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Air Liquide in South Africa

Testing Human Resources capacity in a time of uncertainty

Air Liquide has successfully overcome many unusual challenges threatening operations, HR and staff morale in the first months of the COVID-19 lockdown.

When Laressa Thavarin joined Air Liquide South Africa as HR Director in February 2020, her main goal was to make the company an employer of choice in the local market. However, aspirations aside, she immediately found herself thrust into one of the most challenging situations global organisations had ever faced.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck South Africa in March, and saw a far-reaching lockdown imposed by the government on 26 March.

For Air Liquide, it was crucial to keep operations running smoothly to support customers despite lockdown travel restrictions and a curfew that impacted normal processes. With over 700 unionised and non-unionised employees anxious about their incomes and health risks, HR had to move quickly to address all concerns, ensure the wellness of employees and their families, and keep staff motivated to ensure that the team delivered on its mandate in the face of uncertainty.

It was not an easy task. In addition to having to enable staff to work from home and allay fears about income losses, Air Liquide also had to deal with disruptions caused by a truckers’ strike, as well as taxi operators’ disruptions, that impacted the safe alternative transport the company had arranged for staff.

“I’ve worked harder from home than I’ve ever worked in my life. But it’s certainly been a growing experience, and one I wouldn’t change. It has shown all of us that we can do things differently and be more innovative.” says Thavarin.

The company quickly rolled out a remote working policy, with much of the workforce working from home. If the need arises for staff to work from the office, this is implemented on a weekly rotation with a deep cleaning of the offices between rotations. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was procured for the entire Air Liquide work force to protect themselves and their families and a nurse was deployed at the Head Office in Alrode to manage the temperature testing of essential staff on entry and exit of the offices.

A dedicated COVID-19 task team was also appointed to connect daily to ensure they remain agile and responsive to changes in the environment. Importantly, no salaries were cut during the lockdown: a Ters Leave Implementation supported employees during the pandemic, in which employees used their legacy leave first, 50% of annual leave, then Ters leave kicked in so that employees were assured of their financial safety during this crisis.

A comprehensive Employee Assistance programme was also deployed within three weeks of the crisis to support employees and their families.

Drawn to the Air Liquide ethos

Describing herself as a bold, non-conformist, business thinker with a daring to apply business intelligence, Thavarin says she was specifically drawn to the Air Liquide family and their contribution to the environment, climate change, the health sector and development of its people and communities in which it operates. “With a vision to change the way businesses think, act, and operate, I joined Air Liquide to take my team on a journey to become a Top Employer by 2023 and help transform the company culture and create a better world of work,” says Thavarin. "The secrets behind HR success lie beneath the organisation charts lines and boxes. How you bring that structure to life, through the people within it, will differentiate your success far more than the design ever can.”

“I am fascinated by people and organisations that make the greatest lasting impact in the world and I have devoted my career to sharing my thinking and leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. At Air Liquide, we are driven by a passion for our employees, our patients we service, our clients and customers. I am passionate about leading our people agenda that spans over 700 employees across Southern Africa,” says Thavarin. “My agenda ensures that we have the right people, in the right roles with the right capabilities and mindset to deliver high business impact that enables Air Liquide to meet its ambitious goals to decouple growth from its environmental footprint whilst increasing its positive social impact. My personal goal is to build an inclusive environment where all members of our diverse society can contribute and succeed in equal measure.”

Commitment to transformation

The pandemic and lockdown may have forced a change in immediate priorities, but Thavarin remains committed to building inclusivity and diversity, despite the disruptions. “Our 2020 priorities remain the same: Safety, Reliability, Talent,” says Thavarin.

“It was important to keep our employees mentally resilient during the pandemic, and we focused on safety, and keeping our employees informed and positive.” In support of this, regular Kopano meetings are held, with business updates and an opportunity for employees to ask questions. Frequent mailers and messages are also sent out to update employees regarding confirmed cases, travel, office closure and legislative updates.

Says Thavarin: “We also focus on learning and development, and now is the perfect time to focus on something positive – like learning something new – in the midst of something hard. We use resources such as Virtual Training through various platforms, and eLearning through the Air Liquide University.”

Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE), remains a key focus for the team. “Air Liquide is fully committed to ensuring all South Africans participate meaningfully in the mainstream economy, and we are committed to demonstrating sustainability by supporting social transformation and job creation in Southern Africa. We understand the value that we need to add by attracting, retaining and developing historically disadvantaged individuals who can add value to the organisation and the country as a whole. For us, transformation is a business imperative,” says Thavarin.

Thavarin also says areas that deliver long-lasting impact include business development and education. “We believe that by empowering South Africans through education, we can go a long way towards overcoming the barriers to transformation and at the same time create skills that the country needs. Our B-BBEE initiatives help us build effective leadership and relevant business skills, extend our supply chain, provide previously disadvantaged communities with access to ICT skills, and ultimately, grow the economy.”

Among Air Liquide’s flagship development programmes are:

  • Phumelela Chemical Operations Learnership, in which over 60 employees participate. This equips employees with the necessary Maths and Science skills to further their career development at Air Liquide.
  • The Shosholoza Graduate Programme, in which graduates from various engineering disciplines have an opportunity to join the world class Air Liquide Working environment.
  • The Technical Community Leaders (TCL) programme, a unique way to recognise leaders for their technical knowledge and scientific expertise, offering them a flexible and structured career path.
  • In partnership with the WITS Digital Campus, Air Liquide equips new managers with the necessary skills to become inspirational leaders through the Air Liquide New Managers Programme.
  • The Air Liquide University offers employees the opportunity to access company specific eLearning content - focused on technical as well as soft skills.
  • Air Liquide also runs numerous Skills Programmes (Apprenticeships, Learnerships and Internships) to give young talent the opportunity to gain invaluable experience while learning towards an accredited qualification.