HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic: Insights from a South African organization

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Chapter And Authors Information
HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic: Insights from a South African organization
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Prof. Bhavna Mehta


This chapter aimed at providing insights about Human Resource (HR) practices COVID-19 pandemic in South African organisation. We started this investigation, by reading international journals and books so that we can get an idea of what has been researched before. We established that similar studies have not been extensively conducted in South Africa, and we envisaged that through the chapter we will contribute to the HR body of knowledge. Through the literature, we developed four major questions, and we approached an experienced HR director so that we get his lived experiences about HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis. Based on the interviews, some of the HR practices were that the organisation adopted digital talent management acquisition, and retrenched employees because of the termination of some of the contracts it had with customers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These HR practices also included talent acquisition and development processes that were digitized and performance management of employees working from home focused mainly on outputs/productivity and not on presenteeism. Besides, the organisation has a cordial relationship with unions and has complied with the labour standards stipulated by the Department of Labour. Employees who were working from home were encouraged to take breaks, to reduce the strain on their ears and eyes as a result of attending online meetings. The chapter ends with recommending HR practices envisaged making the South African organisation sustainable and competitive.


COVID-19 pandemic, employee wellbeing, labor relations, radical change, talent management

1. Introduction

Research has shown that HR practices (i.e., Employee Wellbeing, Labour relations, Job Roles and Talent Management) have changed due to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020 (Crouse, 2020). Samal, Patra and Chatterjee (2019) are of the view that change management is a human resource strategy or intervention for achieving business sustainability. Some organisations opted to use technology as a driver and allow employees to work from home. This meant that the normal way of working for employees changed, and their completion of attendance registers decreased. Other organisations opted to train their employees and communicated with them online (Dirani, Abadi, Alizadeh, Barhate, Garza, Gunasekara, Ibrahim & Majzun, 2020). Furthermore, to reduce COVID-19 transmission, some organisations conducted their talent acquisition online (Ali, Foreman, Capasso, Jones, Tozan & DiClemente, 2020). This suggests that performance practices should also change and that the focus should be on managing outcomes, being data or evidence-driven, showing inspirational leadership, rather than on behaviours such as coming to work (Risley, 2020).
HR practices such as Employee Wellbeing regulations changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Kumar and Rathi (2020) are of the view that employees should adhere to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) regulations, as well as WHO (World Health Organisation) regulations so that they are not exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. They argue that in terms of the former, it is the employer’s prerogative to ensure that employees are not exposed to risk. COVID-19 risk mitigation entails wearing a mask, reducing contact with others, and ensuring that social distance is maintained. The latter regulation includes identifying employees who have contracted COVID-19, disinfecting workplaces and ensuring that employees who contract the virus are isolated or quarantined. There is evidence to suggest that some employees suffer from burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those who work in the health industry because they work long hours (Sultana, Sharma, Hussain, Bhattacharya & Purohit, 2020).
Also, changed during the COVID-19 pandemic are Labor Relations practices. For example, in South Africa, a person or organisation must adhere to the regulations of the Protection of Personal Information Act. no. 4 of 2013, which ensure that employees’ personal information is kept confidential (Nicole, 2019). Since South African organisations are operating within the framework of the Labour Relations Act no.55 of 1995, it can be argued that social justice will be inherent to the future jobs suggested by Meister and Brown (2020). The other labour relations role is to ensure that incumbents of these future jobs are operating in line with the principles of equity and non-discrimination.
Besides, other Job Roles also changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meister and Brown (2020) identify 21 jobs that will emerge in the next 10 years. Even though it not clear where labour economics and labour relations fit into this classification of future jobs, it can be argued that they will be relevant in the South African context. Statistics South Africa (2020) reported in October 2020 that there were 2 million jobs lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same report has revealed that in certain sectors, employers have mitigated the job losses by not paying employees their full wages. One industry that has not been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is the fast-moving consumer goods industry. Instead, their revenues have significantly increased, because they could operate during the lockdown, following the regulations of the Disaster Management Act no. 57 of 2002 (Euromonitor, 2020). It is envisaged that through the insights provided by this chapter, theoretical and practical ideas on how Job Roles changed due to HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic will emerge.
This chapter has the following objectives:
• To determine the Employee Wellbeing practices in the South African organisation;
• To describe the Labour Relations practices in the South African organisation; and
• To predict future HR practices and job roles within the South African organisation.
The layout of this chapter is as follows: radical change theory, research methodology, findings and discussion. The latter will include a comparison between the literature and the findings, limitations, and recommendations for the organisation and future research.

2. Radical change theory

The theory used in this chapter has shown how HR practices have changed radically at the functional level for global organisations. The radical theory emerged in the late 1960s and was developed by Berger and Luckmann (Eriksson-Zetterquist, Mullern & Styhre, 2011). Radical change theory is about “dramatic changes in strategy and abrupt departures from traditional work, structures, job requirements, and cultures, which in turn necessitate a complete overhaul of the way things are organised” (Kezar, 2005, p. 634). These are internal organisational factors (Viljoen, 2015). Grieves (2010) opined that the external factors driving organisational change are health, social, pandemic, political and technological factors. Radical change can be planned or disruptive/unplanned. A planned change is an intentional action by the organisation to address internal and external drivers, whereas unplanned change is not intentional. Planned change is a proactive process, while unplanned change is a reactive process. In this chapter, it can be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is an external factor and is unplanned. In response to its spread, politicians or governments globally permitted organisations to operate as long as they adhered to the COVID-19 regulations stipulated by the World Health Organisation. It needs to be emphasized that these dramatic and unplanned regulations were not visible in the workplace before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Change in HR practices is driven by internal or external factors. Kotter (1996) suggested that there must be an urgency about this, and employees must be involved when change is envisaged. The envisaged change must be in line with the organisation’s strategy and vision. Furthermore, Kotter (1996) recommended that a change team or guiding coalition should be established, which must be empowered and capacitated to deal with change. The suggested change must be communicated so that employees are aware of what it entails. For change to gain momentum, short-term wins or milestones should be celebrated, and the new change must be anchored in the organisational culture. Organisational culture is how things are done in the organisation and how management relates to its employees. It plays a significant role in the implementation of strategy and change. In an organisation where there is a culture of respect, radical changes can be implemented. On the other hand, when the culture is hostile and ravaged by politics, changes are less likely to be implemented (Lekgothoane, Maleka & Worku, 2020). In addition, Kotter (1996) stressed that change can be driven by internal and external factors. In the introduction to this chapter, it was argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is an external factor that drives organisations globally to change their HR practices (i.e., talent management, labour economics, wellbeing and organisational design, or the creation of new job roles).
Among the other scholars who have argued that radical change is driven by internal and external factors are Brooks and Saltzman (2016). Their radical change framework entails the top management or chief executive officer creating an environment that is conducive for employees to perform. They argued that employees should be given tools to perform during the period of radical change. Like Kotter, they are of the view that messaging or communication is a salient driver of effective change implementation. However, employees should simultaneously be capacitated so that they can perform in the future once the change has been implemented. To navigate during radical change, Brooks and Saltzman (2016) suggested that employees should be kept motivated, they must be informed about the change elements that need to be prioritized, and the organisation should develop a training mechanism, which can be achieved by holding employees accountable. It is important to note here that Kotter, Brooks and Saltzman are all American scholars.
There is a common trend in the international literature from 2015 to 2020 to focus on radical change theory in how it affects HR practices. The articles are mostly theoretical, and researchers are debating how to deal with unplanned change (Glavas & Fitzgerald, 2020). It is also noteworthy that these articles do not come from the field of HRM but are written mainly by scholars in the field of marketing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is suggested that top managers give their support to middle managers.
From a South African perspective, radical change in HR practices happens when there is a harmonious relationship between Management and Trade Unions in the organisation/s (Maleka, 2018). Wärnich, Carrell, Elbert and Hatfield (2018) indicate that in the South African context, radical change (or any change) in an organisation is less likely to happen if the stakeholders, such as employees and trade unions, are not consulted. Furthermore, it has been established that change is less likely to be effective if it is not piloted, and if the change leaders do not consider the organisational culture. In contrast, a South African organisation that offered transportation services managed to implement planned radical change because it developed a cordial relationship with the trade union (Nienaber & Martins, 2016).

3. Methodology

This section discusses the research design, sampling and data collection, data analysis, trustworthiness, and ethical considerations.

3.1. Research design

To achieve the chapter aim, the research design deemed appropriate was qualitative (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Yin, 2018) and cross-sectional because the data were collected within a single interval (once) using open-ended interviews (Bryman, Bell, Hirschsohn, Do Santos, Du Toit, Masenge, Van Aardt & Wagner, 2014). This suggests that results would be reported from an interpretivism paradigm perspective (Babbie, 2013). Interpretivism was adopted because the authors wanted to explore the lived experiences of the HR director during the COVID-19 pandemic.

3.2. Sampling and data collection

A director who has played a critical role in changing HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic was purposively selected for this study. The director was working in a service organisation. Also, the HR director could use the Harvard business canvas to develop current and future HR practices and has worked in the energy sector. Purposive sampling is used where the researcher selects a participant with in-depth knowledge of the research topic (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Some of the HR practices questions that were posed to the HR director were as follows:
• How would you describe the HR practices in the South African organisation?
• How would you describe the Labour Relations (including Labour Economics) in the South African organisation?
• How would you describe the employee well-being practices in the South African organisation?
• What are your views about the future of HR and the Job Roles of the future in the South Africa organization?
The data were collected from the HR director on the 19th of November 2020. As suggested by Dodds and Hess (2020), the data were collected and recorded online, which helped to avoid physical contact. Since the HR director would be answering open-ended questions, some probing questions were asked for further clarity, as suggested by Maree (2016).

3.3. Data analysis

The data were analyzed using content analysis. Since the questions emerged from the literature, as indicated in the introduction to this chapter, the data analysis followed a deductive approach (Neuman, 2014). The data analysis strategy entailed familiarizing ourselves with the data and creating themes in line with the chapter objectives. From the themes, sub-categories and codes were established. In line with Saldana’s (2009) suggestion, each line of the transcript was coded, and the codes were also grouped. The data related to the topic were extracted from the transcripts and then analyzed. A transcript is a printed record of what a participant said when he/she was asked the question/s (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2019).

3.4. Trustworthiness

The study adhered to the trustworthiness criteria suggested by Lincoln and Guba (1985). To ensure data triangulation, the HR director provided appropriate documentation and the researchers referred to the organisation’s website. Member-checking was also conducted by showing the HR director the results section of this chapter. This was done to ensure that the results were accurately presented. Saunders et al. (2019) indicated that triangulation is the use of two or three independent data collection sources. To achieve transferability, the HR director was given space to articulate his experiences in detail, without being interrupted. As suggested by Lincoln and Guba (1985), dependability was achieved by explaining the methodology in detail, so that other researchers who intend to do a similar study are aware of the process and will hopefully obtain similar results. Lastly, confirmability was achieved by being always objective, as suggested by Lincoln and Guba (1985).

3.5. Ethical considerations

As can be observed in the title of this chapter (anonymity of the organisation and HR director), the issue of confidentiality was strictly adhered to, as well as other ethical principles, such as no harm to the organisational brand. The HR director consented to participate in online interviews, and the recordings of these interviews were subsequently deleted. Creswell (2015) opined that consent is about permitting to be interviewed. Furthermore, when the results are presented in the next section, only what the director said is reported. This ensured that the organisation’s identity was not disclosed.

4. Results

In this section, we discuss the results of how HR was practiced during the COVID-19 pandemic.This section discusses the wellbeing (psychological and physiological) practices.

4.1.1. Psychological practices related to the COVID-19 pandemic

One of the challenges that the organisation experienced during the third month of lockdown was that employees were depressed, anxious and lonely. It was mentioned that “Ah, I want to come back to the office, I miss my team, I miss them.” In response, the organisation developed an online course on resilience for those employees.

4.1.2. Physiological practices related to the COVID-19 pandemic

The HR director mentioned that “You need to take care of your eyes; you need to take care of your ears and you need to take care of your lungs because working from home…”. Employees were coached to “take a break every hour or hour and a half” and to “spend your lunchtime in your garden.” This would ensure that they were exposed to the sun and got Vitamin D.
When elaborating on the job role that emerged, the HR director said, “Compliance Officer and the role of that never existed before COVID-19 pandemic. We had Health and Safety Managers, but the role of the compliance officer was completely new.” The duty of the compliance officer was to ensure compliance with the Disaster Management Act, including regulations from the Departments of Labour and Health. The duties of the compliance officer also included collecting daily COVID-19 results, which were captured on information dashboards, thereby allowing executive committees to make daily decisions. Besides, the compliance officer reported on COVID-19 infection statistics and facilitated isolation and testing. The compliance officer also ensured that employees had personal protective equipment and recorded the training that they received. One of the learning outcomes of the training entailed how to dispose of gloves, wear a mask and clean safety shoes. Furthermore, the organisation’s website contained information about COVID-19 prevention strategies such as washing hands, washing and wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing as far as possible.
In addition to the above, employees were worried about financial matters such as salaries during their isolation. The company explained that “don’t you worry about the finance part, you must worry about getting better.” The organisation ensured that employees did not lose their income and used avenues such as Workmen’s Compensation for injuries on duty. Since the organisation was offering a service to the public, both frontline employees and managers were exposed to the risk of contracting COVID-19. It was mentioned that the tally of COVID-19 infections was more than 300 at one stage. To ensure uninterrupted service delivery to customers, employees were rotated and capacitated to work according to different shifts, so that they could replace an employee who was exposed to COVID-19 or who was not coping. Sadly, it was reported that approximately 10 employees lost their lives. The HR director mentioned the following regarding employees who tested positive, “so if you tested positive, we provided additional transport for you to take you for the test, and to then take you from the test to an isolation centre.”

4.2. Labour Relations (including Labour Economics)

The organisation is labour-intensive, which suggests that one of its biggest expenses is remuneration. The remuneration philosophy of the organisation was elucidated as follows, “we pay at the twenty-fifth percentile or the fiftieth percentile or we pay at the seventy-fifth percentile.” For low-income workers, remuneration is linked to agreements reached with the bargaining council, collective agreements, and in-contract agreements. The union is regarded as a social partner, and the organisation strives for harmonious relations. In terms of remuneration, while working from home, the HR director indicated that “We’re going to have to reform our statutory regulations [i.e., remuneration, tax and leave].” During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a miscommunication between the organisation, union and employees. It was stated that the latter, “went to the [Economic Freedom Fighter] EFF as a political party”. It was further stated that “we cannot interact with a political party, we can only talk to registered labour organisations. So, this is something else that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about, is around the communities that we serve, unions found themselves so worried about payroll deductions and all of that, they did not look after them in terms of health and safety and their financial well-being.” Since the employers could only pay some of the employees due to the discontinuation of contracts with customers, the organisation had to assist the employees to apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). This process might have had an adverse effect due to the backlog at the UIF, and the HR director stated the following, “UIF is a problem because of the volumes of work that has been left … [employees] don’t trust us anymore” because of the non-payment of UIF (Temporary Employer-Employee Release Scheme).

4.3. Job Roles predicted in HR practices and Talent Management

One of the future jobs mentioned by the HR director was a Data Scientist. It was predicted that this job role would be as follows: “it’s going to take clever people to interpret data and what it means to your organisation. If your temperature consistently remains for five days at 36.5, the chances that you’re going to get sick in the next few days is great, we suggest that you stay at home and take care of yourself before you get sick.” This indicates that the role would involve doing predictive, analytical or interpretive analyses, as emphasized by the HR director. Another skill within HR is Actuarial Science. It was stated that the job of an actuarial scientist would, “be used in Workforce Planning, using the life expectancy of the contract, the life expectancy of the product …if you start this project with ten people, and if you bring technology onboard, in year five of the contract you’re going to need eight people only. Concurrently people will grow older, so you’re probably going to need to bring in two more people at the bottom with younger people. That is scientific workforce planning, not manpower planning. So, I believe actuarial scientist is going to be part of the HR team going forward.” It was mentioned that in the future, permanent jobs might diminish, and employees will do more than one job at a time. Artificial intelligence will erode repetitive jobs such as payroll. The employer will be able to create functional applications that are needed in HR. For example, these applications will play a critical role in talent acquisition and leave applications. At all levels, HR employees will need to have the following types of intelligence: “predictable, connectivity, social and contextual.”
Major talent management changes occurred due to COVID-19. Both the organisational website and the HR director stated that blended training is used. During the COVID-19 pandemic, eLearning training gained traction. In line with the organisation’s policy, recruitment is done digitally, and more weight is allocated to organisational values during selection. Furthermore, the HR director stated that “every two months we recognize people that have gone over and above and beyond their job description and has gone the extra mile.” The organisation’s performance is linked to business strategy and rewards and is output driven.

5. Conclusion

The chapter aimed to explore the HR practices in a South African organisation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Talent management practices included recruitment and selection, training and development, and performance management, which help to predict job satisfaction and engagement (Maleka, Dachapalli, Ragadu, Schultz & Van Hoek, 2020). The data revealed that talent acquisition and development were becoming more digitised. It was established that due to COVID-19, communication between the organisation and the union had diminished. According to Mapp (2019), employee wellbeing is the positive psychology construct, which has both psychological and physiological dimensions. The data showed that resilience training and showing employees how to take breaks were some of the wellbeing practices. Furthermore, the data showed that the organisation had a centre for employees who were infected, and where different psychological and physiological interventions were implemented.
It can also be argued that there were similarities between the jobs that the HR director predicted and some of the jobs predicted in the literature. For example, AI intelligence, forecasting and data analytics are also mentioned by Meister and Brown (2020). These jobs seem to suggest that in future, HR practitioners should possess mathematical, statistical and programming skills, and be able to interpret the data provided by robots. Meister and Brown (2020) mentioned that one future job that requires a combination of financial and marketing capabilities is a Strategic HR Business Continuity Director. The various types of intelligence mentioned in the results will be facilitated by the HR Coach, which is also one of the roles predicted by Meister and Brown (2020).
Since the data were collected from a director who had experiences in a specific area (HR), it is suggested that in future, other directors should be interviewed to establish their HR practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rationale for focusing on one director was due to time constraints. However, a similar study should be conducted at the South African organisation, to solicit the views of middle managers. Even though the HR practices were established through this case study, the authors agree with Yin (2018) that they might be applicable beyond the context of the South African organisation (refer to comments in the above paragraphs in this section). Earlier, it was stated that during COVID-19, when managers are implementing change, they should be supported by top management (Heyden et al., 2020). Therefore, it is recommended that data should be collected from middle managers. The following HR practices are recommended for the South African organisation, for it to be sustainable and competitive during and after the COVID-19 pandemic:
• The organisation in future will use workforce planning to enable employees to work remotely, based on technology implementation and health implications.
• The introduction of technology to recruitment will enable the organisation to decrease the talent search and facilitate a faster onboarding process.
• In future, the organisation will employ staff based on project outputs and deliverables, noting that one employee might have several jobs with different companies.
• The future organisation will engage employees on the concept of learning within the flow of business.
• A strategic relationship should be established with the unions, to effectively collaborate with them in future when an unplanned and disruptive change occurs.
• Future remuneration should be based on outputs and project deliveries.
• Employee wellbeing and engagement will be the nucleus of future employment value propositions; and
• The competencies for the future workforce will include resilience and dealing with ambiguity.
In conclusion, both the literature and data collected during the interviews showed that radical changes in HR practices are inevitable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

6. Acknowledgement

The authors are grateful to the South African organisation for allowing the HR director to share information that assisted them in writing the methodology and results sections of the chapter.


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