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Pandemic has turned the future of work into flexibility



Working from home has become a way of life, but before March 2020, it was unthinkable in many sectors of the South African workforce. All that changed in the space of a few days at the beginning of the pandemic. A corporate culture that prized in-person interaction had to deal with an earthquake of change.

What were the seismic effects of that moment, and what does it mean for the future of work?

“Remote working has led to improved productivity for 29% of organisations in South Africa, while that figure jumped to 70% for those businesses which had already rolled out digital transformation strategies prior to COVID-19,” says local tech expert Arthur Goldstuck. This is according to a study titled “Remote Working in South Africa 2020” that his organisation, World Wide Worx, conducted for IT company Cisco.

Goldstuck told the SA Jewish Report that flexible working environments are a key factor if an organisation wants to survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

“Companies insisting that all staff return to the office won’t be able to reap the digital dividends of a remote workforce,” he says. His advice to all employees is to “build a working environment around a hybrid future. Those companies that are unable to work in a hybrid fashion will be much less agile.

“Being able to leverage a hybrid or remote workforce is a powerful foundation for a more effective organisation,” he says. “It means you are much more ready for load shedding, chaos in traffic, rioting, floods, storms, pandemics – any natural or man-made catastrophe. If you have those foundations, you can cope with those disruptions. But if you insist on a blanket return to work, you’ll be subject to the vagaries of your environment.”

In addition, he believes that the best talent will seek jobs where they can work remotely. “People comfortable working from anywhere will enable an organisation to be more resilient. Embracing that leads to a more resilient company. Fighting against it means that people who have a more resilient mindset will look for employment elsewhere, where it is valued,” he says.

He emphasises that “the pandemic will be with us for a while, so people will continue to be concerned about their safety and well-being. It may be a ‘deal breaker’ for them if they are forced to return to the office.”

For many, transitioning from a corporate lifestyle to work from home was a big adjustment. “I never thought I could work from home,” says a manager and risk analyst from Cape Town, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In March 2020, “we were given a few days’ notice that we would have to send everyone home”, he says. Having foreseen the lockdown, “we bought hundreds of laptops and cell phones to give to our call-centre staff to work from home, and scrambled to get them ready. We managed to continue to trade when a lot of our competitors had to shut down. Our huge advantage was that we have an overseas office, so we already had the set-up to work using remote tools.”

He’s grateful that he has since been able to convert his garage into an office. From never imagining working from home, he now can’t imagine going back to the office full-time. And his colleagues feel the same way. “In a recent survey, 20% of our staff said they never want to return to the office, and a further 60% said they would prefer to go in for two days or less a week.”

He notes that “hybrid” means different things to different people – from four days a week in the office to once a month. “The company hasn’t decided on its approach. But we are looking to redesign the space so that when we do go in, it’s worth it, and the time is spent engaging with others. If you’re just going to go in and sit with your headphones on and not talk to anyone, there’s no point. So, we’re looking at collaborative sessions.”

While people may be more productive at home, he says they also sometimes struggle to “switch off”, which is leading to burnout. On the other hand, Goldstuck’s study showed that being allowed to spend time with children during the work day is a major success factor for remote working. The pandemic has had all kinds of effects on family life, but for many, it has been one step closer to finding that elusive work-life balance.

If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, where would we be? “The pandemic brought us forward five years,” says Goldstuck. “It highlights that those companies that are desperate to stick to the old ways are five years behind the times. If you apply this to going back to what some refer to as normal, you realise that ‘back to normal’ is going backwards.”

He notes that the term “new normal” is thrown about a lot, but what he has realised is that “there’s no new normal – everyone has a different normal. But if your normal was the way things were before, you’re putting yourself at a massive disadvantage.”

The shift to remote work will mean a “massive acceleration” in technology. “At Cisco, for example, everything the company is doing now is geared towards a hybrid environment. There is also a more extensive rollout of permanent technology for working from home. So, what was previously temporary might become more permanent.

“For example, I’m installing a signal booster, so if my fibre goes down, my cellular data will still be fast enough to give live talks online. I can work regardless of the circumstances and operate at full capacity. It’s not necessarily new technology, but it’s about embracing it to facilitate hybrid work.”

Looking back, he says the pandemic’s impact on work was like a digital awakening. “It wasn’t that the world changed, it was that we woke up to a changed world. It’s been changing for decades and the tools have become more available, but it was only when lockdown happened that we woke up to this change.

“It was like a light went on. People suddenly realised that for most workers, their laptop, smart phone and internet connection was their office. That was the clarity that the moment of lockdown brought home – literally and figuratively. It was like a tsunami that washed away everything we thought we knew.”

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