This article was originally published in the October 2021 issue of "The Accountant".

It is understandable that at the start of the pandemic, numerous organisations focused primarily on 'riding the wave' and ensuring they survive. It was an unprecedented situation where even those sectors not directly impacted braced themselves for the worst. However, the measures adopted to survive are often counter to the strategies one would employ to grow and maintain an adaptable workforce that can focus on the long term-sustainability of the business.

In 2020 numerous companies chose to re-structure and let go of roles that were not directly involved in the revenue generation elements of their company. Others cut out training budgets, stalled salary progression or halted other perks and benefits that used to keep members of staff feeling recognised and motivated. But a year and half after the onset of the pandemic, some businesses seem reluctant to let go of this survival philosophy and shift back to a growth mindset.

The reality is that in the short term, people are typically ready to pitch in and understand that perhaps their company is going through dire straits. People may accept to have their roles stretched to also oversee or carry out functions that would have previously fallen in the remit of someone else's role. However, issues start cropping up when this remains the modus operandi of the company long after the business is no longer in jeopardy. From a sense of obligation and loyalty to helping one's business succeed, employees start feeling resentful and taken advantage of. Aside from these negative feelings being shared among the workforce and potentially impacting the employer brand, the actual demands of stretched roles, high expectations and lack of investment in resources, all start taking their toll.

When employees are overstretched and fatigued, they do not have the energy nor the head space to innovate or think proactively. They remain geared on the 'survivability' mode and focus on ticking off the day-to-day needs, addressing the most pressing concerns and ensuring nothing goes wrong. This is completely counter to a growth mindset that ensures that what is important is on the agenda before it becomes critical and that the business is at the top of its game, ahead of industry trends and exceeding its clients' expectations.

A company philosophy that is geared towards holistic growth, identifies the skills, attitudes and values it needs to achieve its goals and then sets on a plan to attract those people from the market. It ensures that its workforce remains sharp and technically competent in the face of a complex socio-economic climate and invests in its people and the resources they require to do their best work, rather than seeing such investment as biting in its bottom line. It ensures performance expectations are clearly set and implements a supportive mechanism to help people achieve their goals and weed out early and efficiently those persons who are not pulling the same rope with the team. It listens to what its people crave for to be able to be more productive and then sets out an action plan on those achievable outcomes that could mean higher retention of key talent. And although most employees can see beyond the frills of free health insurance, extra leave days or fruit in the office kitchen, such benefits contribute to the sense of appreciation that employees feel, particularly when their performance is steady, targets are being reached and competition for top talent is still fierce.

One of the most talked about changes brought on by the pandemic has probably been the shift for many organisations to accommodate remote working when this was not a normal aspect of their workplace culture. Employees globally have taken to social media to ask for such measures to remain in place because for many, flexibility and trust are even more critical than other benefits. This presents a unique opportunity for many businesses to think long-term and think win-win. What might have been a band-aid solution brought on by sudden events could be an evolution of the work place – a way of retaining top talent whilst reducing costs attributed to having employees on site.

Needless to say, that for a company coming out of survivability mode, it is critical to be efficient. Adding people to a team or suddenly creating new roles does not necessarily equate to adding productivity or increased profits. One needs to carefully assess what type of resources the team needs and how these are likely to change dependent on client trends and the dynamic nature of the environment within which the company operates. However, whilst being efficient and lean is definitely essential, in some companies the drive for efficiency leads to executives losing sight of the bigger picture and rather than lean, they run companies that are metaphorically under-nourished and at the risk of exhaustion.

Organisations that are aiming to thrive in the coming years need to reflect on their long-term people strategy and ensure that it is as sustainable as its corporate strategy and business plan. The COVID-19 pandemic will not suddenly disappear and neither will other socio-political challenges on a local and international level. Building a sustainable people management strategy needs to be cognisant of the long-term needs of the organisation and factor in the reasons that attract new blood and that keep employees engaged and performing at their best. Such organisations need to build teams that are resilient, flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances, nimble enough to change course quickly and having enough head room to think strategically and innovate when old ways of doing things no longer serve the business well.

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