Some go back to their offices, but some are still at home

While an estimated one million South Africans are returning to work, at least as many are still working from home – and might continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This gives employers a double challenge: on the one hand, they need to ensure a safe return to work for those venturing back into the workplace; on the other, they should not lose sight of the employees still at home.

The question employers should be asking is whether remote working should be a permanent part of their arrangements. If so, how will they ensure they comply with employment and health and safety laws from a distance? And how will they manage the legal implications of a ‘mixed-mode’ model, where some employees work at home and others in an office?

Many businesses have been able to survive during these trying times by successfully adapting to remote working (some with surprisingly few teething glitches). But does this mean that employers will be willing to embrace a more flexible outlook to the world of work post-pandemic?

Until we reach that point, this question will remain unanswered, but in the meantime, one thing is becoming more obvious: the world of work will never be the same. It is therefore important for businesses to start contemplating how best to operate in the future in order to remain relevant, competitive and profitable.

Remote working capabilities tried and tested

As employers and their managers have tested remote working for the past few months, companies are beginning to reflect on this new way of work as a feasible long-term option. IT systems have been pushed to the limit maintaining operations for an entire workforce in isolation. While some systems have continued to function with minimal anomalies, other systems have buckled under the pressure. These difficulties are part of the experience and assist companies to know what measures are required to progress in the future. This experiment has also allowed IT teams to create stronger barriers against cybercrime and to assess business threats in real time.

From an occupational health and safety perspective, the environment being worked in must of course be compliant. And those working in public spaces such as coffee shops would need to take care with confidential information and documents.

Monitoring employee performance

The pandemic has created a major shift to online learning and working, and many workers have enjoyed these changes. Businesses had been fending off employees’ demands for flexible working long before COVID-19 turned the world upside down. The reason why many employers were hesitant to adopt flexible working practices was the concern that productivity and cohesion would decrease.

However, technological advancement has allowed employees from all over the world to work together and connect, while maintaining social distancing. Managers have had no choice but to believe their employees are working when they say they are but thanks to technology, managers can, where required, actually monitor when their teams log onto the system and how long they spend working.

Internationally, there are a number of employee-monitoring tools, some of which have raised questions about how far they push the employee’s right to privacy. Employee productivity is also being measured by setting defined deliverables and ensuring continuous communication, and the conviction that productivity is based on physical presence has been brought into question.

Undeniably, there will always be some individuals who push boundaries and use flexible arrangements as an excuse to avoid work. In these instances, greater supervision will be required and where necessary appropriate disciplinary action must be taken. This will ensure that individuals do not abuse the system and that there are consequences for those who do.

The right to switch off

Greater acceptance of a flexible working economy can dramatically enhance employee morale. Allowing individuals to better manage and enjoy their home and work lives, and to develop more connection and overlap between their two worlds, can increase overall fulfilment.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that some sort of separation of these two worlds is needed. For many, the feeling that they are ‘always on’, is real. It is important to give ongoing consideration to recognised concepts such as ‘the right to switch off’, so that early mornings and late evenings are ringfenced unless necessary, and weekends are still weekends, unless work is really necessary.

Employees need the right to not be required to always be available. Without that, resentment, burn-out and fragile mental health become genuine risks. Managers must be the ones to adopt and endorse this culture of ‘switching off’, where appropriate, to encourage their employees to do the same.

Cost saving and acceptance of the virtual world

This pandemic has forced businesses to face their fears of remote working and there are a number of previously identified benefits that have been revived. Of course, the discovery of these advantages is not new, but employers are being pressed to acknowledge them on a daily basis.

Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other similar platforms have caused employers to reconsider the need for in-person meetings. Increasing virtual meetings and decreasing business travel (both local and international) would save considerable time and money. Of course, there are certainly instances that would still necessitate such travel and it is important not to escape human interaction entirely.

Flexible workspaces also mean the real possibility of reducing office space costs. Further cost savings could come from the reduced need for large canteens.

Arbitration hearings, large conferences and classroom lessons are being held virtually, further demonstrating the extent to which remote working has become the new normal. In order to survive during this period of social distancing and the world of work beyond that, businesses need to be open to transformation and innovative ways of operating.

Mixed modes of work

Then there is the likely possibility that the future workforce will consist of some employees who work remotely and others who use their companies’ spaces. It stands to reason, for instance, that an employee whose job is to receive visitors must be physically present on the company’s premises in order to do so, and could not feasibly work from home. The important thing when implementing any workplace practice that does not apply to employees across the board is that it should be rational and non-discriminatory.

Make full use of a golden opportunity

In conclusion, although remote working holds a number of benefits to consider, it does not come without its challenges and there are still many legal and logistical issues that businesses need to grapple with. The fact remains that the constraints and struggles of this pandemic have allowed businesses to tackle the concept of flexible working and determine what aspects of it are appropriate to adopt post-COVID-19.

The necessary provisions may need to be inserted into employment contracts and applicable policies will need to be put in place to ensure a successful and well-oiled transition to the ‘new normal’. Training and upskilling of employees to work with technology may also be required.

Remote working will obviously not be appropriate for every business, but companies should use this imposed time as a golden opportunity to examine how best to operate in the future. It makes business sense to do so.

Lusanda Raphulu is the Head of Employment and Benefits, and Yeleni Bruinders, Senior Associate at Bowmans.

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