The “workplace of the future” has become a buzz phrase in conversations around how the face of employment will evolve over the next few years. While this phrase is used to describe several expected changes, two of the most important include the shift from full time employees to freelancers and dissolving traditional offices and headquarters to a more mobile workforce, aided by technology’s rapid development.
There are many potential advantages to this new workplace environment, however there is a lot of work that needs to be done if South Africa is to be prepared for this evolution.
In addition to a lack of legislative guidelines around future employer-employee engagement scenarios, there are also a number of other issues that will need to be addressed to support this independent mode of working.
South Africa’s current labour laws are positioned in such a way as to promote job security within the workforce, but it can be reasonably argued that we will see more of a move towards contractive employment rather than traditional types of employment. In this type of future workplace scenario, job security will not be the primary consideration, as people will potentially want to engage with multiple projects or companies on a task-by-task basis, rather than with just one employer. It would be prudent for the legislature to weigh the pros and cons for this type of employment, and to also consider an industry-specific approach.
With the ‘workplace of the future’, South African employers will want to contract a particular individual or service provider for a specific task. However, employers only have internal policies in place that are designed to address their own employees. These policies generally provide guidelines on discipline, remuneration structures, and benefits (like medical aid and provident funds, etc.), but they don’t apply to external sources. This will create a problem and companies will have to be called upon to review their internal policies to accommodate this type of exchange.
Companies will also need to change the way they recruit. If this independent, task-based mode of work is to thrive, it will become less about finding the right person for a job, but rather the desired skill set. It is possible that companies and institutions will also have to come to terms with restraints of trade being a thing of the past. It seems unlikely that people will want to restrain themselves, given the flexibility this ‘new’ type of employment demands.
Independent occupation cannot be discussed without considering its practical functionality. In this new era of the workplace, people would invariably be working from home and on electronic devices, which poses serious risks. Companies, by nature, operate in buildings that have secure servers and IT departments, allowing for a secure circulation of information internally. External sources present an enhanced security risk in so far as protecting this information is concerned, since it will have to be shared externally. Measures will therefore need to be put in place to duplicate the layers of cyber-protection present in office buildings within homes, so that the exchange of information can be monitored and the risk can be mitigated.
Furthermore, with homes set to become places of work, there arises a whole host of unintended risk implications. For example, if one individual takes on multiple contracts, meetings might have to take place at their personal residence. This could raise questions around zoning and whether the property constitutes a residence or a place of business. Similarly, what happens if someone (or the service provider themselves) is injured at the home? This would call into question whether or not this would constitute an injury on duty, and thus whether workman’s compensation would apply in these circumstances.
It would seem that a balance will need to be struck between relaxing legislation to allow the economy to grow, while preventing any kind of abuse that might arise from legislative change. The obligations fall on our courts to establish precedent so that there are guidelines on how to deal with these matters going forward.
Thabang Rapuleng is the Director of Employment Practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.