As part of our ongoing Q&A series, in our latest interview we’ve sat down with South African-based Constance Simmons, Head of Operations for our client E.ON Next, to talk about the innovative solutions she came up with to lead her team and ensure an undisrupted service to customers during the Covid pandemic.
Hi Constance. We’d like to start with the Covid-19 pandemic which threw the world of work on its head. What were your key priorities in such difficult times?
Headlines around the world were being dominated by Covid, which was obviously having a huge impact on businesses of all sizes. Overall, my main focus was what the pandemic really meant for the 285 members of my team here in Western Cape.
The end goal was always to keep my team safe, maintain attendance levels and to boost morale to ensure operations could continue without disruption for our clients and their customers.
My team and I have worked in the office throughout the whole pandemic which was helped by us being granted a special license by the city authorities which meant we could come in during lockdown. This meant we could always be on hand for vulnerable customers in the UK who would potentially have had their electricity cut off.
Those efforts from the entire team led to me being given an ‘Endurance and Resilience Award’ from Sigma’s client E.ON Next as well as ‘Most Consistent Leader Award’ from our parent company, the Digicall Group. Both are a wonderful testament to the efforts of the entire workforce.
And most recently being named on the final shortlist as one of South Africa’s most influential women in the ‘Women in Outsourcing Red Ladder Awards’ was the icing on the cake for me. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve managed to achieve. They weren’t just awards for me, they were for us all.
Have there been any other issues you have had to deal with in your role during the peak of the pandemic?
Yes, there have been a number of other challenges we have had to overcome. During the pandemic we had a bomb scare in the office. As the most senior leader in the office that day I organised the evacuation of all 700 members of the team from the building and, with biometric access to all areas, I knew it was me who should lead the bomb squad round the office whilst the other workers were out of harm’s way.
We have also suffered with high-profile local taxi driver strikes which I knew would threaten the ability of the team to get to and from the office.
As with my approach to Covid, as far as I was concerned, we would do everything we could to ensure it was business as usual. There are too many customers, particularly vulnerable ones, relying on us to provide a service whatever the circumstances.
I was more than aware of the impact the taxi strikes could have on my team being able to get to work – and the implications this would then have on their families, the community and the business.
I ensured that the team who were being impacted and could not get home would be housed and fed by Sigma Connected in local hostels, an arrangement which was backed by our Managing Director, David Neale.
I visited every single hostel myself within the area, checking they were clean, safe and secure before agreeing to home them. I also personally shopped for toiletries and for every member of the team. I’m proud to say that more than 160 employees were given accommodation for five weeks, enabling them to continue to work and support E.ON customers through the pandemic.
Corporate, community and social responsibility activity at Sigma Connected has always been central to the business. How have you been supporting that in the South African operation?
I have quite a few examples and would be happy to run through those one by one:
- Mental health and wellbeing – During the taxi strikes, four of my team got caught up in the violence whilst travelling into work – resulting in them being held at gunpoint. After hearing of their ordeal, I organised for them to take a weeks’ paid leave as well as paid time off to see a counsellor as I was fully aware of the impact the ordeal had on their mental health and wellbeing.
- Domestic violence – Over time, I became aware of more and more conversations around the office that some of my female team were being affected by domestic violence. The pandemic played a big part in soaring rates of domestic violence. With that in mind, I introduced the ‘Safe Space, Safe Place’ initiative so they could talk confidentially about their problems. I also connected them with LIFE, an organisation to help women break away from their domestic abusers, whilst being able to maintain their jobs and keep their children safe.
- Annual leave – Despite the best efforts of workers and the company, the pandemic – plus the taxi strikes – made it impossible for everyone to get in as normal every day. These were unprecedented circumstances, so I requested additional paid holiday days for the team who couldn’t get to work on certain days, even if they had already exhausted their allowance.
- Community campaigning – Following a large fire at Table Mountain where townships were burnt down – including some where families of my team live – I launched a fundraising campaign for the communities that had been devastated by getting the team to bring in and sell their second-hand clothes to each other.
- Fundraising – And finally, I organise regular charity fundraising days in the offices for charities ‘Cupcakes for Hope’ and ‘Children with Childhood Cancers’. In September last year alone, we raised 35,000 Rands for both charities. I also helped to organise an ‘October Fest’ celebration once Covid restrictions were lifted to say thank you to almost 800 members of the team for their efforts during Covid, which was a wonderful day of food and fun which showed employees just how important their contributions are to the company.
And finally Constance, what is behind your drive to lead and succeed?
My upbringing has played a huge part in my approach to life and work.
I grew up in the poverty-stricken Hanover Park as a ‘backyard dweller’ living in a 3×6 Wendy house. My parents had separated by the time I was five and I worked two jobs to support my family financially through high school and was so disappointed when I failed to secure a bursary to continue my education.
I think it’s things like that in life though that give you the grit and determination to carry on fighting for what you want. My mum has always been my inspiration and has raised me to push boundaries and reach for the stars.
I secured a full-time job in the telesales department of a call centre straight after school and have continued to build my career since, working up through the ranks to my current role of Head of Operations for Sigma Connected’s E.ON Next client. I am also now revisiting my education to study for a Business Management Degree.
As a mum to two, including a son who is on the autistic spectrum who requires additional daily support, I know more than most the importance of a helping hand when times get tough so I was never going to let a pandemic get in the way of supporting the customers who rely on Sigma’s call centre team, nor let down almost 300 employees who look to me for guidance.
For further information or a wider discussion on how we engage with our staff, contact us below
Constance Simmons is Head of Operations at Sigma Connected South Africa.
Readers can connect with Constance on LinkedIn.