COVID-19 and OSTI’s Response
Chief Executive Officer
Effective communication during any crisis is crucial to maintaining trust with all stakeholders, our staff being one of them, and to restoring morale and confidence.
I started writing my report for the 2019 Annual Report whilst still working at the office. Its contents have since then changed many times as I was struggling to relate to a time pre-COVID-19. My mind could not relate to a life before the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic and before our President proclaimed COVID-19 a national disaster on 15 March 2020 and implemented a total lock-down on 27 March 2020.
What an incredibly turbulent time it has been and what a “baptism of fire” for me having only been in office for a few months.
It is amazing how we have been able to implement major changes at the speed of lightning. Literally overnight, working from home was no longer a privilege for a few staff members but was the way all of us were going to work. Usually such changes would have taken time to be implemented due to planning sessions, debates, revision of policies and so on.
At its first meeting in March this year, which was shortly after the pandemic was declared a national disaster in South Africa, our Board of Directors established a sub-committee, named the COVID-19 Crisis Committee. This committee was mandated to prioritise and regularly monitor the health and well-being of OSTI’s staff; the financial and liquidity positions of OSTI and the impact of the lock-down on OSTI’s operations and to identify local and global trends affecting OSTI post COVID-19.
In this crisis, the health and safety of our staff was and continues to be a top priority. After all, staff cannot be expected to focus on their work responsibilities when their own well-being and that of their families are in peril. Our leadership team immediately focused on doing whatever was necessary to ensure the health and safety of staff and getting every staff member set up to work remotely. All staff who were already able to, were asked to stay at home and work from home. The rest were then configured to work remotely.
It is amazing how we have been able to implement major changes at the speed of lightning. Literally overnight, working from home was no longer a privilege for a few staff members but was the way all of us were going to work.
Because working from home was for most of our staff a new way of working, leadership needed to provide them with support and guidance. A protocol and tips on working from home were sent to everyone before the lock-down became effective.
With the rapid move to working from home, came a greater need for trust. The leadership team was required to trust the staff, every staff member to trust every other staff member and the staff to trust leadership. Trust is even more important during exceptional times like these. Leadership took the approach that, if you give staff your trust, they will, in return, be trustworthy.
Within a few days of being in lock-down, leadership communicated to the staff the two essential concepts that encapsulate trust, namely freedom and responsibility. We explained that freedom, which is also referred to as empowerment, is the opportunity to exercise personal choice and to have ownership of the work that one does and the decisions that one makes. Responsibility is ensuring that personal choice is exercised with care and concern for other people and the requirements of OSTI. Together, these concepts are ordinarily fundamental to driving fulfilment in any organisation and even more so during a crisis.
Effective communication during any crisis is crucial to maintaining trust with all stakeholders, our staff being one of them, and to restoring morale and confidence. We adopted a robust communication approach, especially as this crisis, like any other crisis, added another layer of complexity to communication with the circulation of false/fake news. Our approach has been to over-communicate; educating and informing our staff.
Even if we, as the leadership team, do not have all the answers to the challenges we are facing, if staff know what we are thinking and how we are thinking about the situation, it helps them feel a sense of control.
Trust is even more important during exceptional times like these. Leadership took the approach that, if you give staff your trust, they will, in return, be trustworthy.
If staff know what we are thinking and how we are thinking about the situation, it helps them feel a sense of control.
We immediately, on hearing the lock-down announcement, set up WhatsApp groups for quicker communication between teams and between members within a team. This was invaluable, especially in the initial stages when setting up staff at home and when some staff experienced connectivity issues. This phase required patience and support from everyone whilst we, together with our IT consultants, worked through the challenges of transitioning everyone to work remotely.
Once we had been in lock-down for a few weeks and the novelty started to wear off, our responsibility as leadership expanded to taking whatever steps we could to safeguard the psychological and emotional well-being of our staff. This was particularly necessary when the lock-down was further extended.
We were very mindful of the vulnerability of those staff living on their own and we first reached out to and connected with them, before doing the same with each and every other staff member. We sent regular communications on taking care of one’s mental health and later we arranged for counselling sessions for the entire staff complement.
Our second priority was and still is to ensure the continued delivery of our services as an alternative dispute resolution forum and serving our members and their consumers, who also become our customers. In doing this, we are also working towards securing our relevance, post COVID-19.
Having over a year ago moved our IT and case management systems into the cloud, we were equipped to continue registering and resolving complaints from home. Our telephone system is also securely saved in the cloud and our call centre functionality is fully operational with the ability to receive and route calls. The majority of complaints are lodged via email and on our website. Complaints are primarily resolved via correspondence and all our staff have remote access to our case management system, which is totally paperless.
We have been on all social media platforms for a few years and we quickly developed a social media campaign in response to COVID-19 and the lock-down, highlighting our services and providing consumers with tips.
The total lock-down, which forced all our staff to work from home, resulted in heavier than normal traffic on the remote connectivity networks causing capacity and access constraints but the resourcefulness of our staff has meant that, until the time that I was completing my report, productivity had not been impacted. It has been, until now, “business as usual” in not so usual times.
We have provided virtual group coaching and counselling sessions to all our staff to ensure their ongoing development and to support them in these anxiety provoking times.
Complaints are primarily resolved via correspondence and all our staff have remote access to our case management system, which is totally paperless.
A New Normal and the Theme of Our Report
When we come out on the other side of the pandemic and the lock-down there is no doubt that there will be no going back to the norms of the past – instead a new normal will emerge. More than ever, we will be required to be less wasteful, cut costs and operate more cost effectively.
A new norm is already emerging with meetings becoming quick, often impromptu and flexible. We have noticed that, without asking, staff have tended to put more hours into work simply because they have more hours available as a result of, for instance, not having to spend time, hours in some cases, travelling to and from work. Team work has improved; there is a greater spirit of co-operation and helpfulness. The staff have adopted a mantle of maturity and responsibility in respect of their work.
A leader during these times needs to be transparent about the harsh realities and must inspire others to persevere.
There is already a heightened awareness of the environment and its protection, and how fragile life is. There is an increased appreciation of what we have and a gratefulness for freedom.
Although we cannot yet fully see the new norm and although we are all going through incredible change bought on by the impact of the coronavirus, we still operate in patterns of daily habits, behaviours and consistent actions that define how people, places and things interact.
Patterns enable us to make sense of our world, which brings me to the theme of the images used in our annual report; human beings and nature coming together to create beautiful patterns, geometry and shapes. A pattern is defined as “a noticeable regularity in the natural and man-made world that repeats itself in a predictable manner”.1
Despite all the change and chaos that has taken place throughout the world over the last few months and despite the fact that we need change and sometimes chaos to evolve, we still look for patterns in our everyday lives. Change and routine, in whatever form, can and do co-exist and both are needed for progress to take place. Awareness of the basic patterns that exist in our world will help us see what is happening around us.
We have had to create a new routine/pattern to cope with our new reality and a more isolated existence.
Together with the COVID-19 Crisis Committee, we will continue to monitor developments both locally and internationally in respect of the responses to COVID-19. We will develop OSTI’s response and implement scenario planning. We will continue to advise our staff and other stakeholders as to the steps that we are taking to address the position as it develops so as to provide for a response that is measured and appropriate.
Being a Leader during COVID-19
It is during times like these that we, as leaders, need to demonstrate concern for the real fears and anxieties that staff are experiencing, not only professionally and economically, but socially and personally. Even though we do not have all the answers to their questions, we should listen to and empathise with their fears and not hesitate to share our own concerns with them. As a leader one needs to be even more unguarded than usual in circumstances like these.
Simultaneously, leadership needs to take a rational line and vigilantly focus on protecting the financial performance from the “softness” that accompanies such a disruptive crisis. This sometimes requires taking decisive action on incomplete information.
As Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, said “you can create economic value and human value in harmony”.2
Ultimately, a leader during these times needs to be transparent about the harsh realities and must inspire others to persevere.
A Word of Thanks
I and the leadership team at OSTI are grateful to all our customers, the insurer members and insureds, and all our other stakeholders for their on-going support.
We are especially grateful to our staff who have demonstrated incredible resilience and adaptability in trying and uncertain times.
Our sincere appreciation goes to our board for establishing the COVID-19 Crisis Committee. This committee is headed by our Chair of the Board, Mr Haroon Laher, and three other members of our board. They have selflessly given of their time, freely shared their expertise, and have been instrumental in guiding and supporting me and my leadership team.
Thank you all for your dedication and passion in ensuring that OSTI continues to protect its staff, serve its stakeholders and operate effectively.