Returning to work? Ex-Google & WeWork exec offers advice for SA’s business leaders

08 June 2021 PSG

While most South African CEOs seem to want to go back to the old normal - doing exactly what they were doing before the pandemic - tech guru Stafford Masie, who established Google South Africa in 2006 and recently led WeWork South Africa, says returning to “normal” would be a big mistake.

Speaking at PSG’s latest Think Big webinar, Masie said the single biggest responsibility for business leaders right now is to re-imagine the future.

“If you are not spending 20 to 30 percent of your day re-imagining your business in a structured, tangible way, you are in danger,” warns Masie.

“When I speak to CEOs and their chief information officers, the infrastructure they have managed to put in place over the last 18 months is astounding. This architecture, which allows businesses to continue in a work from home environment, can be repurposed for incremental new possibilities” said Masie.

He believes it would be incredibly short-sighted to return to the old ways, given the accelerated rate of change businesses across the globe have experienced since the start of the pandemic.

“Remote work has been on the cards for a long time, and we probably would have reached where we are now in 10 or 15 years if we had continued on the old trajectory; the pandemic has just massively sped up this change,” said Masie.

Masie believes that as technology develops and continues changing and shaping our working lives, it is more important than ever for business leaders to understand the human factors at play.

For example, Masie believes a blanket approach to returning people to the office doesn’t consider the humanity of the people concerned, which is an omission leadership can no longer afford to make.

“The 20-year-olds out there want to get back to the office as soon as possible. They have a network to build and they want to meet people. If you are looking for talent in that age demographic, you’ll need to really think about how to harness that and build technological tools and facilities relative to that,” said Masie.

“For people in their 30s, you’re probably going to need a hybrid model. These people have kids and families, and during the pandemic they’ve been spending more time with them than ever before. They have become accustomed to this way and there’s a rhythm that has been established. To break that right now would be quite traumatic. So leaders need to be looking at how to provide a hybrid “presence” workplace that enables this demographic to produce their best work in this context.”

Masie said that when it comes to those over 40, people have well established networks and experience, and they’re probably happy to keep working completely remotely.

“As a CEO I think you need to think about this very carefully in terms of the different age groups and then also look at it from a personality, priority and talent, perspective. As leadership, it is absolutely critical to factor in the human aspect of your workforce. You need to understand your workforce as well as you understand your customers to unlock the latent human talent within and without your organisation,” said Masie.

“I believe that 2020 will mark a tectonic change in human history, even if we can’t quite see it yet. There is a combination of factors at play that together have the potential to fundamentally shift our ways of doing things,” said Masie.

The first thing is the rapid maturation of the edge network (the last mile services we access from our phones). The second thing is the work from home phenomenon we have experienced due to the pandemic, which has changed the way we live and work and shifted our expectations. And the third thing is mass digitisation, also largely due to the pandemic. Thanks to lockdowns and stay at home culture, we’ve had people who have never before entered their credit card details on a website now getting comfortable with it.

It may not seem such a big deal, but Masie believes that these three things in combination will dictate how the next 20 years look.

“We know there’s a massive shift underway, but we don’t know exactly how it will play out,” he said. The same thing happened in 2007; urbanization hit a tipping point, millennials suddenly became the workforce majority and then Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage and showed us the first iPhone. We were fascinated by the device, but we had no idea that the fundamental changes, influenced by those societal shifts, would stretch far beyond the device itself.

Masie believes it is critical that leadership be optimistic about the potential impact of technology, and that they approach it in a humanistic way. “Instead of just focusing on the engineers and the developers, we also need humanities in the room; we need those studying journalism and Greek mythology and psychology, to truly understand the bigger picture of how things could play out for our society,” said Masie.

“Humans should be front and centre when we re-imagine our businesses for the future,” added Richard Seton Rogers, Chief Information Officer at PSG, who hosted the discussion.

“Technology should enhance lives, and at PSG we balance stability, security and consistency with agility and providing first class solutions. Our focus is always on great human experiences and with the bombardment of everything digital, it is our goal to provide the right advice with the right balanced outcome,” said Seton Rogers.

A skilled and trusted adviser can be invaluable during these uncertain times. They can provide objective insights and help you consider alternative scenarios so you can make considered, rational decisions on your wealth and insurance portfolios.

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