MANCOSA sets up staff support plan

Education for impact ® by Honoris staff writer

“Companion Colleague” buddy system bolsters staff working from home

MANCOSA, in South Africa, has promoted a simple, yet effective, plan to ensure that staff suddenly thrust into working from home due to the global pandemic are mentally and emotionally well. The buddy system, in which staff are allocated a colleague to check in with on a daily basis, has the central philosophy of “each one helps one”. Lutfiya Adam, Group HR Associate Director at MANCOSA, provides insight into how Companion Colleague works.

Companion Colleague is a buddy system set up by the Human Resources department at MANCOSA as an informal way of maintaining communication between staff who are working from home. After South Africa, as with most other countries, was forced into lockdown by the COVID-19 pandemic, the system was rolled out to staff across the institution.

Lutfiya Adam, Group HR Associate Director at MANCOSA, provides insight into how Companion Colleague works.

Why did you first set up Companion Colleague?

When the national lockdown commenced, our priority was to ensure that all human resources staff were safe and in a good state of mind. We wanted to make sure that reporting lines were continuously open and monitored, so we could intervene in terms of remote working challenges.

But we also wanted to extend support to our colleagues in another way: in the social sphere. We thought we could see this unexpected time as an opportunity to get to know each other better, to form new and stronger bonds, and to ultimately emerge from this pandemic as a stronger team.

The programme has been a great success and it has now been rolled out to staff across MANCOSA.

What does Companion Colleague entail?

Simply, managers pair two colleagues as “buddies”, who check in on each other daily, and let the rest of the team know if either companion is experiencing difficulties or is in trouble and is unable to report it.

Personally, I check in with my companion in a daily WhatsApp message, and we talk on the phone once a week.

Are there any recommendations as to how managers select who to allocate as buddies?

In our HR team, I buddied up colleagues who been with MANCOSA a long time, say five years or more, with newer members of the department. This meant that the more recent employee would be able to benefit from the knowledge of the longer-serving staff member in terms of practical issues related to work. Knowledge sharing can be really beneficial.

I also paired up colleagues of different ages, ranging from those in their twenties to staff in their sixties. Technology can be challenging to those not used to it, and when everything needs to be done on computer from home, the younger generation may sometimes be able to help with any technological issues.

I also varied ages, backgrounds and functions with the hope of creating stronger networks within the department during and after lockdown.

Why do you think a system like Companion Colleague is important at this time?

When faced with the big changes in day-to-day work that social distancing requires, team leaders can be extremely busy, with many more meetings to attend, decisions to make, and challenges to navigate. In a big department, it can be difficult for one manager to touch base with all staff regularly. The buddy system helps ensure that no one feels isolated or alone.

Suddenly working from home can be challenging, both for those who live alone who may feel lonely or isolated, and to those who share their home with family members, who may be struggling to balance family duties and work duties. At MANCOSA, we do have counsellors who offer virtual or telephonic support, but people are not always able to make use of these services, so to have a colleague informally check in to see if you are able to work productively, and are personally coping, is beneficial.

Is Companion Colleague also about relationship building?

Yes, absolutely. Ultimately the system is designed to make sure staff are: adapting to working from home; coping with social distancing on a mental and emotional level; and building relationships with other team members.

If staff are managing the first two concerns fine, then buddies can focus on relationship building, which should be beneficial long beyond the end of lockdown.


“The Companion Colleague initiative has provided a way of maintaining sanity during this lockdown period. I reside alone, so any form of interaction is welcome. Having Dr Nisha Singh as a companion colleague, an intellectual individual who is high-spirited, humourous, and considerate, has been a positive distraction in this time. The constant checkups and chats introduced a common interest of community development that had us discussing potential educational programmes to support impoverished youth. The initiative has helped develop a good professional and personal relationship, and it most certainly benefits the wellbeing of both of us. I would highly recommend that other organisations implement such an initiative.”

Mariam Ally, MANCOSA Research Team

“I miss seeing everyone and it’s nice to speak to my companion colleague, Priya, who is a great asset to our department. She’s awesome.”

Dr Jad, MANCOSA Admissions and Selections Department

“Working from home was a little daunting at first. My first thought being, will I ever get much work done with my 3½-year old around. Two weeks into the arrangement, and with a solid work plan in place, I can easily say that I’ve got this ‘work from home’ situation down to a T.”

Farzana Essop, MANCOSA Curriculum Department

“One of the things I miss most about the office setting is the human interaction – the early morning greetings while grabbing a cup of tea, jovial conversations during the day, and hearty goodbyes at the end of the work day. Working from home, much as it has its perks, can become a lonely endeavor, and you begin to miss the feeling of being part of a broader collegial team. So I was quite thrilled when the Companion Colleague Initiative came to fruition. It gave me the opportunity to interact with a colleague that is fairly new to the team. Nompilo had joined us just a week prior to the National Lockdown, as a result, we had not engaged much. I must admit, I felt quite anxious about not being able to induct and train her fully before the work-from-home arrangement commenced. However, during the course of the last week, we have had meaningful conversation, and I feel content that she will reach out to me if she needs any guidance or advice. As a manager, I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to engage with Nompilo on a personal level and encourage her during these uncertain times.”

Tracey Naidu, MANCOSA Research Team

“It is comforting and rewarding to know that during this time of lockdown and social distancing that MANCOSA has offered the staff the Companion Colleague Initiative. Even though we may be miles apart from each other, we are also close enough to get through these trying times.”

Charlene Chetty, MANCOSA Graduation Department

“The Companion Colleague campaign is a brilliant initiative. From seeing my colleagues on a daily basis to working from home is a massive change, mentally, physically and emotionally. Being paired up with a buddy helps me because it gives a comfort in knowing that even though I am not at the office with them, I still have someone who I can turn to for support when I begin to feel fragmented from the team, or when a deadline is looming and I feel the pressure beginning to mount. They are always just a call away, with their wise words, and jokes thrown in here and there, to help me get back on track and keep me going.”

Adhir Debiecharan, MANCOSA Research Team

Thank you to the MANCOSA Research Team for their creativity and innovation during the lockdown