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OP-EDS

Work is what we do, not where we do it

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COVID-19 has many legacies, and given that 1 May is celebrated internationally as Workers Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what the COVID-19 plague has done for our working practice.

I favour the view that it has simply speeded up changes which were in train and inevitable but on a slower trajectory.

In terms of the nature and impact of these changes, my first observation is that the rate of societal change is seldom uniform nor regular. Things tend to happen in fits and starts, and not at a similar pace across all economies. We don’t wake up one morning and find that the entire world has changed overnight. We tend to forget this fact when we listen to broad prognostications as to how the world is changing, but we are by no means a homogenous population, in developed and sophisticated Western-service-based economies. What’s true for some is by no means the norm for all.

We therefore need to be cautious about generalisations that make for popular reading and best-selling books. In spite of all the popular talk of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the fact is that you can’t run a manufacturing operation with production workers logging in from home – at least, not yet.

However, if you’re a clerical or administrative worker, and there’s no alternative, you can work from home, a trend which was taking place in any event, but obviously was given huge impetus by the pandemic.

Working from home poses problems for employer and employees. Initially, while welcoming the absence of the boss’s eagle eye and enjoying going to meetings in a top only with pyjamas below the equator, it can soon pale. If your dining room table is now your workplace, and this may have to be shared with a partner in a small two-room flat, the joy of this freedom can soon fade. Equally, couples who may have been happy to see their partner at the end of a day in which they had to go in separate directions can also find that having no respite or boundary between work and home can make for stresses in a relationship.

In spite of this, many employees are now somewhat loath to return to the previous nine-to-five regime. For the boss, too, while ultimately working from home will reduce office space and associated overheads, the immediate problem is that when the cat’s away, the mice aren’t always at their most productive. Thus, the issue of supervision becomes particularly important.

The problem is at its most acute for salaried employees in which the focus will change from presence to productivity.

Traditionally, insofar as such employees are concerned, remuneration is paid simply for the employee being there. Having to manage performance and productivity, the traditional job of supervision, is then the employer’s constant battle. With working from home, this will all change. The challenge here is how to set the standard and how to measure the output, particularly jobs that are more esoteric or cerebral in nature. Of course, pure piecework – incidentally illegal in South Africa – is hardly new, but it’s not as if today’s virtual workers are actually producing a physical output that can be counted, as opposed to 17th century cottage workers.

Another issue is how distant employees are to be supervised. Increases in technology will result in new and automated ways of monitoring employees’ activities, and this will result in increased stress and pressure on employees themselves. This is already with us, and one of the reasons that the labour turnover in call centres is so great is the fact that the productivity of the employee is monitored minute by minute. This sort of pressure becomes relentless and unremitting. Workers will need the opportunity to gaze out the window for a few moments each day, imagining what they are going to do on the weekend.

It’s also now clear that the future pattern of where and how work is done is likely to be a mixed one. There will almost certainly have to be some requirement for obligatory attendance at the workplace. Physical proximity isn’t just important for meetings and the like, but also for the unseen and more nebulous atmosphere which is summed up as “company culture”, let alone the office politics and whispers at the coffee machine, which at times can be a somewhat more negative aspect of work but nevertheless serve to meet the need of people for contact with others. Besides, some of the best ideas and contributions stem from these informal interactions.

The next issue is hotly debated, although the answer is quite clear – it’s the “V” word. Can an employer insist that in order to attend the workplace, employees be vaccinated?

The common argument here is the issue of the right of bodily integrity, which is underpinned by our Constitution. So it is, and no person may be compelled to undergo vaccination against their wishes, but what the refuseniks don’t consider is the fact that you may exercise a right, but there may well be consequences for doing so.

Also, there are times that individual rights and the rights of collectivities clash, and in such cases, priorities need to be determined. In the case of COVID-19, clearly, the right of the collectivity of those at the workplace to be as safe as possible overrides the individual’s wish not to be vaccinated, for whatever reason, rational or irrational.

Besides, the employer has a statutory duty, in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, to provide a working environment which doesn’t put any other employee at risk.

The consequence for refusing to be vaccinated is that the employer may refuse the employee access to the workplace, and under these circumstances, there would be no pay for no work. After a reasonable time, the employer could terminate on the grounds of incapacity.

Before termination, the employer would be expected to take whatever reasonable steps it could to accommodate the employee, since termination is always a last resort. These steps would include isolating the employee where this might be possible, or arranging to work from home if this is feasible.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which may not even be over yet, has given rise to other issues such as whether the employer can enforce short-time working, layoffs, or even reduced salaries. Not only were many households affected in this way, but nearly two million workers lost their jobs and many of these jobs will be lost forever. COVID-19 has given rise to a far greater insecurity of employment, which will also be an enduring legacy going forward.

As I suggested at the start, these changes will take time to work through the system, and while many were in train, there’s no question that COVID-19 has given them an unforeseen and unexpected boost.

  • Andrew Levy has spent his entire academic and working life writing, teaching, and consulting on labour and labour-market issues. He is a frequent commentator in the media on South African labour-market issues. You can follow his podcasts on dealing with practical labour problems at www.andrewlevy.co.za.

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