to our meetings, as we needed to give our colleagues more inspiration and motivation than ever before.

While we have always advanced a supportive leadership approach, the unprecedented conditions we found ourselves in put this to the ultimate test. While urging staff members to maintain the highest level of productivity, we strongly emphasised the importance of self-care, emotional well-being and time management, to ensure that people allowed themselves to practice healthy habits and achieve balance in their lives.

Q: What alternative strategies did you use to get the most out of people while most were working remotely?

In 2018, we established Women@CCBSA and in 2019, we launched CCBSA Men of Honour. Women@CCBSA is a staff-led forum that serves as a network where women in the company connect with each other and access resources to advance their careers and have a meaningful work-life balance.

Through this remarkable programme, the ladies facilitate and run sessions made up of between 20 to 30 women per session. Common issues, like being a working mother, finding one’s voice and more distressing issues, such as violence and harassment, are confronted.

Likewise, CCBSA Men of Honour is a call-to-action for men to start looking within themselves in a meaningful way on the key issues including gender-based violence that South Africa faces. We kicked off with monthly group sessions hosted nationally, with groups of around 70 people in each session and discussing issues that range from work challenges, home pressures, parenting, and personal emotional health.

In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, these programmes proved vital to ensuring the mental and emotional health and wellbeing of our team members and providing the support they needed to make it through this difficult period.

Q: How was emotional wellness fostered to manage the increasingly stressful conditions?

Through our Phofula Wellness support programme, we have offered mental health, self-care, financial management, domestic violence and addiction support through a comprehensive counselling programme.

A dedicated helpline is available for all employees struggling to cope with the many pressures of having to juggle working from home, while taking care of children, as well as the isolation of lockdown. The helpline is also available for our employees’ families.

Some people coped well, using the time to bond with their families and develop themselves. Others faced challenges and general anxiety around the economic and social turmoil that we have all been plunged into.

Through Phofula and our leadership and line managers being much more close and engaged with their teams, we were able to identify and manage challenges sooner and deployed the necessary support measures to help them through.

Q: How has the organisational culture changed in the year?

Our culture, at its core, is driven by the fundamental belief that people are at the centre of all we do. 2020 helped us amplify this belief and I believe we will continue like this into the future. We also ensured that our vision, to refresh Africa every day and make our continent a better place for all found expression in what we did – we recorded the highest score for customer service and customer loyalty since our company was started in 2016. This talks to single mindedness, visionary leadership displayed by our leadership team and the commitment and passion of our people.

We have also had to invest in our people’s safety and wellbeing by adapting our environment quickly. Without health, you have no life. So, every effort and investments were made to ensure our people in manufacturing, logistics and commercial or sales in particular, were protected. This meant allowing those who can, to work from home, while we provide a comprehensive hygiene and sanitation protocols for those working onsite. These protocols included the mandatory use of PPE, regular daily screening, insisting that those who have been at risk of exposure, test and isolate as required to treat themselves and protect others. Agility, flexibility and responding quickly to challenges became the order of the day. And our employees needed to know that as leadership, we are available to talk throughout.

Q: What has been the biggest lesson in terms of people management in 2020?

The events of this year have demonstrated clearly that one cannot take anything for granted. In a fast-changing, unpredictable and uncertain world, you cannot afford to stay the same. Any organisation looking to thrive notwithstanding the challenges needs to learn to be agile, flexible and give vision and hope to its employees. For instance, our recruitment efforts had to continue, which meant that we had to develop intelligent methods to support people who started their new jobs virtually under lockdown. By the time some met their team members in person, they had already contributed significantly, thanks to a strong focus on regular engagement, helping our colleagues manage their work, as well as the company providing support to help them deal with their personal and work challenges. I am proud of what we have been able to achieve as an organisation and the new normal will include gems that we have learnt during 2020.

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