Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET
Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET

Trust doesn’t come naturally to many managers, says Jonas Randall, director of the Nelson Mandela University Business School. They like to see rows of employees at rows of desks, slaving over rows and rows of financial figures.

Take away this visible evidence of toil and how can managers be sure staff are pulling their weight? How do they measure performance? Research may suggest people working from home are more productive but if they’re not seen putting in the full eight hours daily, can anyone really be sure?

According to Jonas: “Traditional organisational culture relies on people working together in the same place, with all the personal interaction that involves. There is a perceived clarity of purpose. This is lost in the remote working world. Staff have to find their own way.”

Managers, particularly CEOs, must learn to trust employees in this new environment. They must resist the urge to check up endlessly on each individual – even though, for some bosses, this is the only way they can prove that they themselves are doing their job. They know no other way.

Jonas, whose two-year stint as chair of the SA Business Schools Association is due to end in September, says schools have a part to play in helping leaders “recalibrate” their attitudes. Despite the economic havoc wrought by Covid-19, he says companies must resist the temptation to postpone or cancel executive education programmes.

Schools obviously don’t want to lose the revenue but he says the bigger loss will ultimately be suffered by companies that don’t ready themselves for the future.

Jonas admits the Nelson Mandela school has lost significant revenue from postponed programmes. Some will be recovered. “As the economy gradually opens, we are already seeing some business return,” he says. Like other schools, the lockdown has forced his to shift its teaching online but not all clients are happy. “Many have been very understanding but some say they would rather wait for lockdown to be lifted,” he says. “For them, it’s face-to-face teaching or nothing.”

Sometimes it’s because companies have no option. “They are not equipped for online. We still have a very unequal society. Many staff, particularly at junior levels, lack the necessary technology to study from home.”

The business school is considering the status of its five-year-old campus. There is no question of leaving but the growing dominance of online education – for academic programmes like MBAs, as well as executive education – means student numbers using the building are considerably reduced.

Jonas says the school is talking to the main university about potentially allowing other university faculties to share the space, or inviting private companies to use it for conferences and workshops. “There is a serious discussion around repurposing,” he says.​

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