How did you move your operations online under lockdown?
It was very difficult to figure out what the new normal for us would be. As in many organisations, people were anxious about the future. What would a transition to the online space look like especially since the price of data is so high; would our youth be able to participate in online events given the price of data? What about the youth in the most rural parts of the country – how would they participate when access to the internet is a luxury? These are some of the questions we struggled with and continue to ask.
Our main programme, the Activate Change Drivers programme which offers transformative learning tools for social change, was predominantly a face-to-face residential programme. With the onset of the pandemic, we had to be more innovative about how we offered the programme to the youth. The WhatsApp platform became the vehicle through which we continued the programme since it’s the most widely accessible platform for our youth cohort.
Through a specific format, in different groups, we share our creative thinking; how local government works; and project planning tools. We’ve also hosted numerous online engagements on various conferencing platforms, as well as on our social media platforms. One of the big engagements we held on our Facebook page, in partnership with Brand South Africa, during Youth Month, was our #ActivateYouthPower campaign where young people and popular musicians came together to discuss the Constitution.
What was your biggest challenge in working remotely?
While working remotely offers many advantages like flexibility, no traffic, meetings in my PJs; one of the disadvantages of working remotely is the loss of social culture within a team. It becomes difficult to manage a team and encourage collaboration, when their morale and motivation suffers due to limited social contact with team members.
A team that once took coffee breaks together, had brainstorming meetings outside, made fun of each other and had inside jokes; has devolved into a working machine where who we are is narrowed down to our job descriptions.
The finite social bonds that hold a team together begin to erode when contact is remote and not consistent because they are not reinforced. And so, you stop getting to know your teammates, it becomes more difficult to take an interest in their lives. Cultivating a team culture when working remotely is important for team morale, job fulfilment and productivity – and luckily there are great resources out there to assist with this. We are learning every day to navigate this new reality.
What has given you hope under lockdown?
I find incredible bouts of hope in the inspiring activities of the youth in the Activate Network. Even in the face of adversity; even through severe unemployment; a group of young people have managed to maintain hopefulness. It is amazing that these young people who also need help, have this unwavering desire to serve their communities despite their circumstances. We’ve heard of Activators from Atteridgeville led by Activator, Phathuxolo Nofotho, who volunteered their time towards assisting the Department of Health with testing and tracking of Covid-19 infections in his community.
We heard of Activator, Action Setaka in the Free State, who assisted 3000 people in his community to apply for the SASSA grant. We’ve heard of Activators donating food parcels; and starting book clubs and reading to the elderly through WhatsApp. These are only a few stories from the Activate Change Drivers network that continue to inspire me. All of these stories of hope will be published in our book, Hope in Action which will be launched in mid-August in order to inspire other young people and the broader public.
Please describe the most important lessons you have learnt under lockdown?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to look after one’s mental health. One way I’ve been doing this is through exercise. I think exercise is the most undervalued activity that promotes both physical wellbeing as well as mental wellbeing. The benefits of exercising for a mere 30 minutes a day, has long-lasting effects and more people should be doing it.
What advice would you give to other communications professionals?
Effective team communication and management can be quite difficult, especially given the stresses people are currently facing. Be kind to the people in your team, they are the ones who deliver on your campaigns and strategies. And when you’re done being kind, be kind some more.
Also, make it customary to check in with individual team members, not only about work or projects but also about their wellbeing. If you look after your team, they will look after you. I also found that working remotely forces you to individualise your leadership to team members since each member has different levels of productivity and motivation. Find out what their work environment is like at home and provide resources or advice to make it better.
Kim Barlow is the Communications Manager for leading youth development NGO, ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, one of the largest youth networks in South Africa. She spearheads the marketing and communication department and a significant part of her job is to change the pervasive narrative that young people are apathetic and disruptive, into one of active citizenry.