Does the future of work put you first?

By Msizi Gwala, Project Director at Enabling Competencies • Public Sector

SAICA embraces the call on the accountancy profession to focus increasingly on people. A people-centric profession will ensure that employees are able to bring their best and authentic selves to the work environment

As the world navigates the many changes it faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among others, the world of work as we know it has probably changed forever. One of the key changes is the need for professions and organisations to focus increasingly on people.

There is an increased need for people to bring their authentic selves to the work environment and to be human first. We pretend that what we do does not have a huge impact on other people, but that isn’t true. Therefore we should be authentic when dealing with people.

Accelerated change due to COVID-19

The world has been unsettled since the fog of geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainty engulfed us during 2020, and that fog is yet to lift. As soon as the uncertainty started, it became clear that riding out the wave in the hope of systems ‘snapping back’ to normal would not be possible. Technological advancements and changes in the world of work accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdowns as governments desperately sought to curb the spread of the pandemic. This year will most likely also be uncertain and will be characterised by even more significant transitional arrangements and changes affecting the way we work, which may lead to ‘change fatigue’ among employees.

The COVID-19 lockdowns and uncertainty forced businesses, organisations and governments to make significant changes to their business models, operations, strategies and risk management, among other things, in order to respond adequately and stay afloat. Almost all industries have been affected and had to make changes.

The call to ‘put people first’

While people have been affected in many different ways, changes in the world of work affected most people and are likely to continue in future. In particular, there have been growing calls for people to feature more prominently in world dynamics, politics and economies. In other words, organisations and professions such as accountancy need to become more people-centric. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on people and their wellbeing to ensure that economies and organisations not only survive but continue to thrive.

As responsible leaders and managers, SAICA members and associates play a key role in enabling a work environment and culture that put people first. Everybody should have a sense of happiness or fulfilment at work and be treated with compassion, dignity and respect.

You can read the call by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) to embrace a people-centric profession here.

What does it mean to put people first?

Showing genuine compassion can often be challenging, particularly in the work environment. While many organisations enshrine ‘putting people first’ in their company documents and strategies, not many elaborate on what this really means. There is also no consistent understanding of what it means to put people first, and understandably so − people are dynamic, complex and vastly diverse. There can be no one-size-fits-all approach for all human beings, and understanding this should be at the foundation of the concept of putting people first. Current corporate cultures and the constant drive to achieve success or goals which have historically been biased towards the shareholder theory have meant that organisations and global economies do not always put people first. Many corporate leaders are promoted based on their ability to perform technical work, while performance measures are also biased towards achieving goals informed by the stakeholder theory.

Many work environments still treat employees like cogs in a machine who must work to produce results and meet organisational objectives. While employment contracts and performance management remain important features in managing relationships between people and organisations, leaders need to understand that people will contribute more when they feel valued, respected and recognised. They will also contribute more when their work fills them with a sense of meaning (which is in itself a complex topic).

The best organisations therefore work towards putting people first. Leaders of organisations spend large amounts of money in an effort to engage employees and understand how they feel about working for the organisation, and then work out their people or employee strategies accordingly. It is becoming apparent that the answer to putting people at the centre does not lie in data collected or high-level strategies but rather in talking to people, truly understanding them, and connecting with them in a genuine and authentic manner. Most people can tell if you are not being authentic but merely ticking the box and executing a strategic objective.

The art of developing relationships

There are many reasons why people may be distrustful of an organisation’s people engagement processes, for example because of the dynamics at work, employees’ life-worlds, or their perception of what the organisation prioritises. Organisations and leaders are often not seen as having the interests of people at heart, even when people do feature in organisational strategies. Organisational objectives remain fundamental, but recognising people for who they are, their ‘humanity’, can no longer be compromised. Of course, connecting with people is not easy, particularly with those with a different background.

Unfortunately, many leaders tend to disregard the importance of non-technical skills (professional values and attitudes as well as enabling competencies), not only for themselves, but also for their teams and organisations. Consequently the ability to relate to and work with others and to manage or lead them becomes a challenge. This could lead to a lack of trust in leaders and employees’ commitment to organisational objectives being compromised.

Leaders in the work environment need to recognise the realities that people bring to work. Humans are unable to suppress all their emotions and feelings all the time, and those who try to do so struggle in their daily lives and compromise their wellbeing. This also happens in the workplace, where they endeavour to be the professionals the work environment expects them to be.

Of course there is a need for expectations in the work environment, but a better balance should be achieved that does not infringe on the rights of people showing their true, authentic selves. Leaders and the work environment should recognise employees’ diverse life experiences, particularly in the South African context. Often organisational cultures, rules and regulations, policies, leaders, etc, do not recognise all these life experiences, resulting in tension and despondence in some employees. SAICA members and associates need to reflect on their relational acumen and capabilities and ask themselves whether they are able to develop relationships based on trust.


The accountancy profession, as well as the world’s economies, stands to benefit when people are fully committed to their work. And a little more consideration, particularly for the mental wellbeing of people, would go a long way. A people-centric workplace is good for growth, profits, the economy and, most importantly, people.

SAICA will be publishing a report based on the perspectives of accountancy professionals on the current and future work environment and the impending focus on people in the near future. The survey covered areas such as general change, the flexibility of working terms and conditions, mental health and wellbeing, are you a cog in the machine, organisational support, responsible finance leaders and managers, and people as stakeholders

Additional reading