A PayFast reflection on COVID-19 workspace disruption

A person working from home on their laptop

Without a doubt the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on the global economy that will be felt for years to come. In South Africa, we felt the brunt of it when our economy was forced to come to an almost complete standstill as a direct result of lockdown. What may have felt like the end of times with civilians panic buying in hoards followed by the complete desolation of our streets, quickly turned into a manageable reality or a “new normal” as we all came to understand the necessity of staying at home to flatten the curve.

Even before lockdown was officially announced, PayFast took the self-isolation recommendation measures very seriously and put a strategy in place to ensure that our almost 100 employees could stay healthy, safe and productive. Employees who had the ability to do so were encouraged to work from home, and for those who were required to remain in the office were instructed to keep a social distance from their colleagues and to maintain excellent self-hygiene standards.  

As PayFast is an important role player in the financial space, we were given permission to continue working as an essential service during lockdown. However, with this privilege came great responsibility. The organisation had to ensure that everyone had the necessary tools at their disposal to work from home and, just as importantly, the right headspace and morale to stay focused and not get overwhelmed by the uncertainty that the human race found ourselves in.   

Now that the government has eased the lockdown rules to level 3 and our economy has started on its road to recovery, we would like to share some important lessons learnt about working during COVID-19 enforced lockdown, and the surprisingly positive impact that the experience has had on altering our general perception of what is required to effectively run remote teams and a South African tech business. 

Have the right technology to support digital workspaces 

When lockdown was first implemented there were a number of hurdles that we had to overcome as a business, such as ensuring that all of our staff had an internet connection at home (for those who didn’t we organised WIFI and MIFI dongles), everyone was equipped with their laptops or their work computers and screens (if laptops weren’t available) and had their PayFast VPN installed to access our servers. Once everything was set up, there was a genuine sense of excitement (mixed with a dash of uncertainty) of how our way of working would adapt.

To continue as much normalcy as possible, all of our in-person meetings and standups took place on platforms like Google Meet and Zoom. Our biggest accomplishment was during the monthly office meetings where all of our employees jumped on a Google Hangouts call to hear our MD, Jonathan Smit, present important PayFast news. Typically, monthly meetings took place in our main open-plan office, but by taking this meeting virtual, it essentially became more personal as it allowed Jonathan to speak “directly” to everyone through their headphones. There was also more opportunity for engagement as everyone was encouraged to share their opinions or ask questions in the chat room.

During monthly meetings everyone is now encouraged to make use of the Slido app to ask anonymous questions and answer polls to find out how we are honestly doing under lockdown. This has proven to be an excellent method of getting truthful feedback and spurred ideas of what we could do going forward to improve the PayFast working culture. 

Moving our workspace interactions virtually has demonstrated that with the right tools and if used correctly, employees can stay connected and feel heard irrespective of their physical location. 

Stay connected to maintain office culture 

Over and above our daily and monthly meetings, employees are encouraged to stay connected with each other to discuss work related tasks and to socialise. Before lockdown we used Rocket.Chat to share ideas between different PayFast departments. For lockdown specifically, our Marketing and Events Coordinator spearheaded a lockdown channel on Rocket.Chat with the goal of keeping up morale and employee alignment. She has been very successful in running quizzes and activities to get everyone involved and to distract them from what very well may have been a depressing reality of self-isolation.    

The PayFast management team also sent out an employee satisfaction survey to find out how everyone was coping working from home. Overall, the responses were positive, which was pleasantly surprising in light of the circumstances. 

While these actions were done especially to help our staff manage during lockdown, we believe that they can be effectively applied to post-lockdown working environments as well. It’s important to never take your employees and coworkers for granted; check in with them and make sure that they realise their value to you and your organisation. 

Realise that smaller can indeed be better

Once things settled down after a few days in lockdown, we all came to realise that working remotely indeed has its benefits. By setting up a dedicated workspace in our homes, PayFast employees were able to get a sense of routine and even reported in the employee survey that they felt more productive compared to when they were working in the office. This was largely a result of having more time by not having to commute to the office, flexibility in working hours and having less distractions (albeit of course there were some distractions such as child caring and pets demanding attention). Our employee survey also revealed that the majority of our employees said that they would like to work from home more in the future.  

A business doesn’t need everyone in one location to function or to be successful. While it’s still important to have a central location where people can meet and share ideas, it’s no longer necessary for every employee to have their own desk or desktop computer. But rather, an effective strategy would be for every employee to have their own laptop and use open work stations with computer screens that they could connect to in the office on days that they aren’t working remotely. This way of working is also more financially feasible because it will allow you to save on costs by renting out a smaller office space with less furniture, reducing the number hours you’ll need to pay office cleaners and a reduction in the number of dedicated parking spaces that need to be leased.  

Stay positive   

At PayFast we’ve been through ups and downs, but thankfully we’ve always managed to pull through and become that much stronger because of it. The COVID-19 experience has once again proven this, and that remote working is indeed the future. As long as you have the right tools and people on your team, your business can get through just about anything that is thrown your way. Generations to come will look back at the COVID-19 pandemic as a time when everyone had to adapt and learn to make the most out of the situation.  

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